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Humanist Archives: March 14, 2021, 9:05 a.m. Humanist 34.277 - psychology of quantification

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 277.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
                Submit to:

    [1]    From: Dr. Herbert Wender <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.276: psychology of quantification (137)

    [2]    From: Manfred Thaller <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.273: psychology of quantification (131)

        Date: 2021-03-13 20:07:10+00:00
        From: Dr. Herbert Wender <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.276: psychology of quantification


maybe it is not false to say that, in  Kuhn's perspective, a scientific revolution
leads from one state of 'seeing-X-as-if' toanother one now holding the place of
'as-it-(really!)-is'. Great is this book, IMHO, because of the shift to attention
later-on given to socio-psychological contexts of efforts to advance Science
& Technology. What motivated the resistance against 'evidences', against
'observations' ? How could it be that no-one saw the'elephant in the room', that
no-one said 'the king promenades without clothes'. Interestingly, in the short
debate between AI-critic Taubeand the reviewers of his book the same verdict was
used on both sides.

Back to Willard's problem with the 'psychology ofquantification', I would
recommend looking back to resistance against rationalism in the era of
Enlightenment. In Germany, the so-called Spinoza Debate (Jacobi vs. Mendelssohn
in controversial judgmentabout Lessing's philosophical position) is a master
example for the fear that consequently rationalized philosophy must lead
into hopeless atheism. Who loves literary examples might look at Jean Paul's
'Weltangst-Traum', in the original version followed by a faithful awakening, in
19th ct. France occasionally distributed without this optimistic end, in a
threatening atheist version.

Earlier in this thread Manfred Thaller has pointed to different conditions for
optimistic and pessimistic attitudes in writing history. But also we could take
into account that in times when new areas of interest are established
the diversity of reactions show almost always both attitudes. A main example after
WW-II could be seen in the reactions toward Norbert Wiener's foundational book
"Cybernetics", co-titled "Control and Communication in the Animal and the
Machine". I suppose that mentions like the following snippet, taken by GoogleBooks
out of the Transactions of the Bose Research Institute (Calcutta, India) show the
fairly positive reaction by researchers in the field:

"The theory of this subject has been developed by Wiener in a recently published
book with the above title. Hoagland has given in a recent lecture entitled '
Rhythmic Behaviour of the Nervous System ' , an account of the analogies which are
which are found between computing machines and the nervous system."

Whereas the presentation in Newsweek (1948) begins with an undertone of
potentially threatening aspects: loss of (human) control resp. taking-over
control by machines:

"SCIENCE / The Brain Is a Machine / Can an electrical calculating machine
properly be called a " brain ? ” Is the human brain a machine ? Most
scientists squirm at such questions , but Prof. Norbert Wiener , a bearded , fast
- talking professor of ..."

Twenty years later, we saw at cinema the visionary 'embodiment' of such
threatening futurism: "HAL 9000 is a fictional artificial intelligence character
and the main antagonist" (Wikipedia; in another article referred to as 'sentient
computer'). Kubrick's "Space Odyssey" can be taken as counterpart to Jean
Paul's »Rede des toten Christus vom Weltgebäude herab, daßkein Gott sei« in a
comparative analysis that surely will not be quantifying ;-)

Best regards,

-----Ursprüngliche Mitteilung-----

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 276.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                          Hosted by DH-Cologne
                Submit to:

        Date: 2021-03-12 08:59:04+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.273: psychology of quantification

Dear Willard,

It's great to have The Humanist back!  My many thanks to all
those many who brought about this resurrection.

What follows may suffer from too much lockdown and covid
restricted living, on top of missing The Humanist.

Is Kuhn's book great?

My suspicion is that it has curtailed and distorted further
work on the nature and workings of the (so called) Natural

Kuhn, like others, adopted the classical stance: Natural
Scientists look upon their subject of interest from the
outside, thus disinterestedly and objectively, they say.  The
Natural Scientist does not think they are a part of their
subject of interest and investigations.  In the case of Kuhn's
"great" book, we have paradigms with no humans insight, yet
you can't have a [Kuhnian] paradigm without people.  (Doesn't
that seem odd to you?)

What we get from this, I would say, is a de-humanised kind of
knowledge and understanding of the Natural World, and, from
Kuhn's work, and others, the idea that there are no real
people in the doing of the Natural Sciences and Engineerings.
This leaves the Sciences looking and feeling foreign and
unfamiliar to most people, and our understanding of them
distorted in a way most Natural Scientists, and Engineers,
seldom appreciate or acknowledge, in my experience.

Fear is something people feel.  Being afraid of Science
happens, I suspect, because we don't see ourselves in the
science being done, yet it seems to have a life of it's own.
It's often presented as if it has a life of it's own, because
our classical ways of understanding Science leaves the people
who actually do it out of our understanding.  It thus becomes,
to some, a dangerous beast.  People don't seem to be so easily
afraid of big globally operating (digital world) companies,
for example, because, I submit, we know these companies in
terms of the people who run them.  Ironically, we perhaps
should be more afraid of these companies that operate beyond
the reach of our Governments.

If you want

  "...  to broaden our and future generations' understanding
    of the digital machine, in turn better to understand how
    it affects and is affected by the humanities,"

I would suggest you don't follow a Kuhnian approach.  Rather,
I would humbly propose, you would do better trying to
understand digital machines in terms of the many people
involved in the making and using of them, and the human
conditions in this this using has and is occuring.  Digital
machines are tools, intended to support human purposes, many
different purposes, and should be understood as such, I think.
The digital machine is not a humans-free subject matter.

We should humanise our understanding of Science by humanising
our ways of studying and investigating how it is done.

Best regards,


        Date: 2021-03-13 11:38:13+00:00
        From: Manfred Thaller <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.273: psychology of quantification

Dear Willard,

> I seem to have written confusedly in asking about how the conditions
> of living during the Cold War affected academics' attitudes to digital
> computing.

in as far as that should be a reaction to the polemic tone of my last
contribution to this thread, I should explain - apologetically so - that
it was indeed a polemic. Not against you, however, but against
Bridenbaugh. Though I have some doubts also about the validity of your
use of him as witness for the thesis you explain so lucidly in your most
recent statement. For the simple reason that, strong as his damnation of
quantification may be, it comes only after twelve pages where he
anathematises also everything else but the weather. (Truly sorry, but
this "the end of the world is nigh" rhetoric raises an unsurpressible
urge to be polemic in me.)

If we forget about Bridenbaugh, your thesis is extremely interesting, of
course. If I may summarize it in my words, to make it easier to
contradict what may be a misinterpretation of mine: The despise shown by
many Humanists against technology, and by implication computers and
quantification, was caused by the hell raised by physics with the help
of Enola Gay in 1945 and the shadow it cast forevermore on the world

This is very convincing and while the "duck and cover" exercises never
made it into the Austrian schools of my childhood, I certainly agree,
that anybody who has been alive in the fifties and sixties will share
your point of view; up to a degree.

The point of divergence between us is, that I see the influence of the
abhorrence of what technology brought upon us made relative by two
things. On the one hand, the abhorrence of technology was accompanied at
the same time, by an excited admiration for the wonders of technology -
including the brave new world promised by the same nuclear power
throwing that shadow otherwise - which certainly for non-Humanists made
it quite easy to be positive about technological progress.

But that is an effect which I might be willing to discard completely,
were it not, that I think the scepticism about technology with humanists
goes back much further, at the VERY least to the eighties of the 19th
century. I'd like to point to an earlier study here: There is an
anthology edited by Gerald B. Kauvar and Gerald C Sorensen: The
Victorian Mind, Cassel, 1969. The section on education contains an
excellent introduction by the editors as well as the text of two
speeches analyzed extensively in that introduction by Thomas Huxley and
Matthew Arnold, where these two roll out detailed arguments about the
relative role scientific and humanistic topics should play in education.
At least in my reading, I find in Arnold - obviously the champion of the
Humanities - very much of what I read in later statements defending the
Humanities against the encroachment of science into what was truly
worthwhile in education.

So my thesis would be: A defensive posture against "science" (anglophone
version) developed with the inroads it did make into academic structures
during the later half of the 19th century. It may not be very obvious,
but at least in the German world, the concept of "Geisteswissenschaften"
itself was invented and developed by Dilthey explicitly, as he did not
find a clear and handy concept of what those disciplines were, which
were NOT part of the rising "Naturwissenschaften" (hard sciences). A
defensive posture pretty relaxed in the time of Dilthey when the
position of the Humanities in academia was still undisputed and strong,
scientific inroads or not; but becoming more and more irate, the more
this position weakened.

And such an irate view was always very much willing, to pick up every
argument it could from everything negative that came from the hard
sciences - like the need for innocent children to learn to speed-crawl
under the tables at school. And if you see a group of people as "the
enemy" accepting that you could use something they do as worthwhile, has
had the potential to be brandmarked as traitorous since ... well.


Am 12.03.2021 um 08:33 schrieb Humanist:
>                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 273.
>          Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                               Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                  Submit to:
>          Date: 2021-03-11 09:49:44+00:00
>          From: Willard McCarty <>
>          Subject: psychology of quantification
> I seem to have written confusedly in asking about how the conditions
> of living during the Cold War affected academics' attitudes to digital
> computing. I meant no necessary relation between digital machines and a
> perceived threat from the military products of technoscience and their
> deployment, hence by association a threat from technoscience itself.
> Rather, as many books on the Cold War, the RAND and so on, the
> abundant popular literature at that time and living memory (e.g. of
> 'duck and cover') attest, it was very easy to pin the blame for the
> unthinkable on technoscience. Who, after all, had built the Bomb?
> Why poke around in such disturbing stuff? I want to find out all the
> reasons for the evident fear of computing, sometimes explicitly stated,
> sometimes possibly implied. I think we can learn from this about how we
> frame our thinking about computing now, i.e. include some aspects,
> exclude others. To put this another way with the help of Thomas Kuhn, I
> want to throw some light on "the image of science by which we are now
> possessed" (Structure, p. 1).
> Why do that? Kuhn began his great book by arguing for the liberating
> force of a real history of science. My historical probing is on a far
> smaller scale, but I think it would be liberating indeed if we could
> shed the all-too-common uneasiness with science (in the Anglophone
> sense), esp the natural sciences, so as to broaden our and future
> generations' understanding of the digital machine, in turn better to
> understand how it affects and is affected by the humanities.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty,
> Professor emeritus, King's College London;
> Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

Prof. em. Dr. Manfred Thaller
Zuletzt Universität zu Köln /
Formerly University at Cologne

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