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Humanist Archives: March 15, 2021, 8:08 a.m. Humanist 34.279 - psychology of quantification

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 279.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2021-03-15 07:50:54+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: psychology of quantification

More on this topic.

Let me say what I'm not arguing for. Forgive me if I've already said
some of this and forgotten.

For this enquiry I'm not interested in what any group of experts may
consider the true and correct view of computing and technoscience to be
as it is properly construed from their specific discipline. Rather my
interest is historical: I want to know what scholars in the humanities
thought, often sloppily, seldom well informed, about computing and/or
technoscience from 1949 to 1991 when they were 'at home', that is,
reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, watching the television
(after TVs became available), talking to neighbours, to local shopkeepers.

I see no reason to discount the negatively apocalyptic stuff because of
the similarly voluminous amount of the positive bumf promoting the
wonders of science. Indeed, there is an argument that both were
deliberately used simultaneously (esp in the U.S., I would think) to
make sure the public would keep funding the outrageous amounts of money
involved. For that see the career of Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, his
book Propaganda (1928) and Adam Curtis' documentary "Century of the
Self", episode 2. I also see no reason to discount the uneasiness with
technoscience during the Cold War because science had provoked that
reaction earlier. All the more reason, I would think, to ask what about
science frightened people, or at least put them off -- and contrariwise,
their superstitious reverence for science.

Quantification. Yes, indeed, quantification should not be simply equated
with mathematics, but it often is used to mean what one does in order to
apply mathematical methods to the analysis of something. Again, for my
historical purposes, sloppy uses of the word are fine as long as they
point to something mathematical. When, for example, Sir Anthony Kenny in
his British Library lecture, "Computers and the Humanities" (1992), says
that "In all humanities disciplines the computer is used in an endeavour
to replace intuition with quantification", he is aiming at the
centrality of statistics: "Linguists, students of literature, art
historians and musicologists all seek to identify styles, and the
similarity and differences between them. Common to all these disciplines
is the question: what statistics define a style?" (p. 1) Later, among
other explanations, he attributes the failure of computing in the
humanities to make a proper impression on colleagues to these
colleagues' fear of numbers.

Finally, Bridenbaugh. He did seem to think the world was going to hell
in a handbasket; he was a disaffected man. But his including "the
bitch-goddess QUANTIFICATION" in that context, as yet more evidence of
decline, still makes my point: for him, among other saving virtues the
true historian will not worship at her altar because it is a degenerate
practice. I agree, however, that it would be unwise to cite only his


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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