15.299 further unsettling thoughts

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Mon Oct 08 2001 - 02:05:09 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 299.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Mon, 08 Oct 2001 06:51:20 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: further unsettling thoughts

    The problem, I suppose, with an argument for the unsettled nature of
    everything -- this in response to Wendell Piez's response to me in Humanist
    15.295 -- is that the argument itself becomes settled in the mind as a
    ring-side view of change everywhere else except where one lives. Northrop
    Frye used to say that most readings of the biblical book of Revelation are
    as if we were viewing the fireworks at a safe distance, from comfy chairs.
    So I suppose the real question should be, how do we continually jolt
    *ourselves* out of the commonsense view that our representations of reality
    on the machine are factual? (And so on, spreading outwards, as Wendell
    rightly says, to all questions of education.) I suppose that if we could
    figure that one out we'd not have to worry about what we told our students
    in a humanities computing or any other kind of curriculum -- the best
    teaching would follow, not automatically, of course, but it would follow.

    In that spirit, some helpful words from the Oxford philosopher of history,
    R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946), rev. edn., ed. Jan van der
    Dussen (Oxford, 1993), pp. 8-9:

    "When a student is in statu pupillari with respect to any subject whatever,
    he has to believe that things are settled because the text-books and his
    teachers regard them as settled. When he emerges from that state and goes
    on studying the subject for himself he finds that nothing is settled. The
    dogmatism which is an invariable mark of immaturity drops away from him. He
    looks at so-called facts with a new eye. He says to himself, 'My teacher
    and text-books told me that such and such was true; but is it true? What
    reasons had they for thinking it true, and were those reasons adequate? On
    the other hand, if he emerges from the status of pupil without continuing
    to pursue the subject he never rids himself of this dogmatic attitude. And
    this makes him a person peculiarly unfitted to answer the questions I have
    mentioned [about history]....

    "Science in general... does not consist in collecting what we already know
    and arranging it in this or that kind of pattern. It consists in fastening
    upon something we do not know, and trying to discover it. Playing patience
    with things we already know may be a useful means toward this end, but it
    is not the end itself. It is at best only the means. It is scientifically
    valuable only in so far as the new arrangement gives us the answer to a
    question we have already decided to ask. That is why all science begins
    from the knowledge of our own ignorance: not our ignorance of everything,
    but our ignorance of some definite thing.... Science is finding things out:
    and in that sense history is a science."


    Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
    Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

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