16.076 attending from highly constrained language

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Mon Jun 17 2002 - 01:18:41 EDT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 76.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2002 06:15:15 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
             Subject: attending from highly constrained language

    In his justly famous book, The Tacit Dimension (1966; rpt Peter Smith,
    1983), Michael Polanyi proposes that in an act of tacit knowing -- e.g. of
    how to carve wood -- we *attend from* the instrument of our action (the
    chisel) so that we may *attend to* its object (the wood). To follow my
    example, clearly this instrument is highly constrained and so constraining,
    yet in attending from it, being thus constrained, a Donatello (say) is
    capable of the most marvellous things. (Was it Edward Johnston who said,
    "Within the limits of my craft I have perfect freedom"?) My point is that
    within the game, as it were, the rules having vanished from sight (though
    not action), the constrained intelligence of the player is at least under
    some conditions shaped rather than attenuated. To expand outward from the
    game, or the practice of woodcarving, to ordinary life, Polanyi notes that
    in the production of language a great deal of mechanical action is involved
    and that should we pay direct attention to it we may even be unable to
    speak at all. (I am reminded of the story about the millipede, who asked
    how possibly he could coordinate so many legs so well, began to wonder
    himself, as a result of which he lost the ability to walk and starved to
    death.) In other words, the problem I'm after isn't only with highly
    constrained language, it's with all means of expression.

    Again, I raise the matter with respect to computing, specifically with
    respect to computational metalanguage. Computing tools are very crude
    instruments, very highly constraining. But how is this important? To what
    degree is such a metalanguage like a chisel? What is involved in attending
    from the computational instrument, and how may the object we get to (e.g. a
    poem, an image) then be understood?


    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/,
    willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk, w.mccarty@btinternet.com

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