16.569 anachronisms?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Thu Mar 20 2003 - 03:04:45 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 569.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Thu, 20 Mar 2003 07:39:04 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: anachronisms?

    In the new sub-field known as the history of recent (or contemporary)
    science and technology, it is sometimes alleged that the clash between how
    working scientists want to view their history and how historians tend to
    view it is new, unique. Scientists, it is said, tend to see their history
    as a triumphalist account in which everything that has happened is viewed
    in "presentist" terms, as a gradual or fitful groping toward what we now
    know. In other words, science progresses, the argument on one side runs, so
    its history should witness that fact. But as Richard Rorty and Ian Hacking
    both remind us (in their contributions to Philosophy in History, ed. Rorty,
    Schneewind and Skinner), historians cause the same trouble when they insist
    on historicizing philosophy as when they historicize science. Philosophers,
    it seems, want to engage the dead in conversation about things that matter
    now, in the way they matter now, but historians are quick to point out that
    they didn't discuss those things, or not in the way we now want to discuss
    them. In literary studies on the whole, I would think, an historical
    awareness of the language and thought contemporary to the work is
    essential, always, though various views are taken as to how thoroughly that
    can be recovered or what priority doing so should have. But, as I recall
    from my years spent in literary circles, a poem is timeless in a way that
    an historical event cannot be.

    Historians (such as Averil Cameron or Moses Finley) will admit that we
    write the kind of history that we now need or want to have, but the
    responsibility to reach toward what was is not lessened. Leopold von
    Ranke's dictum, that history "wants only to show what actually was" ("er
    will bloss zeigen, was eigentlich gewesen ist"), still seems to me to
    capture the problem well, though only if you see those first two words, "er
    will" -- which are often overlooked when the dictum is quoted. The
    ethnographer Greg Dening argues that the burden of history is to recover
    the living moment, in which (as in all our living moments) none of the
    innumerable possibilities for the future, including the one that will later
    turn out to have happened, is deterministically privileged.

    Hacking, in "Five Parables" (the essay cited above) and elsewhere, argues
    that whatever happens to the theories we have about things, the phenomena
    we create continue to exist and the devices we invent continue to work. Our
    interventions into the world persist, except when human backsliding
    obscures them; it's our theories that are subject to revolutions. That's
    his basis for being a realist, if I read him correctly. But can we say, in
    a historically responsible manner, that there is progress, full stop? When
    computing meets the humanities, are there anachronisms we must live with?



    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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