19.670 reflections on the academic life

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2006 07:33:09 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 670.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2006 08:38:44 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: reflections on the academic life

Many here, I suspect, will enjoy the following introductory remarks
to Ellsworth Faris' survey of "the history of reflective thinking on
the subject of personality", in "Of Psychological Elements", The
American Journal of Sociology 42.2 (September 1936): 159-76. Reading
this is for me part of an exercise to enlarge the context into which
Jerry Fodor's The Modularity of Mind (MIT Press, 1983) is set, and
Fodor's little book is in turn part of the context for the
intersection of cognitive science and computing. In any case, the
following may be useful and enjoyable to you. (As to its language,
note the date of composition.)

>It seems impossible for the author of a theory ever to give it up,
>for the idols of the cave will not be denied their worship. Bacon
>exhorts us to be suspicious of any conclusion concerning which we
>find ourselves enthusiastic, but like Ephraim, joined to his idols,
>the only ear turned is the deaf ear. It is not rare, however, for
>the disciples of a master to revise his teaching. If the product is
>overadvertised and fails to do what has been claimed for it, some
>young man will begin to tinker. Then he, in turn, presents a new
>finality to the world.
>For our academic forefathers down to our own generation did aim
>high. Each one knew that his predecessors erred, but he fondly hoped
>to say the last final word. Yet each final word, once new and
>shining like a coin from the mint, becomes tarnished and of little
>worth. Antique thoughts do not rise in value like period furniture;
>at the most they are like fossils in a museum, revealing the past
>experiments of nature.
>Is it admissible to boast that we live in a generation of scholars
>who make no pretention to finality? There are surely some who
>rejoice at the thought that our successors will change our
>doctrines, and are pleased with the prospect that our work will be
>made out of date by those who shall carry on the task of discovery.
>It was not so in former days. Hegel or Spencer thought they builded
>for the ages, but the successors of Hegel or Herbert Spencer could
>hardly wait for the architect to move out before they began the
>remodeling and wrecking.
>But although the authors of theories felt confident of final and
>absolute truth, it is easy to see how relative they were, not only
>because they neglected essential facts, but also because social,
>political, and economic conditions always affect the abstractions of
>psychological theory. There is a compulsive nature of social
>thought, or at least social conditions always influence views about
>human nature. It is sobering to our egotism to realize that we are
>the children of our time, even as psychologists. The theoretical
>psychology of a convinced slave-holder could hardly have been the
>same as that of a confirmed abolitionist. This need not make us
>cynical but it does enable us to understand why men in the past
>advocated views that we find impossible to take seriously.

For those interested in the main subject of the article, I can
recommend it highly -- although on the subject of faculty psychology
(Fodor's area), it blurs over separable takes on this ancient idea,
which, as Fodor argues, deserves rescuing.


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Tue Mar 21 2006 - 02:49:41 EST

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