21.072 how do we know?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 4 Jun 2007 12:14:44 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 72.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 04 Jun 2007 12:06:06 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: how do we know?

On a walk the other day, here at Digital Humanities 2007, Stefan
Sinclair raised a couple of questions worth much wider circulation
than just around inside my brain. The first was in effect the degree
to which we need to be practical when framing our research questions.
If a question cannot be approached at all, given the current state of
knowledge, is it worth the candle? The second one was, if one is
investigating something not subject to proof, how much confidence can
one place in the results one gets? In other words, what is the court
of last resort? Oneself? A reasonably large sampling of specialists
in the area of research?

The first question had to do with some ideas I have about where to go
with my own work. I agreed with him, that as far as I could see, no
technology suits the problem I have. Let's say that we're both right
about this. (I hope we are not.) What justification should I give
myself for spending my most precious coin, time looking upon the
light, to pursue ideas that cannot be implemented? Ok, I know the
response of the liberal-arts-college-trained intellectual like me --
that the totally unknown, coming at us with no guarantees whatever,
is the gold of the humanities. So-called "pure" research, or "wicked"
problems, or whatever we call this sort of thing. But what is the
value of such a response to someone whose passion is designing
processes and building them to work?

The second one haunts us all, I suspect. One colleague recently
proposed of one particular kind of work that it would be validated
when courts of law began using it. In other words, if society at
large takes something on, then it's good. (But how long does one have
to wait? How much longer than Socrates waited?) My response to Stefan
was that the individual researcher was the court of last resort. If
he or she found that using what I had in mind brought clearer
thoughts about the material in question (judged by that individual),
and provided stronger challenges to his or her way of thinking (here
considerable honesty is required), then the tool or approach would be



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Mon Jun 04 2007 - 07:30:03 EDT

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