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January Notes

Radical Empiricism and Empirical Modelling

The following are Notes for a lecture in Potsdam by Steve Russ scheduled for Friday 30th January 2009. The lecture was not in fact delivered but these Notes may be a useful resource for students of the module William James' "Radical Empiricism" als Konzept des Empirical Modelling in der Computer Science at Potsdam.


Why, and how, is the work and thought of William James relevant to modern computing? In particular, what is the relevance of the philosophical stance of Radical Empiricism and Pragmatism to the approach of Empirical Modelling to computing? What do you remember best (both positive and negative things) from the talks and demonstrations on these questions on 12th December?

I suggest the relevance of James's thought operates at two levels. First there is a major parallelism, or analogy, between on the one hand, the motivations in the approach to philosophy of William James, and then on the other hand,  the fundamental motivations for the broader perspective on computing emerging with Empirical Modelling. For centuries there had been the rather narrow, formal scholastic ways of approaching the big traditional questions of philosophy in metaphysics and epistemology. In James's own time this traditional line of approach was gaining fresh impetus from the new, fruitful, emphasis on logic and language coming from thinkers like Frege and Russell. The challenge coming from James was a particularly vigorous, independent and clear form of a much broader 'philosophy of life', rather than a philosophy based upon methods of analysis. The loose analogy, over a much shorter time scale, with computing is that a (largely mathematical) theory of computing developed over the middle decades of the 20C and suited to the early applications of computing is now over-stretched and inadequate to give account for the vast new tracts of computing practice in matters of real-time, physicality, communication, multimedia and so on. A much broader view of the nature of computing is essential to develop both theory and techniques which will answer to, and support, the current practices and the uses of computing. Empirical Modelling is contributing to this broader view.

The second way in which the work of James is relevant to computing (and perhaps more generally to all of science and knowledge) is more concrete, substantive and all-pervasive. It is the recovery and explicit adoption of 'pure', or 'direct' experience: the 'as-of-now' sense of an awareness of things - whether 'physical' or 'mental', whether abstract or concrete. This moment-by-moment 'stream of consciousness' is a characteristic and recurring theme of James's writing and especially of the collection, Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), most of which were written in the period 1904 - 06. The abstractions of concepts, of language and of mathematics, and their associated syntatic manipulations are all essential  to the progress of science and our everyday working life. But they are not everything necessary for the emergence of science and knowledge. Indeed they have a predominance in the 'intellectual' forms of education, but they can obscure, and distract us from, the powerful, original, experiential content of experiment and exploration in science and computing, and even more so they can obscure what we feel and sense in the rough and tumble of everyday life. Within computing it is not just the kind of experience arising through graphics and visualisation that is significant, it is the experienced patterns of interaction and feedback that arise within such visualisation that may have particular semantic importance.

The structure of these Notes is to be a commentary on the second half of the paper Radical Empiricism, Empirical Modelling and the nature of knowing by Meurig Beynon. The second half begins on p.15 with Section 2,  'Radical Empiricism'. We shall refer to paragraphs of this paper by, for example, 15/2 meaning page 15 and paragraph 2 - where the Section referred to in the previous sentence begins. The reference to a paragraph at the top or bottom of a page (such as 17/1, or 17/3) refers only to that part of a paragraph which occurs on the page in question.