Just how every programming language brings with it a particular way of thinking that is suited to solving problems–expressing solutions and implementing them–, I have been looking for a way of thinking to organize me.
And in this meditation I keep coming back to the word “philology.”
Philology, noun, the study of text as it is situated in history, in context, and by language.
I have chosen the term “philology” purposefully. I’m not declaring a philosophy, a framework, a methodology, or a new analytical technique. A philosophy has grander intention then what I mean to accomplish, so this is not a philosophy. A framework and a methodology is a structure that is given to others to implement to their own ends, but I am writing this down for my own sake–if others adapt these thoughts for themselves, then I hope they do so by making changes, reflecting on their own choice of words just as I have done, and that adaptability within a definition does not a framework make.
Philology has “a double commitment to an empirical attention to linguistic fact and a more subjective approach to questions of context, meaning, and value” (Harpham 2009).
My philology is not an analysis. It is not an immersion. An immersion would count out the experiences that I bring in, and I set forth these experiences. My philology is not an enumeration, though this is a closer interpretation.
The word “immersion” here has special meaning to me. In doing research, it can feel like we need to immerse ourselves in it in order to appreciate our subject. This can be suffocating. Of course, I actually completely still mean to do that, but I am not meaning to approach a subject by giving myself over to it. In earlier mediations, I had made a leap from hard technical thought to humanities by allow myself to “be present” with the readings we complete in my masters classes. To let words take me away and let my imagination show me what the author wanted to show me.
But to brutally “be present,” in the sense of brute strength and “brute reason,” is to immerse oneself.
But again, to be able to “be present” with a creative work in the first place, well, was really hard for me after years away from the humanities and knee-deep in measure theoretical probability.
My philology is also not an analysis. An analysis is a breaking down of a system into subcomponents and then either drawing conclusions from that break down or using that break down as a guide to creating a new system from the old. An explication. By philology, I do mean to carry out analysis, but also doing more and also looking elsewhere. I mean a reading of texts and technologies. I mean paying close attention to history and authenticity, critically looking at the language of the text’s creation, implementation, and societal impact. I mean paying attention and fairly judging, as one aims to do in peer review.
This philology is comparative, critical, linguistic, and cognitive understanding of a long-term kairos.
If it is difficult to know exactly what philology is, we can, however, still discriminate between the right and wrong kinds…scholars should become more careful, cautious, and respectful of limits lest they fall into the same errors…we must also allow ourselves to be instructed, inspired, and challenged by the genuine achievements of the greatest scholars of the philological tradition, who were intellectually curious and ambitious to a degree we can scarcely imagine (Harpham 2009).
My philology is a topology of meaning, and my morals direct me to do so as an Epicurean:–
An enumeration is, like an analysis, a break down of components, but more specifically a listing of components with an understanding that the structure of the list itself is not important: we are just visiting concepts one at a time. But taking this a step further, via the heart of literary analysis (interpretation), we might start to see a “landscape” of meaning emerge from the enumerated images. This is, in essence, if I may make a metaphor here, what a neural network is doing when it is “learning.”
This “feeling out” or topothesia of a “topology” of course is prone to raise questions of its own, which one should set out to answer following such a feeling out. It is also an analytical technique akin to grounded theory–but I do not mean to collapse this idea of “topology” into a grounded theory. Gounded theory does not carry with it the interpretation and judgement of critical theories.
But grounded theory and topothesic thinking are neither very meaningful as ends in themselves. Topothesic thinking will probably just be a good idea if we are already carrying out the philology that is my principle aim here to describe.
- to value the senses and lived experiences
By Epicurean, I don’t mean that I adhere to the beliefs of Lucretius that all images are readily available in the head, but we can only pay attention to one at a time, thus explaining where images of thought come from (they are already all there), while also explaining why we don’t see them all at once (we have limitations after all).
That theory is just weird.
But Epicureanism provides methods of thinking that answer some really stressful questions.
- Let’s be happy.
- But let’s be happy in moderation of course.
- Remove the bad. Don’t feel bad for this.
- Everyone has preconceptions all the time about everything. These are feelings, emotions, ideas, biases, most thoughts, and so on.
- It’s one of our duties to feel out these preconceptions and find the right words for them.
- Material explanation and trust in the senses are more important than abstract ideas, as the latter might not be grounded in reality.
- Friendships begin as professional contracts. It just takes time.
- Everyone you meet in a professional setting has the potential to one day be your friend.
- Abstractions of lived experiences cannot be defined by those that do not have those lived experiences (e.g., Feminism). You just gotta trust the definitions given you by those with those lived experiences.
- Stoics and Skeptics are jerks. Don’t be a jerk.
- to value preconceptions, for these lead to our hypotheses, while also holding myself accountable for questioning where these preconceptions come from and politely asking others to do the same
Epicurus believed that some knowledge was “built in,” a sort of “preconception starter pack.” On this, I disagree. In order for the material explanation reduction to work, it’s true we need some epistemic bedrock, a base case. Epicurus offered preconceptions to solve this. Me, I say who cares? At the point that it matters, after years of experience living, the epistemic bedrock is so buried under our new beliefs that arguing the base case becomes pretty much a moot point in praxis.
Instead, I ask not where “knowledge” comes from, but where the “hypothesis” comes from. And like it really pisses me off–okay?–that this old, comprehensive guide to research says that if you can’t even think of a hypothesis to test then you must be a dumbass. And I see this sort of intellectual put down repeated everywhere in the discourse of “research methods.”
Where do good ideas come from?
I can’t speak for them all. But I do offer what Epicurus called “preconceptions” as a solution.
- We get exposed to the world.
- We form feelings, biases, misconceptions, preconceptions, and so on–all equivalently a “hypothesis” in one manner or another. This idea is consistent with the Pierce definition (or what common thread of a definition we can gather) on abduction, as a “process of forming explanatory hypotheses…the only logical operation which introduces any new idea.”
- We may then notice our preconceptions, and we might at least challenge those we notice in others or defend our own to the death or, like, a lot of other toxic crap. What we always have the option to do is realize that these preconceptions are inescapable, and therefore we always already have hypotheses we could devise tests for. This is not “how do I prove this” but “why do I believe this.” Couch the result, regardless of the reseach methodology that you follow, somewhere between narratives and statistics.
Want to do a research project on music? Then listen to a lot of music and kick it with a lot of musicians until you start to form feelings or opinions or ideas about it, and ask yourself early and often, “How do I feel about this?” One of these will be an idea that a thesis advisor will accept as a project pitch, and man will it be a long process, but there will be an idea there nonetheless.
You’re not dumb.
- to treat others with respect that do me no harm, to feel no shame in quickly removing the things from my life that make me feel bad, and to give critical thought to the means of removal because they may harm me and others as time goes one
And this epistemology leads naturally into–So when do you know you’re right?
What you can do, is be present in the world and work with the rest of us in trying to find the right words for things. We’ll never reach total agreement, and language is constantly evolving, and now we have emojis in the mix so that’s cool 🐍. And the point of it all isn’t to reach some stable state anyway, so go watch an anime and think about how we carry the banners of those who came before us, even though they failed, but we carry them nonetheless because we carry the banners of all who came before us and we’ll learn from their mistakes and we’ll fuck up and we’ll die and our children will carry our banners, but not my banner alone, all of our banners.
This is the conclusion of the central moral dilemma of that anime, a story that follows The Once and Future King in questioning the reason for war, in turn following the entire Arthurian tradition in asking what is the conclusion of “honor” and yet, regardless of its repeated failures, we’re still drawn towards it.
So let’s find the right words for things. Ground your shit in your own lived experiences, and don’t give me any of that abstraction crap for the experiences you don’t have. Look people in the eye when they talk. Trust the stories they tell you.
What about deceit, you ask?
I don’t know, I’m from Bowling Green where people aren’t jerks so, like, try not being a jerk I guess? If someone is a jerk to you, then feel free to count them out of your life because there’s no shame in taking care of yourself. You’re not going to be able to do good in this world if you don’t take care of yourself. Wouldn’t you end up all alone then, you, the cynic, ask? Well, yeah, you might. This looks at direct odds with the Epicurean in me, but I stress the critical reflection following a removal of the “bad” from your life for this very reason. Remove the bad, get in good health, and then do reflect on how it was that you removed the bad. Would you end up alone if you kept taking that way out? Would you end up hurting someone? Do better next time. Apologize if you need to (c.f. debriefing).
- and to ground my actions and my creations in the happiness it brings me and others, without expectation for how these things will be used, only an open ear for when the ends of these means is not to my design.
A revealing mirror, the history of philology combines in a single image scholarship’s highest aspirations and darkest fears. The ongoing challenge is not which to choose, but how to tell them apart (Harpham 2009).
I want to do good in this world, so I got to take care of myself, and I am a computer scientist so I like to make things. I make things and people will use them and they won’t ever use them as I expect. And that is okay. What if they are using these things wrong?
What is “wrong?”
A good rule of thumb I guess is, unless you work for a lighter company, if the things you make start fires then it’s well past time to step in. Besides that, 🤷.
I cannot–in good faith after thinking philogically on the kairos of the user sitting down to use my software, to interact with an ICT, the situational embedding of their user experience, both historically and interpretively in the kairotic future–have axiomatic expectations for how my software is going to be used.
I insist instead on have an interaction design in mind for how they will use those tools and include in that system a design for how I can understand my users when their experiences differ, when things break, and when other users have violated the ethical values of the community.