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Minds need hands

A couple of weeks ago, I joined other former students of Joseph P. Fell at Bucknell University for a weekend honoring him. Although he is a philosophy professor, the takeaway for many of us was a reminder that while hands are useless without minds to guide them, minds need hands more deeply than we usually think.

Philosophy is not the only discipline that needs this reminder. Almost anyone—it’s important to maintain the exceptions—who is trying to understand a topic would do well by holding something in her hands, or, better, building something with them.

The notion that thought is best when it is purest, that is, least “contaminated” by contact with the physical, comes to us in the West through a long legacy of viewing the body as an imperfect and unreliable instrument. It reaches its apogee in the seventeenth century when Descartes sits alone in a room, with the doors and windows closed and a warm fire blazing, using his mind alone to decide what we can know. His mind finds a reason to doubt everything, including that he’s sitting alone in a room in front of a warm fire. That’s the mischief a mind gets up to when it’s left on its own.

Prof. Fell’s lifework has been on philosophers who take our lived experience as both the thing to be explained and the ground for explanations. But I personally have seen the wisdom of joining hands and minds, especially over the past decade.

The example I know best is the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. It’s a university research center, so you’d assume it’s very thinky. And it is. But from its inception, it’s had a commitment not only to research but also to building software. For a university research center, that’s just weird. But, it turns out, wonderful.

Not all Berkman projects have a software component, but enough do that the research fellows at the Center are reminded that the subject of their studies—the Internet—is a real thing like lumber and pie crust: It can do some things and not others, and can be modified by human intervention.

Because the software the Center builds is Open Source and the services it creates are open to the public, the researchers are also reminded of their obligation to advance the public good. Pure research can advance that good, of course, but the presence of work that directly involves producing useful services makes that obligation vivid.

There’s another advantage to having Makers as part of a community of Thinkers: The conversations include people who know the realities of the field down to the bits and gold-plated contacts level. This turns out to be crucial. For example, if you’re researching the future of libraries (to take a not so random example), it’s an enormous advantage to be part of a community that is prototyping library futures in bits or atoms. Working with material often reveals possibilities for that material that otherwise would have been blind to thought. For example, if you don’t know about Linked Data, then significant possibilities for enriching and enhancing what libraries know will be invisible. If you aren’t working with people who have hands-on experience with Linked Data, the strengths and limitations of that technology will be fuzzy. Making things often reveals that the future is sometimes more limited and often more surprising than we thought.

This is, of course, why many industry consulting firms hire former practitioners to be their experts. In government, this becomes a revolving door that inevitably leads to corruption and public distrust, but in industry it leads to grounded expertise. It does make you wonder if such consultancies should require their experts to cycle back into industry periodically so that they can get their hands dirty again. Indeed, this is an argument for the consultancies whose experts work for them just occasionally as they hold down full- or part-time jobs in the industries about which they are experts.

Of course, not every researcher should be sent out into the field to get her jodhpurs dusty. There’s plenty of room for scholars who only use their hands to turn the pages of books and lift the occasional fork. But for the rest of us, know-how can crucially inform know-that, because minds on their own get into all sorts of trouble.

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