Software Musings

Existence and Being

Posted on: 23/12/2006

I have speculated in this blog before about the split on Philosophy Weblogs between the non-overlapping categories of Philosopher and Student. I was reminded of this division again lately by two interactions.

The first is from Philip Petit’s essay Existentialism, Quietism and Philosophy which I mentioned in my last entry. Petit says:

…Many questions that I would regard as philosophical are investigated outside philosophy departments…

and this seems to be heading in the right direction but then veers back in the next sentence where one finds that Petit doesn’t mean “outside philosophy departments in the external world” but “outside philosophy departments in other university departments”. Let’s leave that strange thought stacked for a moment and consider my second interaction.

I was asked to sketch out the contents and a few sample chapters of a possible book in the “What Every Engineer Should Know About X” series. I resisted my wife’s suggestion that X ought to be “girls” or “tying shoe laces” and went for what I know best: “Sufficiently-Available Software”. The sample chapters I put together dealt with the use of Markovian analysis to assess the availability of a (software) system. Working all day with engineers, I know that most of them put away their mathematics on the day they left college. I therefore put all of the heavy mathematical lifting into an appendix and threw some simple examples of Markov Chains and whatever into the text. I then pointed out that there was no real reason to understand all this because there were many programs to do the work. However, should anyone be interested, the mathematics was there in the appendix.

The publisher rightly sent my embryonic manuscript to the series editor: someone who apparently both teaches and practices engineering. His comments were that the work was too simple for engineers who really needed all the deep mathematics (OK, it’s not that deep but I feel attached to Markov Chains because, as a teenager, I invented them. Unfortunately I found that Andrei Markov had beaten me to it by 80 years or so.) and not some simplified cook-book.

The common thread here is plain: a confusion between role and subject. A singing teacher may also be a great singer, but those two skills are distinct. I believe that my teaching of pilots to fly is not very good although I am myself a good and safe commercial pilot.

I would argue similarly that someone who teaches engineering may also be an exemplary engineer or someone who teaches philosophy may also be a philosopher. But in neither case does the former role imply the latter. Once the two roles are distinguished it is easy to see, although Petit doesn’t acknowledge it, that a philosopher doesn’t need to teach philosophy any more than an engineer needs to teach engineering.

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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