[Humanist] 27.125 computationalists and humanists

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jun 16 22:03:27 CEST 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 125.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 16 Jun 2013 16:19:07 +0200
        From: Jan Christoph Meister <jan-c-meister at uni-hamburg.de>
        Subject: Re:  27.124 computationalists and humanists
        In-Reply-To: <20130615214741.503502CF6 at digitalhumanities.org>

Let me add just two quotes to Willard's collection. Both are by the same 
(German) author, and both date some 130 years before C.P. Snow, around 
1820/1830. This is the first:

"Ich kann ein Differentiale finden, und einen Vers machen; sind das 
nicht die beiden Enden der menschlichen Fähigkeit?" ("I can identify a 
differential, and I can make a verse; are these not the two peaks of 
human competence?")

Against the backdrop of the new, evolving natural sciences and referring 
back to Leibniz' differential calculus as one of the most abstract 
mathematical break throughs, the German Romantic poet Heinrich von 
Kleist tries to uphold -- or rather, re-vitalize -- the Humanist idea of a 
unified culture of scientific knowledge and Arts, of a dialect of formal 
mathematical abstraction and subjective "verse" that merges 
representation and emotion.

Moreover, Kleist already has the idea of declaring this holistic 
philosophical and epistemological stance as a potential methodology -- 
for him it is not just a personal vision. In another letter, he writes: 
"One could distinguish two classes of men: those who are capable of 
metaphors, and those who are capable of formulae. Those who are capable 
of both are too few; they do not form a class."

The problems and hickups that we encounter in our interdisciplinary 
discourse among "computationalists" and "humanists" were thus reflected 
upon long before computers as we know them emerged (OK, the idea of a 
computer did of course already exist -- Leibniz again). So let's face it: 
technology really only plays a marginal role in this epistemological and 
methodological exchange and meeting/clashing of minds.

What is more important, I believe, is the conceptual and functional 
distinction which we need to reflect over and over again.To me this 
distinction is demarcated by two fault lines.

One, the methodological centre of gravity in the humanities is 
hermeneutics: trying to understand and interpret phenomena in terms of 
their relevance and impact on humanity, and analysing and modelling 
these phenomena as experiences that are historically contingent. And 
because of that, whatever we do and whatever knowledge (or nonsense) we 
produce in the Humanities is 'indexical' -- it points back at the 
interpreting subject and at the society that grapples with the phenomena 
at hand. To make matters even more complicated, that (perceived or real 
'€knowledge') influences the interpreting observer in a dynamic fashion. 
Now of course Heisenberg and Einstein formulated insights about the 
principle constraints of scientific observation that one can read as 
similar, at least in a somewhat metaphorical sense. But the natural 
sciences are not pulled towards a hermeneutic centre (what indeed are 
they being pulled towards? Logic per se? A Platonian worm hole?) I'm 
pretty certain that my (highly uninformed) musings about the nature of 
Higgs' particles will in my lifetime not produce any response in 
nature. Atoms don't really give a damn about whose observing them and 
for what purpose -- humans and human societies however do. In other 
words, though the late 19th century programmatic definition of 
"Geisteswissenschaften" by Dilthey and others and the forcefully 
declared dichotomy between the natural and the'moral'/human sciences 
may be outdated, but it's not irrelevant -- and so are other attempts 
(John Stuart Mill, Hegel, etc. etc..) at categorizing two ideal types 
(because that's what they really are; neither type has ever manifested 
itself in any science in its pure form) of methodology.

The second fault line, as I perceive it, separates the terrain in terms 
of the concepts of discreteness and continuity. The former is the 
natural domain of the digital and binary logic -- segment phenomena, 
count them, find a useful metric, calculate them, model them 
numerically, etc. The latter is the prerogative of our human sensual and 
intellectual apparatus -- we can handle the fuzzy, the ambiguous, the 
contradictory, the speculative and under defined, and the more robust or 
consciously reflected our mind's 'home base', i.e. our sense of identity 
as a functional construct is, the better we can perform this task. We 
can decide to hear the melody, not the individual notes -- and we can 
decide to do the opposite as well. And those who do that often enough 
realize that it is this power of being able to switch our conceptual 
outlook at the world that, paradoxically as it may seem, stabilizes the 
core. Call it sublimation, call it dialectics -- if nothing else it's more 

The lamented conflict between "computationalists" and "humanists" arises 
as soon as we become afraid of our own courage and shy away from jumping 
across these two fault lines. Let's cut through that fear. The task 
remains, as Kleist so aptly put it, to "become capable of both -- the 
metaphor and the formula, the verse and the calculus, the musical score 
as well as the melody and the tear." That's a borderline experience, no 
doubt, and those who prefer to pitch their tent in the comfortable 
centre of either laager don't run the risk of questioning their own 
philosophical, epistemological and ethical identity as easily as the 
'Stalkers' (in the Tarkowskian sense). But thankfully, that's not the 
intellectual terrain where the evolving DH 'tribe' hunts and gathers.



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