[Humanist] 27.133 computationalists and humanists

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jun 19 22:09:47 CEST 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 133.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 18 Jun 2013 21:28:13 +0000
        From: Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>
        Subject: Re:  27.125 computationalists and humanists
        In-Reply-To: <20130616200327.BFD8A2E34 at digitalhumanities.org>

A wonderful post, but Kleist was an outlier in more than one way and the
odds of increasing the number of people who can do calculus and write
verse is quite small. And coming from a somewhat different there is a
colleague who once said something like "the problem of the Digital
Humanities is that there are very few problems that humanists find useful
and computer scientists find interesting." A lot of good projects have
probably been done by folks from different parts of the aisle whose
private views about the other are not necessarily printable.

At a practical and institutional level, it may well be that good solutions
will come from renegotiating traditional ways of dividing work among
academic departments, libraries, and IT departments.  Adenauer is supposed
to have said "Man muss die Menschen nehmen wie sie kommen, denn es gibt
keine anderen" or "you have to take people as they come because there are
no others." And people as they come tend to be very much on one side or
the other. So we need to find institutional solutions that make them work
together in tolerable harmony.

There is a charming quote about diplomatics in Wikipedia: Christopher
Brooke  a distinguished teacher of diplomatics, referred to the reputation
of the discipline in 1970 as that of "a formidable and dismal science ...
a kind of game played by a few scholars, most of them medievalists,
harmless so long as it does not dominate or obscure historical enquiry;
or, perhaps, most commonly of all, an aid to understanding of considerable
use to scholars and research students if only they had time to spare from
more serious pursuits".

Quite a few of the current problems of DH are captured in that remark. And
come to think of it, a lot of digital humanists started as medievalists.

Martin Mueller

Professor of English and Classics
Northwestern University

On 6/16/13 3:03 PM, "Humanist Discussion Group"
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 125.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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
>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
>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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