[Humanist] 30.143 what is theory?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jul 4 08:00:38 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 143.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Bod, Rens" <L.W.M.Bod at uva.nl>                            (37)
        Subject: RE:  30.140 what is theory?

  [2]   From:    Benjamin Vis <B.N.Vis at kent.ac.uk>                         (10)
        Subject: what is theory?

        Date: Sun, 3 Jul 2016 10:04:34 +0000
        From: "Bod, Rens" <L.W.M.Bod at uva.nl>
        Subject: RE:  30.140 what is theory?
        In-Reply-To: <20160702133221.C574977C6 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear James, all,

I am not so sure that, as you write, "what we mean by theory in the empirical sciences and in the humanities are two different things".  In the end, the humanities and sciences are part of the same family tree of knowledge.

Thus in the humanities we find testable theories like stemmatic philology by Lachmann, harmony theory by Schenker, the literary theory of Propp and later narratologists, the art historical theories of the Vienna school, just to mention a few, And it's easy to find such theories in the current humanities as well (incl. digital humanities). These theories make predictions that are testable, for instance regarding the reconstruction of a text from extant copies, patterns in tales, or the attribution of a musical piece to a composer.  

Of course, the objects in the humanities have been created by humans, but when these objects manifest themselves in the form of manuscripts, pieces of music, literary works, sculptures, grammar books, plays, poems and paintings, they are obviously just as open as other objects to empirical research and the development of hypotheses.

There's a whole new journal on these issues (History of Humanities), see the editorial http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/685056

My 5 cts.

Best, Rens Bod

> Van: humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org [humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org] namens Humanist Discussion Group [willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk]
> Verzonden: zaterdag 2 juli 2016 15:32
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> Onderwerp: [Humanist] 30.140 what is theory?

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 140.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 1 Jul 2016 08:32:09 -0500
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  30.138 what is theory?
        In-Reply-To: <20160701112049.91EA47970 at digitalhumanities.org>

I agree that it is very useful to observe that what we mean by theory in the empirical sciences and in the humanities are two different things.

But accusing the use of the word "theory" by humanities people of being cute, and exhorting us not to think about theory, is not a very useful direction, and only sounds like contempt for the humanities, in which case we've abandoned the humanities component of digital humanities. The phrase "digital humanities" only makes sense as a kind of humanities activity, not as a kind of computing activity, as most of the value added by field contributions seem to be to the humanities and not to computer science. There may have been some DH projects that really changed how we think about computing, but it seems to me like most of the work is to change how we think about the humanities, or to help what we have always been doing (such as archival work) be more effective.

We also need to consider the actual nature of the object of our study. Is it a humanities object, so by extension, human beings, or are we studying material objects that exist independently of human agency? Trees grow on their own out in the wild without us: computers, programs, paintings, and poems do not.

That leads us to another problem on the humanities side of it: there is no truly empirical science of human behavior in general, much less about complex human activity such as creative works. We can add the methods of empirical science to our study of human activity, such as the collection of quantitative data, but that doesn't make it empirical science, because our analysis is usually of something human behind the material objects that we study.

I remember seeing a great presentation of a DH project at an MLA panel about the locations of different kinds of graffiti around a city. It created a simulated city, put reproductions of the different kinds of graffiti on the different city walls in the simulated city, and then analyzed the visual content of the graffiti relative to geography. The end result, though, is a kind of sociological study of art, or a correlation of different visual rhetorics for different city locations, which could be correlated with income or ethnic demographics. The end result is a study of the people who are living in the city and making graffiti. It's not an analysis of self-generating material processes like tree growth.

So I think this can help us think about the word theory itself. What I think we usually mean by the word "theory" is the unseen or unreproduceable origin of visible phenomena. So physicists observe red shift and then theorize about a big bang. Freud observed a variety of human behaviors and speech patterns and then theorized the existence of id, ego, and superego. I think the word "theory," when used by humanists, fits this description. Using that word is a kind of honesty about the nature of our activity. Without that, we might be kidding ourselves into thinking we are doing a kind of empirical science when we never are.

I think theory in digital humanities would have to take seriously the fact that computers and computer programs are human objects and talk about the interaction of these objects with the more traditionally understood humanities products that they are managing. I think this could be a way into a kind of posthumanist scholarship, as there is often an element of the unpredictable in our computing results.

Jim R

        Date: Sun, 3 Jul 2016 12:40:07 +0000
        From: Benjamin Vis <B.N.Vis at kent.ac.uk>
        Subject: what is theory?
        In-Reply-To: <20160702133221.C574977C6 at digitalhumanities.org>

A remark made by Jim Rovira compels me to chip in: "...there is no truly empirical science of human behavior in general". Technically, I think 'ethology' is the field/discipline that could be described as a truly empirical science of human behaviour. The important distinction to make is between the kinds of knowledge or understanding we seek to produce. This also requires one to be convinced that there is something specific about human being studying human beings (and their output) which creates knowledge and understanding that is allowed to behave and operate with a distinct validation and evaluation. I think there is. Usually I describe that kind of knowledge as 'interpretive' or 'ideational'.

Definitely some Digital Humanities work is located between or at least combines interpretive and empirical aspects. Fortunately, this is not without precedent. Archaeology has been faced with this divide in its very (material) basis. (More often than not archaeology is located within the humanities, but I often think more usefully placed in the social sciences. Then, the distinction between these two, both studying human beings, to me has always been vague. Even though there is usually a degree of difference between the two in the kind of paradigms, methods, subjects, and use/applications of knowledge sought. It should be said there is also archaeological science, proper.)

I will further admit that being an archaeologist (and some other things, human geographer and urban design theorist come to mind) within the Digital Humanities, I often don't feel my workflows and perspectives are being represented in the dominant trends of the field. However, I have the constant need and challenge to marry empirical data and ideational/interpretive theory. Theory in archaeology, after having moved through several dominant paradigms, is not a stable field. Exactly because it is so broad as to cover scientific, social, and humanistic purposes 'comfortably' under one disciplinary banner, for every position there will be people taking exception to it. Nonetheless, I think archaeological theorising is not a bad place to look to see both what kind of 'solutions' as well as unease is produced by the need for this intellectual merger. Furthermore, anthropology and architecture also have some theoretical discourse that relates well to this. It strikes me that in positioning the humanities as research practice that didn't (for the most part) have to contend with this, but in its digital guise may have to start to, examples and an evidence base would not go amiss.

Finally, in theory building (for concepts, objects of study, data formats, and philosophy of science) I have found Critical Realist philosophy of science quite useful, as well as Smith's (2011) Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists, developing and exemplifying the idea of empirical theory, following Robert Merton and Roy Ellen. Furthermore, in establishing theoretical work within Digital Humanities (as anywhere), it is hugely important to distinguish between 'theory' as a 'hypothesis', 'model', 'framework', or 'interpretation' (with there being some overlap between these, depending on the stage of the research project and the nature/format of the intellectual departure point).

Benjamin Vis

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Dr Benjamin N. Vis | +44 (0)1227 82 <+44%20(0)1227%2082%20> 6543 | https://kent.academia.edu/BenjaminVis |

School of European Culture & Languages | University of Kent |

Rutherford College W3.E7 | Canterbury CT2 7NX | UK |

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