[Humanist] 30.159 theory

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jul 11 08:44:25 CEST 2016


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 159.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org



        Date: Sun, 10 Jul 2016 10:06:59 -0500
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  30.152 theory; humans as material objects
        In-Reply-To: <20160710074008.8D9C37959 at digitalhumanities.org>


I've been in the middle of a move and starting a new job, so I haven't been
able to stay as engaged in the "What is theory?" thread as I've wanted to,
but I am grateful for all participants and have learned from everyone.

Since Willard and Henry Schaffer have kept the thread alive with today's
digest, I thought I would respond. I apologize if I am unable to recall the
names of participants who posted some days ago.

I think we need to begin by making clearer distinctions, first of all
between claims that we can make about human beings in general, and then the
subset of those claims that are relevant to DH projects and humanities
study.

So I had behaviorism in the back of my mind in my second response to this
thread as a possible counterargument to my claims, and I said a few things
in that post that anticipated that response without actually naming
behaviorism. I will try to spell that out here. While behaviorism is the
closest thing that we have to an empirical science of human behavior, it is
also almost completely irrelevant to the analysis of creative products,
especially when compared to the amount of humanities scholarship employing
psychoanalysis of some kind or its descendants. For that reason, I would
say that behaviorism is functionally irrelevant to this discussion until it
has a higher profile in humanities scholarship.

I am not of course saying that there is no humanities scholarship employing
behaviorism, just that I haven't read any in the areas in which I have
read, and that it certainly constitutes a small minority of humanities
scholarship.

The next thing that we need to distinguish is between "science" in general
and "empirical science" rigidly defined. We might justifiably call any
approach that tests hypotheses scientific, but that doesn't mean that all
approaches that do so are empirical, even if it employs evidence-based
reasoning. This distinction has obtained since the early days of
psychoanalytic theory, when Freud was exasperated by complaints that his
new science of the mind was more like a mythology than an empirical
science, which Wittgenstein asserted in (I think) 1927, even while he was
praising psychoanalysis generously as a myth. I.A. Richards attempted to
define aesthetic effects in terms of brain chemistry around the same time,
but this hasn't been a terribly fruitful or prolific approach to humanities
products either, in that at best it tells us a lot about brain chemistry
and almost nothing at all about the humanities artifact.

The study of human beings as material objects has a bigger profile within
humanities scholarship, but it's always in relationship to a creative
product: "the body" in so and so's fiction, for example. A description of
the average bone density of a 25 year old male's femur is a good topic for
an empirical study of the human body, but I don't know that there's much
humanities scholarship focused on these kinds of questions either. Those
discussions belong in medical journals, and they might be relevant to
programming the physics of video games and other simulations, but they
aren't typically part of the analysis of a human creative object.

The study of creative works as material objects has a bigger profile still,
and I think that this has a significant profile on its own in DH.

I think that we also need to note distinctions among uses of the word
"science" even in empirical fields. Within the "hard" sciences, there are
theoretical and there are applied sciences, and to these scientists, the
"human sciences" aren't scientific at all. There are fields like
anthropology -- and many thanks to this listmember for his insights -- that
have to work in multiple scientific modes, which makes him very aware when
he is engaged in theoretical, empirical, or interpretive work. I think this
is another fruitful model for DH to follow, which would have to be further
complicated by its engagement with the digital itself: again, do we read
results differently when they are produced by different programming
languages?

But once we get into areas like anthropology, we find ourselves getting
very close to what has typically been called "literary theory," which has
combined insights from anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy
among other fields. Alongside historical approaches to humanities products
-- which seem to lend themselves best of all to DH projects so far -- the
reading strategies falling under the umbrella of "literary theory" have
been among the most prolific approaches to the interpretation of humanities
products so far. It will have to be included under the DH umbrella too, and
it has been, but I don't think this potential has been very close to
realized yet.

Jim R





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