[Humanist] 30.199 concepts and tools?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jul 24 09:15:21 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 199.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 23 Jul 2016 14:03:27 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: concepts and tools

In his review of Peter de Bolla's The Architecture of Concepts: The
Historical Formation of Human Rights (Fordham, 2013), Dan Edelstein
notes that, "The digital age has been a boon for intellectual
historians", citing Google Books, EEBO et al. He continues:

> To be sure, this power has not always been wielded for good: students
> today can "œcite anything, but construe nothing,"* stringing together
> KWICs (keywords in context), and reading only a surrounding sentence
> or two (if that). But however they are used, these tools and
> platforms have transformed our daily work habits.
*Jonathan Barnes, in Anthony Grafton, Worlds Made by Words, p. 322

But his crucial point follows in the next sentence:

> The same cannot be said, however, about our methods. Indeed, early
> modern intellectual historians still follow approaches that were
> established long before the Internet came of age.

He notes some exceptions, but then turns to de Bolla's book. Despite "an
idiosyncratic terminology that can turn prose into dense thickets of jargon,
and... argumentation... largely proleptic, demanding great patience from the
reader"... [de Bolla] engages in a valuable experiment that brings digital
methods to the fore of intellectual history".

Tried and (perhaps) true methods in intellectual history are not necessarily
a bad thing, but this is for intellectual historians to say. Bringing
"digital methods to the fore of intellectual history" is also not a bad
thing -- this we can say. But is the benefit from this latter good thing
anything more than a drawing of attention to the fact that concordancing and
generating frequency lists can provide some insight into historical and
literary texts? Should we be grateful for the occasional glance in our 

There are two intellectual (indeed) and disciplinary problems here. One is
(as the topic modellers et al will be eager to point out) that much more of
demonstrable value for intellectual history could be done with tools readily
available anywhere the internet reaches. The other problem is that the
people who are good at devising new tools, and eager to do so, are not
hearing from the intellectual historians -- or, to put the matter with
additional bite, that some intellectual historians don't venture very far
from a rather old comfort zone. You'd think that the promise of different if
not better intellectual history would be sufficiently tempting.

To my mind the fact that such elementary uses of the available tools evident
from The Architecture of Concepts has accomplished this bringing-to-the-fore
is less to be happy about after so many decades of work in the field. The 
book does get ringing praise, e.g. from Jonathan Israel in Critical Inquiry
and from Michael Gavin's blog
Given that de Bolla's work has morphed into The Concept Lab, in the Centre
for Digital Kowledge at Cambridge
shouldn't we be expecting much, much more?



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney

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