[Humanist] 28.140 digital knowing, not digital knowledge

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jun 23 06:05:29 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 140.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 21 Jun 2014 11:21:27 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: digital knowledge

Recently the Centre for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences
(CRASSH), Cambridge University, established the Cambridge Centre for
Digital Knowledge CCDK). Given those involved it seems likely to be
good thing. But the terms in which it has been founded deserve a close

> The premise of CCDK is that we are now entering the third phase of
> Digital Humanities. The first phase prioritized the digitization of
> analogue materials. The second phase involved the growth of a digital
> humanities discipline, which has promoted new working practices in
> the humanities and social sciences. One result of these two phases
> has been the facilitation and increased speed of access to data. The
> third phase now urgently requires new forms of understanding that
> will use new technologies to transcend rather than perpetuate
> well-worn approaches in the humanities and social sciences. The CCDK
> is structured around two strands of research which represent the two
> most pressing concerns of digital humanities: Digital Epistemology
> and Digital Society.

The implications of "phase" I find particularly interesting, especially
given the notion of an historical progression implicit in the prose
which follows. To cite the OED for "phase", 2.a:

> A definite or distinct state, stage, or period in a process of change
> or development, as the life cycle of an organism; a period marked by
>  a particular characteristic, activity, etc....

The discipline of digital humanities, or whatever we wish to call it, has
thus in the view of CCDK "promoted new working practices in the humanities
and social sciences" and so, added to the great digitization effort, brought
about "the facilitation and increased speed of access to data". Both good
things, no question. But what digital humanities has by this demarcation
also supposedly done, however, is to "perpetuate well-worn approaches in the
humanities and social sciences", and what it has not done is to bring about
"new forms of understanding that will use new technologies to transcend
rather than perpetuate" these well-worn if not worn-out practices. Hence the
claim to a new phase.

This view of digital humanities unfortunately ignores approximately four and
a half decades of work in the field, during which struggle to understand new
forms of understanding was ongoing. The problem has not been digital
humanists' determination to perpetuate the old; quite the opposite, in fact,
even to excess of revolutionary intentions. Many here will know that the
problem has been the intellectual inertia of many in the humanities and
beyond, indeed their fear of old understandings and identities dissolving
away. From the very beginning of widespread activity in digital humanities
(though it was thinly populated until the Web gained traction), key
individuals were calling for such new understandings, e.g. literary critic
Louis Milic and philosopher-linguist Margaret Masterman, whose ideas
regarding poetry F. R. Leavis tried to shoot down. What they were saying has
been forgotten in this scheme of phases.

Yes, we need these new understandings and have needed them for decades. But
let's get the history right so that we can take advantage of what our
forebears thought and did.

If the philosophers and philosophically minded people in CCDK take on board
the crucial point that these understandings arise largely from direct,
hands-on work in digital forms of knowing, from intervening as well as
representing, then we can hope for much from them. Peter Burke in A Social
History of Knowledge quotes the Spanish humanist Luis Vives' declaration
that, "melius agricolae et fabri norunt quam ipsi tanti philosophi",
"peasants and artisans know nature better than so many philosophers" (2000:
13). That may be a bit over the top, but he had a point. It's a point that
gets uncomfortably close to the old social distinction between leisured
aristocrats and labouring peasants. I for one keep hoping that we will take
another run at realising Leibniz's dream of a happy marriage between
theorists and empirics. 

So, I say, we in digital humanities have cleared a space within which new
understandings may arise from artisanal work. That we have not gone at this
quite so hard as we could have, to find out what these understandings are,
is understandable given the social conditions of work from 1949 until recent
times. But we're alerted by CCDK's bracketing off of digital humanities both
conceptually and historically that others, perhaps not so well equipped in
artisanal skills of reasoning, are moving in to this space and declaring

But here's to celebrating the unintended identification of digital
humanities' ongoing contribution to scholarship: not primarily speeding
access to data, though that is important, but working with data in new ways
to rework how we reason and what we understand of ourselves and the world.
John von Neumann and Herman Goldstine wrote in 1947 that, "coding is not a
static process of translation, but rather the technique of providing a
dynamic background to control the automatic evolution of a meaning" (1947:
2). Consider the power this recognizes in coding, the creative challenge
this issues to us traditional reasoners.

In a recent interview with the philosopher John Searle at CRASSH
(http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/blog/post/an-interview-with-john-searle) he
remarked that philosophy nowadays is in "terrible shape", in the philosophy
of language for example because "formal modeling has replaced insight". He
goes on:

>  What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal
> model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto the formal
> model, and people think that gives you an insight.

Of course it doesn't, as Searle remarks. We recognize in this the
distinction between making models and the modelling that comes when you
realise the processural force of computing von Neumann and Goldstine wrote
about, when you take its intervening, experimental uses rather than the
representational requirement which begins the process. If only the
philosophers who have disappointed Searle would talk to us. I wish we could
talk to von Neumann and Goldstine.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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