[Humanist] 29.352 losing the humanities

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Oct 5 09:39:29 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 352.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (29)
        Subject: losing the humanities

  [2]   From:    Dominic Oldman <doint at oldman.me.uk>                      (392)
        Subject: Re:  29.340 losing the humanities

        Date: Sun, 4 Oct 2015 07:34:59 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: losing the humanities

The problem, as G. E. R. Lloyd writes in Analogical Investigations (CUP,
2015), is the partitioning into mutually exclusive opposites. The sciences
and the humanities are roughly distinguishable, but when re-imagined as
enemies we get the well-known caricatures, dangerous mathesis on the one
hand, muddle-headed poesis on the other. The cure Lloyd recommends in that
quite astonishing book is to realize that reality is multidimensional and to
give to the terms we use to describe it "semantic stretch".

In the hands of our politicians STEM becomes a monolithic notion with, it is
said, immediate practical benefits worth the quite considerable expense.
(Leading scientists tell a rather different story inflected by the essential
role of untrammelled curiosity-motivated research in the genesis of those
practical benefits.) The humanities, in comparison very inexpensive to
maintain, are portrayed as a waste of investment, and in the absence of a
public story of benefit to the public, this portrayal is believed. Some of
us in the humanities react by demonizing the sciences. So on both sides we
barricade ourselves from our potential comrades and friends. We all lose.

As Paul Fishwick suggests, another cure is history (which in fact stands
behind Lloyd's meticulous comparative work in the history of thought in
ancient Greece and China). I'm grateful for the pointer to Ifrah's book. My
own favourites are Michael S. Mahoney's Histories of Computing (Harvard,
2011) and Vernon Pratt's Thinking Machines: The Evolution of Artificial
Intelligence (Blackwell, 1987). I wish the latter of these were still in

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

        Date: Sun, 4 Oct 2015 10:53:26 +0100
        From: Dominic Oldman <doint at oldman.me.uk>
        Subject: Re:  29.340 losing the humanities
        In-Reply-To: <20151001052547.1C25D6A0E at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

On an optimistic note I sense a growing frustration with quantity over
quality and numbers over meaning, from people and groups with very
different backgrounds, positions and objectives - perhaps similar to your

The computing/digital world is dominated by a particular approach that many
people, including many humanists, have come to think is ubiquitous.
However, my experience over the last year reveals a desire for something
that isn't the norm (which isn't delivering whatever the context) and in
these circumstances there is an opportunity to demonstrate a different way,
and provide a clear alternative. The lack of meaningful representation
helps no one, whether you have a reuse objective, are an historian
wondering how to make use of it all, or simply someone in search of
something more enlightening, whatever your background.

When you show an alternative and demonstrate imaginative outcomes that have
significance and relevance and highlight relationships, similarities,
contrasts and connections, where previously there was linearity and flat
columns and rows, the reaction is one of great excitement and possibility
(something that we have, to a certain extent, somehow lost or it has been
buried). One important part of the answer is producing real outcomes that
speak for themselves and engage everyone because they embed and showcase
humanist knowledge which is intrinsically engaging, attractive and can
support an ongoing and connected discourse across different groups.  While
it may have been displaced and disrupted by the technological norm, when
revealed it is easily recognised and valued by all.

It requires a collaboration that extends beyond any particular group and
should support those who engage with a wide range of different audiences.


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