[Humanist] 31.489 methodology as a sign of trouble?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 28 12:29:46 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 489.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 28 Dec 2017 11:04:54 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: methodology as sign of trouble?

Near the end of his life John von Neumann wrote a number of short essays 
as a 'public person', on mathematics, physics, technology, atomic energy 
and warfare, handily gathered together in The Neumann Compendium, ed. 
Bródy and Vámos (1995). In an interdisciplinary course for students in 
the humanities, they would be at the top of my reading list. At the 
beginning of one of these, "The Mathematician", he writes that "A 
discussion of the nature of any intellectual effort is difficult per 
se -- at any rate, more difficult than the mere exercise of that particular 
intellectual effort." Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why so 
few experts in any discipline have put their hands to the writing of 
such essays.

But I would draw your attention to the beginning of another essay in the 
collection, "Method in the physical sciences", where he writes,

> Emphasis on methodology seems most often to arise when there are
> symptoms of trouble, when a realization of difficulties makes
> necessary a re-examination of some position inherited from the past.
(p. 627)

Usually we notice that in its application to the humanities our beloved 
machine is methodological in nature, hence 'digital methods' of doing 
this or that, rather than earlier, non-digital ways of acting. We have 
talked about a "methodological commons" for all disciplines defined by 
these methods. But what if we follow von Neumann's diagnostic and so 
ask, what was (and is?) the trouble in the disciplines to which the 
methodological machine was a response -- which made and continues to 
make the machine so appealing? This is not the same as asking what it 
can do that we couldn't do before. It is rather a question of the 
'paradigm' or way of conceiving these ways of enquiry that have run into 
difficulties. We have talked with approbation about some fields as 
'early adopters', sometimes pointed to the low-hanging fruit (e.g. words 
easily concorded) that made their early adoption of computing possible. 
Might early adoption also be a matter of the heaviest difficulties?



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor emeritus, Department of
Digital Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western
Sydney University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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