[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
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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
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.
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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