, , , , , , , , ,

The term digital humanities has quickly become trendy over the past couple years. The term has often excited me, since digital technology in the humanities is both a part of what I do for a living, and what makes my humanistic scholarship on this blog possible. So I’ve followed discussions of digital humanities, such as the HUMANIST mailing list, with interest.

I remain deeply interested in the field, but I’ve also begun to acquire some skepticism toward it. I love the idea that digital tools can enrich humanistic learning, and I believe in their potential for doing so (on which more below). But the idea of “digital humanities” can sometimes be attached to those engaged in the destruction of genuinely humanistic learning.

Last year, Professor Matthew Wilkens of the University of Notre Dame kindly posted a syllabus for an introductory course in the digital humanities. The rationale for the course and the field are given up front as follows:

We long ago gave up the idea that our task was to appreciate and explain a handful of great texts, replacing that goal with a much more important and ambitious one: to understand cultural production as a whole by way of the aesthetic objects it creates. But we have continued to practice our craft as if the methods developed in pursuit of the old project were the only ones suited to the new task.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with nearly every sentence of this paragraph. The task Wilkens is describing here, in my view, is not a new conception of the humanities, but their wholesale abolition. Rather, it is the transposition of the social sciences, with their characteristic methods, into the study of texts – in a way that displaces, and aims to eradicate, the methods and approaches characteristic of the humanities. Wilkens and I had a happily civil exchange regarding this syllabus on his blog, but we remained clear about how far apart we are on the issue.

I’m not going to address that deeper issue any further in today’s post. Rather, I’d like to address a different question: what do digital technologies have to offer the traditional study of the humanities – and more specifically of philosophy? For me, digital humanities qua humanities – that is, digital humanities that remains genuinely a part of the humanities rather than of social science – seems to me much less about methodologies that are radically new, and more about doing the old methods better.

Much of the excitement surrounding “digital humanities” has to do with projects in “big data” – mining large bodies of texts to find patterns one could not otherwise find. I should make it clear that I’m not against such projects. Indeed I’ve been exploring them myself at work, using the social-scientific NVivo software to look for patterns among the voluminous philosophical journals I write myself. These can tell us some interesting things, but as far as I can tell so far, they are relatively peripheral to the key philosophical task of thinking through the big questions with the help of past great thinkers.

So what has technology to offer the field of philosophy? To one side of the field – the history of philosophy – the benefits are clear. Much clearer and more importantly than big data, digital versions of texts not only provide easy free open access to humanity’s great works, but also provides hypertextual ways of accessing their content – ways that some great philosophers would themselves have loved. Thanks to the likes of the Perseus Digital Library and the Chinese Text Project, we have easy access to philosophy’s great works in translation and in the original languages at the same time. This is invaluable for those of us engaged in comparative study, who can never become fully expert at all the languages we want to know, and can use such support. (So too, we can learn something from the kind of visualization provided by MediaKron.)

And what about constructive philosophy, the project of advancing our own ideas? Where we are not only reconstructing the history of philosophy but also advancing it further? Do digital technologies have anything to advance that project beyond a better knowledge of the past? There, a primary method is and has always been conversation – the interaction of bright minds working to understand the nature of reality and our place in it, whether Socrates and Plato meeting in the agora, the Buddha and his Jain and Ājīvika counterparts wandering about propounding their theories to the same audiences, or Schelling and Hegel discussing idealism in their dorm room. Randall Collins’s valuable work points out how the vast majority of the great philosophies we knew emerged out of social networks and close conversations among their members.

And to a philosopher, I think, what is truly exciting in the digital humanities is the prospect of wider and perhaps even deeper conversations. It’s not the kind of sexy cutting-edge technology that big data is, but that’s fine; what is cutting-edge in one era typically looks like an embarrassing fad twenty years later. Rather, digital technology offers philosophy something simpler but, to my mind, far more valuable: the prospect of a global meeting of the minds. Mencius and Aristotle were roughly contemporaries, but the thought that they could have ever had a single direct conversation with each other, let alone a prolonged conversation over the years as their ideas grew, was literally unimaginable. They had never even heard of each other, nor could they have. Collins’s chapter on ancient Greek networks and his chapter on ancient Chinese networks are completely discrete units, as we should expect.

But take a look at what goes on just in the comments on this blog. I’ve learned a great deal already from conversations with many people, such as Elisa Freschi and skholiast, whom I have never met and do not even know what they look like. They live thousands of miles away from me, but we have a philosophical community together – as do the people I have met. Last year, for example, I received an email from a bright young philosopher in India – he goes by lokatakki on this blog – who asked my advice about pursuing philosophy and living a philosophical life. As it turned out, he lives in the same part of Pune where my Indian wedding took place, and we were able to meet in person. A hundred years ago one could certainly have carried out such correspondence by long-distance international mail, but never at such great length or with such ease. The conversation can carry on weekly, even daily, despite the distances.

I do not intend the comparison to Mencius and Aristotle as a way to flatter myself (or my long-distance friends). Who are the great philosophers of my generation is a question yet to be determined; the odds are against it being me (however much I would like that to be and however much I might work at it), and they are even more against this generation’s great philosophers having a status in history remotely comparable to Mencius or Aristotle. The point is to remind ourselves what an amazing opportunity we have for philosophy today, one that Mencius and Aristotle could not have dreamed of. This – the power of scholarly communication and social networking – is, to my mind, the very greatest of the promises that digital technology holds out for the humanities.