IS HUMANITIES COMPUTING A DISCIPLINE?
Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza"
(Texte publié dans Jahrbuch für Computerphilologie, 2002, n°4, p. 51-58)
At the beginning, the article mentions the results of an enquiry on how humanities computing is being introduced into the curricula of the European universities; and the most important topics recently discussed around the theme of a theory of humanities computing. It appears that most experts agree on the opinion that humanities computing is an independent discipline, and as such it should be introduced into the faculties of humanities. The article then explains how the foundation of the discipline should be understood, on the basis of computing theory and the methodology of the different humanities disciplines.
I have often wondered how it happens that two scholars who mostly share the same ideas on humanities computing, like Lou Burnard and myself, are quite in opposition about the question whether it is an independent discipline or not. This comes possibly from the fact that we do not see the problem from the same point of view, especially since concepts like ›discipline‹ and ›humanities‹ (not to speak of computing) are rather equivocal. They may mean, beside other things, both a field of study and the way it is taught and learnt.
For instance, if we accept the opinion of Robert Proctor  that humanities is a view of the human education »calling for the imitation of classical, as opposed to medieval, Latin, and for the study of Roman, and to a lesser extent Greek, literature, history, and moral philosophy as guides to individual and collective behavior« (p. XXIV), and then degenerated (as he says) into pure scholarship (p.88 etc.), the computer applications cannot but be limited to a sort of technological help, if ever needed, extraneous to its real (original) essence. In this case humanities computing is not a discipline, and what is generally called ›computer alphabetization‹ is largely sufficient to the scholars. But if we accept as a progress, and not a degeneration, the historical and philological methodologies proposed by the great (mainly German) tradition of the late XIX century, then it is possible that computing becomes an essential element inside those methodologies, thereby acquiring a very different status. If we also observe that the influence of computing remains more or less the same across the different kinds of data which are the object of individual humanities disciplines (history, archaeology, arts, et cetera), then it is reasonable to suggest the birth of an independent discipline.
A few years ago, as part of the task of the committee of the Socrates Program Advanced Computing in the Humanities, of the European Community , I have carried on an enquiry on how humanities computing is being introduced into the curricula of the European universities . I found a lot of different approaches, which is worth while synthesizing here. A number of technically oriented ›computer literacy‹ courses are given at the majority of humanities faculties, often linked with individual courses in linguistics, history, literature, et cetera. Typically, there are courses which either involve discipline-specific techniques, or which deal with the practical use of a machine: familiarity with operating systems, text processing, databases, Internet access and programming et cetera. Although the provision of courses in computer literacy seems only common sense, such courses often deal with the technical side of computing and miss the special symbiosis created between computing procedures and humanities methodology. A few universities teach humanities computing in a more systematic way. They have organized a group of courses focusing on the methodology of computer applications, and put them together with more technically oriented courses, to form special units (sometimes departments or schools) of humanities computing within the Faculty of Arts. It is remarkable that some universities fully equipped with high level facilities and competent personnel in the field have failed to realize dedicated and coherent programs for humanities computing. Some institutions with good centres in humanities computing offer ample opportunities for highly motivated students to acquire advanced competence through individual study or optional courses, but if there is no integrated and required training in the subject, it is probable that only a minority of students will take advantage of them, and thus benefit from the full potential. Some universities have chosen the opposite point of view, by organizing courses dedicated to the students of the humanities within their computer science departments.
In recent times (but mainly in anglo-american environment!) attention has been increasingly brought on the essence of cumanities computing, investigated from the point of view of teaching and from the point of view of institutional organization. I have registered the important conference on »Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?«, held under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), at the University of Virginia  », a gathering of prominent individuals in the fields of computing and communications science, and arts and humanities research ; two contributions of Willard McCarty ; a lively discussion inside the Humanist Discussion Group , active on the internet; the book produced by the Socrates European Program, cited above; and an interesting paper by John Lavagnino .
The result of all these contributions is that the essential questions have been indicated, and most of the right answers. I shall resume the points that I consider as definitely settled, although they do not completely solve the problem which we are discussing in this paper.
These are the opinions of Willard McCarty. Just a tool: otherwise intelligent colleagues refer to the computer as »just a tool« or »simply a bunch of techniques«, as if ways of knowing did not have much to do with what is known. Because the computer is a meta-instrument – a means of constructing virtual instruments or models of knowing – we need to understand the effects of modelling on the work we do as humanists. Creative expression and mechanical analysis: What is the relationship between creative expression and mechanical analysis? What scholarly role can the algorithmic machine play in the life of the mind as practising scholars live it, and how might this role best be carried out? The effects of computing may easily be overemphazised, and often are, but we have good reason to suspect that fundamental changes are afoot. Mediation of thought by the machine: From the beginning it has been quite clear that humanities computing is centred on the mediation of thought by the machine and the implications and consequences of this mediation for scholarship. We are reminded by the cultural sea-change of which the computer is a most prominent manifestation, that our older scholarly technologies, such as alphabetic writing, the codex, and printing, are technologies, and that they also shape our thinking. Methodologies: What jumps immediately into focus is the importance of methodologies. When you teach humanities computing what immediately becomes obvious is that the only subject you have to talk about is the methodology. Computing and the humanities not separated: That computing and the humanities are fundamentally separate is an illusion caused by a lack of historical perspective and perpetuated in the discipline-based structure of our institutions. Philosophical training: In the broad sense, philosophical questions naturally arise out of a machine that mediates knowledge and whose modelling of cognition reflects back on the question of how we know what we know. Philosophical training would seem a sine qua non because of its disciplined and systematic focus on logic and critical thinking skills, as well as a concern with how to interpret diverse representations of knowledge, including what philosophers and literary critics jointly refer to as hermeneutics. Computing not purely utilitarian: The assumption that computing mimics what we already do, that it is purely utilitarian would meant that projects were thoughtlessly undertaken, software then written and put out into the field, but it seems that we can save much grief by prior thought about the questions we'd want to ask. The labour-saving myth: We know this myth to be silly; we know that only the dull, unimaginative scholar would not be inclined to do a better job with the time liberated from mechanical. We also know that the computer does not so much save labour as change the nature as well as scope of what we labour at. Research methods: We must objectify our research methods before we can compute the artefacts we study, and in so doing we bring out into the open what has formerly been hidden from view. Part of the problem has been the attitude in the humanities by which the physical bits and craftsmanship of research, its technology, are relegated to a lesser status.
Roly Sussex , about a new epistemology, observed that what is interesting about computational methods is that these methods are providing us with both a new methodology and a new epistemology. The notion of ›data‹ is undergoing a reworking. Humanists are learning to interpret statistical reports on what our software says the text is doing. This whole process is tending to bring some areas of the Humanities closer to questions of methodology in other disciplines, and indeed to make the Humanities more scientific.
Manfred Thaller : We are dealing with methods, that is, the canon (or set of tools) needed to increase the knowledge agreed to be proper to a particular academic field. Computer science is a very wide ranging field. At one extreme, it is almost indistinguishable from mathematics and logic; at another, it is virtually the same as electrical engineering. This, of course, is a consequence of the genealogy of the field. Having widely different ancestors in itself, computer science in turn became parent to a very mixed crowd of offspring. The existence of this wide variety of disciplines, related to or spun off from computer science in general, implies two things. First, there must be a core of computer science methods, which can be applied to a variety of subjects. Second, for the application of this methodological core, a thorough understanding of the knowledge domain to which it is applied is necessary. The variety of area specific computer sciences is understandable from the need for specialized expertise in the knowledge domain of each application. The core of all applied computer sciences is more than the sum of its intellectual ancestors, which may themselves be inextricably associated with particular knowledge domains. If we accept the assumption that the successful application of computational methods strongly depends on the domain of knowledge to which it is applied, then we also have to accept that applying computational methods without an understanding of that domain will be disastrous.
We conclude that it is pointless to teach computer science to humanities scholars or students unless it is not directly related to their domain of expertise. We conclude that humanities computing courses are likely to remain a transient phenomenon, unless they include an understanding of what computer science is all about.
As I said, I consider as settled the points so far examined, but this does not solve entirely the problem which we are discussing now. Before illustrating my opinion on it, it seems convenient to clarify the reason why it is important to discuss the problem, and the limits of the discussion. In fact, all this would not be worth spending our time, if it has not practical consequences in the academic organization. A discipline exists independently from the will of the scholars. It can be acknowledged or refused, but if it really exists, it cannot be either created or destroyed. Beside this, knowledge is theoretically unitarian and interdisciplinary, and the separation of the disciplines is only valid as a useful mean for teaching, and partially for research.
The proposal of a (new) discipline concerns the official academic organization of the different states. They at last are beginning to acknowledge the importance of teaching computer applications (in this case, to the humanities) to the students, but, as we have seen above, their approach is far from consistent. We must distinguish between the simple alphabetization, which may be usefully left to the ›informaticians‹, and the teaching of applications for research. In this case it is important to pose the problem of how the teachers themselves will be formed. The idea of blending mechanically some courses of general computer science with the normal, traditional courses of humanities in a curriculum is dangerous, and, for what we can assume from the present experience, disastrous.
If it is not too late, we must try and persuade the academic organizations that humanities computing as a discipline in fact exists, and how it is shaped. These are my arguments. I begin by observing that the application of computing is not the same as the application of computers. The computer as I see it, is not the type of the machine, of which the tokens are in front of us, on our desks or laps or palms, but the set of devices (not one device!) described by von Neumann, as the realisation (we add) of the Turing universal machine, along the lines of the construction of the ENIAC, EDVAC, and the Mark I.
The Turing machine is central in my approach to the problem of humanities computing, because it is the abstract, logic (I prefer to avoid the term ›mathematical‹) model underlying every realisation of a computer. Only an abstract, logic model can clarify the methodological problems raised by the meeting of humanities with the computers. In other words, I am separating the concept of a ›normal‹ machine, like the book or the typewriter or the calculator, from that of the universal machine, of the ›automaton‹ per se.
Such a view may of course be disputed, but if it is accepted, the next step is to realize that the computer may be used in two different ways: (1) to simulate the behaviour of another machine, because the computer can simulate any possible machine; (2) in its full capacity of computing machine, that is, for the peculiarity which distinguishes the computer from all other machines, which consists in the possibility to do ›computation‹ as developed in the theory of recursive functions. The first option is that adopted by those who would be content with teaching alphabetization courses. The second requires as a matter of course the institution of and independent discipline.
The distinction is important, because it helps to establish why the application of computers raises methodological problems, and to what extent it does so. Because it seems evident that when the computer is applied in the humanities only so far as it simulates (does the work of) a ›traditional‹ machine, then no new methodological problems arise, because there is no substantial difference from the traditional procedures, if not of speed and convenience.
On the contrary, when the computer is applied in its full capacity of running algorithms, humanities are confronted with a radically new situation, for which there is no commonly recognised methodology. Something new happened in the field of epistemology when A. Turing proposed his famous paper On Computable Numbers, because after it some of the rules which help to build our knowledge were changed in a basic way.
The use of computers may require (or sometimes produces) a change in our minds. I would say that the Turing machine is in fact a way of thinking, the formal way of thinking, which might have remained restricted to the discipline of mathematics, had it not given birth, as a by-product, to the computers. Although some of the elements of the new methodology were present in many disciplines before the advent of computers, the systematic use of the Turing ›scheme‹, and the possibility to use computers in humanities, is fundamentally altering part of all humanities disciplines.
In order to be used in a proper way, that is, in order that it may give good results, or in any case the wanted results, the Turing machine dictates some conditions, and particularly it dictates the formalization of reasoning, and the formalization of data. If we accept this, we understand the importance of teaching a good theory of formalization, and especially one which is valid in the field of the humanities. As often in such instances, everybody has an intuitive idea of what formalization is, but only a specialist in humanities computing can teach the right idea. Computation is introducing in the humanities new methodological concepts and procedures, especially for what concerns the formalization of problems and data representation.
On the other hand, it is easy to realise (a) that part of the humanities was ›computed‹ well before computers were used, and (b) that even where the computer is used as it were a ›common‹ machine, it imposes some constraints on the form of data, which did not exist before. The reflection on, and clarification of all these fundamental issues seems both necessary and urgent, as it is, as a consequence, the foundation of an independent scientific discipline, humanities computing, which studies the problems of formalization and models, crossing all humanities disciplines (linguistic, literature, history, archaeology, history of art, history of music), but which none of them can fully develop by itself.
(17. Mai 2002)
Proctor: Defining the Humanities. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University.
Press 1998 (IId. ed.). Another reason for me to cite this book is the
interesting part about humanities curriculum, which should be carefully
considered, although, of course, the idea to introduce humanities computing is
far from his view.
(21.4.2002), chapter 2: European studies on formal methods in the humanities.
Cf. also the list of academic centres of humanities computing by W. McCarty and
M. Kirschenbaum, in : Humanities computing units and institutional resources,
by The Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) of the National
Research Council, in an attempt to explore the complexities of
cross-disciplinary collaboration = American Council of Learned Societies,
Occasional Paper No. 41: Computing and the Humanities, cf. URL:
McCarty: Poem and Algorithm. Humanities Computing in the Life and Place of the
Mind. Keynote speech for: HumanITies. Information Technology in the
Arts and Humanities: Present Applications and Future Perspectives, The Open
University Milton Keynes 10 October 1998. W. McCarty: »We would know how we
know what we know«. In: The Transformation of Science: Research between
Printed Information and the Challenges of Electronic Networks. Max Planck
Gesellschaft, Schloss Elmau, 31 May - 2 June 1999, URL:
of Theory. Some Models for the Role of Theory in Humanities-Computing
Scholarship, abstract in: International seminars Computers, Literature
and Philology (CLiP) 06.-09.12.2001, URL:
for Computing in the Humanities, vol. 13, No. 351 (note 7).
Computing, cap. 2 (note 3).
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bibliographique : Orlandi, Tito. Is Humanities computing a discipline? Jahrbuch für Computerphilologie [en ligne], 2002, n°4, p. 51-58. Disponible sur :
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