Humanities Computing by Willard McCarty

By Willard McCarty

Humanities Computing presents a motive for a computing perform within the humanities and the interpretative social sciences. It engages philosophical, old, ethnographic and demanding views to teach how computing is helping us fulfil the elemental mandate of the humane sciences to invite ever greater questions of the main not easy sort. It strengthens present perform by way of stimulating debate at the position of the pc in our highbrow lifestyles, and descriptions an schedule for the sector to which person students around the humanities can give a contribution.

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For humanities computing and some forms of computer science, however, the philosophy is more potential than covert – much less a system of ideas, beliefs and positions revealed in the shared assumptions of a research programme than an emergent assembly of conceptual tools brought together to make sense out of practical experience. My starting point is, again, the fundamental dependence of any computing system on an explicit, delimited conception of the world or ‘model’ of it – in other words, an implementation of Weil’s ‘definite method’.

This value surfaces, Weil is saying, when useful20 Modelling 21 ness fails us, when the method we have devised in pursuit of a question runs aground on its own assumptions. There is, of course, nothing new in this. Weil’s argument is as old as philosophy. But for reasons that would take me too far afield to explore, we who use computers appear to need reminding that answers are short-term, finite byproducts of the scholarly life, not the focus of its energizing passion. Not then, not now, not ever.

But there appears now to be a basis for convergence, so it would be foolish not to make the right kind of reach. One reaches out for help, to satisfy a need, a hunger, a desire. Thus the historian of science Lorraine Daston has recently noted that apart from ‘some older work on hermeneutics’, such as Gadamer’s Truth and Method, and Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: a Curious History, we simply lack ‘an epistemology based upon the practices of humanists, on what they do’ (2004: 363). To her list one should add, among others, Carlo Ginzburg’s remarkable essay ‘Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm’ (1989/1986), on which I draw heavily in Chapter 3.

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