Been reading over what I believe is one of the better stabs at getting to the essence of the digital humanities. It’s a piece called “Towards a Conceptual Framework for the Digital Humanities” (scroll down) by Paul S. Rosenbloom. It has appeared in a couple of places — in an issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ 6,2) and in Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan and Edward Vanhoutte.
He says that his enterprise
requires some understanding of computing, the humanities, and the philosophy of science
Without coming across as too arrogant, it has long been obvious to me that the definitional debates in the digital humanities will progress nowhere until philosophy and philosophers are engaged; and similarly that philosophy will remain adrift until it engages with the impact of the digital on our world. It is great to see Rosenbloom acknowledge this in part — few seem to. Considering that the entirety of science used to be called natural philosophy not so long ago you’d think this much would have been obvious to almost any academic, but apparently not.
His definition of scientific is
any enterprise that tends to increase our understanding of the world over time
and this definition is a lot looser than and shifts the focus away from the idea of science as synonymous with the scientific method and falsifiability and what have you; away from Popper basically. Witness, “This is more akin to Lakatos’s concept of a progressive research programme [Lakatos 1978] than to Popper’s focus on falsifiability [Popper 1959]” In his essay there is then some clarification and sculpting, the details are unnecessary here. Go read it. He name checks Kuhn and Feyerabend — Kuhn with approval, Feyerabend with disapproval. Because Rosenbloom focuses on the increase to our understanding (what would we call this focus?) and not on the scientific method he is comfortable with an, as he calls it, methodological pluralism but states that he stops short of epistemological anarchy. A lovely phrase.
Rosenbloom distinguishes four great scientific domains, the physical sciences, the life sciences, the social sciences and computing science. The notion of shaping comes into play here, a notion that moves beyond understanding. He goes on to say,
Broadly, a great scientific domain concerns the understanding and shaping of the interactions among a coherent, distinctive, and extensive body of structures and processes.
There’s a lot to take in here. The physical sciences have as their concern matter and energy. The life sciences focus on living beings. The social sciences concern themselves with, as he says,
humans, their products, and their cognitive and social processes
Finally, computing focuses on information in its various guises.
For him the humanities is seen as a subdomain of the larger domain of social sciences. (Mathematics is a part of theoretical computing, by the way, in this view of things.) In a similar way the digital is a feature of computing science. So for Rosenbloom the digital humanities can best be conceptually analysed through how these two great scientific domains interact.
I have skipped a lot already — we are about a half way through the essay. I have neglected much of Rosenbloom’s discussion on method. He claims that each domain has methods particular to it, that methods can be ranked and so on. I won’t go into the details or we’ll be here all day, have a look at them yourself. Let’s move on to what Rosenbloom calls a relational analysis of the digital humanities. The quote in full,
The relational architecture provides a means of analyzing scientific topics and disciplines in terms of the great scientific domains they involve and the relationships among these domains that are implicated. It also provides a vehicle for systematically investigating the space of interdisciplinary overlaps that can occur among domains.
He has developed something quite formal and novel, what he calls the Metascience Expression Language. We have the variables:
- P denotes physical
- L denotes life
- S denotes social
- C denotes computing
- H denotes humanities. As he says, “H understood to be a subdomain of S (H ⊂ S)”
- + denotes a generic relationship of some sort or type, it is not really used, instead we use
- / which denotes implementation, and
- ↔ which denotes (bidirectional) interaction
Be combinatorial manipulation you can see that we’ll get  H/C and  C/H; and H↔C (or equivalently C↔H) which decompose into  (H→C) and  (C→H). What do these four distinct operations mean?
When computing implements the humanities (H/C) we get digital cultural artifacts, such as digital paintings, sculptures in virtual environments, immersive experiences, and digital books. […] In addition, all computing artifacts can themselves be viewed as (implementing) cultural artifacts even if there was no such intention when they were constructed. The area of critical code studies, for example, views conventional computer programs as cultural artifacts, and applies the humanities’ analytical methods to aid in deriving a more complete contextual understanding of them [Marino 2006]
the largely static nature of the humanities means that it cannot generally yield a full implementation of computing (C/H) — a book or a painting simply cannot compute all by itself
Again, I’m omitting a whole swathe of arguments in order to make speedy progress.
In the digital humanities, flow from the humanities to computing represents the automated computational analysis of cultural artifacts (H→C); for example, determining clustering of authors based on their literary styles [Luyckx, Daelemans and Vanhoutte 2006]. It could even be considered to include recent work on machine reading, where computers automatically extract meaning from text [Etzioni 2007].
In the reverse direction, a flow from computing to the humanities represents computational composition (C→H). This is an area still in its infancy, but that already includes, for example, computational composition of simple poems [Manurung 2000], stories [Pérez y Pérez 2007] and drawings [McCorduck 1990]
Rosenbloom finishes with a comparison with Svennson’s “five major modes of engagement between computing and the humanities” from Svennson’s 2010 essay “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” which appeared (again) in Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ 4,1). I won’t go into the comparison here.
This piece is already quite long — because I want to keep it brief I fear I may have introduced many an imprecision and not done it justice. This is important but unfortunate because now I am going to offer a little critique of the piece and put forward a conceptual analysis of my own.
But that is for another day.