If computers cannot think better than human beings, digital humanists are left with the argument that at least they can think faster—the John Henry argument. In the essay “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Humanities,” Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell observe, “Reading Foucault and applying his theoretical framework can takes months or years of application. A web-based text analysis tool could apply its theoretical position in seconds.” Never mind that understanding that theoretical position will take more than seconds. Here are nicely encapsulated the two fundamental errors that theorizing about the revolutionary nature of digital humanities often commits. First, there is the idea that thinking humanistically is a matter of taking a framework of ideas and “applying” it to a text or a work of art. The second is the idea that applying ideas in this way leads to an external self-subsistent result, be it a theory or another book or a piece of driftwood with pictures on it.

Both of these errors derive from a false analogy between the humanities and the sciences. Humanistic thinking does not proceed by experiments that yield results; it is a matter of mental experiences, provoked by works of art and history, that expand the range of one’s understanding and sympathy. It makes no sense to accelerate the work of thinking by delegating it to a computer when it is precisely the experience of thought that constitutes the substance of a humanistic education. The humanities cannot take place in seconds. This is why the best humanistic scholarship is creative, more akin to poetry and fiction than to chemistry or physics: it draws not just on a body of knowledge, though knowledge is indispensable, but on a scholar’s imagination and sense of reality. Of course this work cannot be done in isolation, any more than a poem can be written in a private language. But just as writing a poem with a computer is no easier than writing one with a pen, so no computer can take on the human part of humanistic work, which is to feel and to think one’s way into different times, places, and minds.

« The false analogy between the humanities and the sciences: humanistic thinking is creative and it doesn't proceed by experiments »

A quote saved on Aug. 11, 2014.


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