The New Republic does not like the digital humanities. Following Leon Wieseltier’s earlier diatribes, Adam Kirsch recently warned that the digital humanities and their “technology” were taking over English departments. Kirsch posed some reasonable questions: Are the digital humanities a form of technological solutionism? No, not withstanding the occasionally utopian strand. Are the digital humanities “post-verbal”? With all their graphs, charts, and network visualizations do they aspire to a discourse of mere pictures and objects? No and no. With all their generously funded projects, are they embracing the “market language of productivity to create yet another menacing metric for the humanities?” A good question that deserves thoughtful responses (here and here).
But Kirsch’s essay isn’t really about the digital humanities. It’s about the humanities more broadly and Kirsch’s truncated and ahistorical vision of what they ought to be. The problem with the digital humanities, he writes, is that they go against the “nature of humanistic work.” And their errant ways
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.
Kirsch pits the technologically unadorned humanities that produce subjective experiences against the technology-dependent sciences that produce mere facts. This simple, and false, dichotomy manages to slight both at once, and to obscure more than it clarifies.
In fact, this humanities-sciences dichotomy is relatively recent. And as it turns out, the humanities itself is a relatively recent term, seldom used before the nineteenth century. The OED lists the first use as 1855 in a reference to music as of “the humanities.” Google’s NGram keyword search shows a marked increase in the prevalence of the term around 1840, just as the natural and physical sciences were becoming ascendant in universities.
Today’s distinctions between the digital humanities and the humanities proper has its longer history in these nineteenth-century divisions. For well over a century now, one of the dominant notions of the humanities, in the academy at least, is one that cast them squarely against the natural sciences. And this conception of the humanities, which has since gained wider influence in the culture at large, was first articulated by the late nineteenth-century German scholar Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey distinguished the human sciences [Geisteswissenschaften] from the “natural” sciences [Naturwissenschaften].
The Geisteswissenchaften, claimed Dilthey, studied the inner workings of mental facts – that is, the internal processes of human experience (Kirsch’s beloved mental experiences). For this internal realm, the freedom and autonomy of the subject were central and, thus, the primary objects of inquiry.
The natural sciences, by contrast, studied material processes governed by natural laws and the mechanisms of cause and effect. For Dilthey, humanities scholars don’t count, measure, or seek patterns; they seek to understand what motivates canonical historical figures who produce works of art and other artifacts of culture (Kirsch’s struggle to understand not just explain Auerbach’s Mimesis, for example). The human sciences explain phenomena from within, the natural sciences from without.
Dilthey’s efforts to distinguish sharply between the two forms of inquiry were in large part meant to resist the rising influence of the natural sciences in nineteenth-century German universities and, above all, the influence of positivism: the notion that we can have knowledge only of phenomena (the only possible knowledge is of an endless series of facts). Like Dilthey, Kirsch’s embrace of a very particular and limited notion of the humanities is reactionary. But whereas Dilthy feared the pervasive and corrosive effects of positivism, Kirsch fears the utopian delusions of technological solutionism.
These simple oppositions—the humanities versus the sciences—confuse more than they enlighten and, in a timeless irony, produce deeply anti-humanistic polemics. They also ignore the historical fact that the humanities and humanistic inquiry more broadly have not only been concerned with particular human artifacts (one painting, one poem, one piece of music) but also, as Dutch scholar Rens Bod recently put it, patterns and principles to make sense of and enjoy these artifacts.
The kinds of things that humanists actually do when they engage products of human creativity, their practices, have always been bound up with efforts to make connections and generalize. From Lorenzo Valla’s careful and methodological debunking of the Donatio Constantini (On the Donation of Constantine) in 1440 to Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis in 1946, humanists of all kinds have relied on particular notions of method, evidence, verification, and argument, just as the natural and physical sciences have relied on intuition and creativity.
We need a history and vision of the humanities capacious enough to see the humanities not as a particular method or set of disciplines but as a disposition, as a way of engaging the world. What follows in subsequent blogs are short, polemical (in the best sense, I hope) steps toward such a history.