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The Big Humanities

 Before there was big science or big data, there was big humanities. Until the last third of the nineteenth century, the natural and physical sciences imitated many of the methods and practices of the humanities, especially disciplines like philology, which pioneered techniques in data mining, the coordination of observers, and the collection and sorting of information—what Lorraine Daston terms practices of “collective empiricism.” [This post is originally from May 2014. Daston has more recently, April 2016, discussed the ‘big humanities’ in her Page Barbour Lectures at UVa. As with lots of things I think about these days, I am deeply indebted to her work and our conversations. See her “Before the Two Cultures” for a similar comparison of big science and big humanities.]

One of the most successful and long-lasting projects was led by the Berlin philologist August Böckh. In a proposal to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in 1815, Böckh and his colleagues requested funding for a long-term project to collect as completely as possible all Greek inscriptions, printed, inscribed, and holograph. Eventually published in four installments as Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum between 1828 and 1859, with an index in 1877, Böckh’s project was an organizational feat that relied on the work of hundreds of philologists over decades, and it quickly became a model for German scholarship in all fields. “The primary purpose of a Royal Academy of the Sciences,” he wrote, should be to support the type of work that “no individual can accomplish.” The project collected, stored, preserved, and evaluated data. And in Böckh’s case, the data were Greek inscriptions scattered across the Mediterranean.

Böckh’s Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum was just a prelude. In his inaugural lecture to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1858, Theodor Mommsen, one of Germany’s foremost classical scholars, declared that the purpose of disciplines like philology and history was to organize the “archive of the past.” What Mommsen had in mind, as would become evident in the kinds of projects he supported, was not some abstract archive of immaterial ideas. He wanted scholars to collect data and shape it into meticulously organized and edited printed volumes in which the “archive” would take tangible form. Work on the scales that Mommsen imagined would require international teams of scholars and the “liberation” of scholars from what he dismissed as the “arbitrary and senseless” divisions among the disciplines.

As secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Mommsen set out to institutionalize his vision of big philology, or what he termed the “large scale production of the sciences” [Grossbetrieb der Wissenschaften]. After securing a three-fold increase in the Academy’s budget, he supported a series of monumental projects. He oversaw the internationalization and expansion of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, the Latinate counterpart to Böckh’s project that sought to collect all inscriptions from across the entire Roman Empire. It eventually collected more than 180,000 inscriptions and grew to 17 volumes plus 13 supplementary volumes. Mommsen also helped church historian Adolf Harnack secure 75,000 Marks and a 15-year timeline for a project on Greek-Christian Authors of the First Three Centuries, the modest goal of which was to collect all of the hand-written manuscripts of early Christianity. Other projects included a prosopography of ancient Rome funded for a period of ten years.

Looking back on what Mommsen had accomplished for modern scholarship, the German philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf wrote:

The large scale production of science cannot replace the initiative of the individual; no one knew that better than Mommsen. But in many cases the individual will only be able to carry out his ideas through large scale production.

Theodor Mommsen, Wikipedia Commons

Figures such as Böckh and Mommsen introduced different scales to knowledge creation and different skill sets to humanistic scholarship. They developed, coordinated, and managed teams of people in order to organize huge sets of texts and data.

But to what end? What was the purpose of all this collecting, organizing, and managing? This was the question that transformed Germany’s most self-loathing philologist into a philosopher. A wunderkind trained in Leipzig, Friedrich Nietzsche was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel at the age of 24, before he had even finished his doctorate. Just as Mommsen was busy assembling the “archive of the past,” Nietzsche began to diagnose modern culture, not to mention himself, as suffering from a bad case of “academic knowledge,” or Wissenschaft.

In We Philologists, Nietzsche excoriated his fellow scholars for abdicating philology’s real task. Ultimately, he argued, philology was not about advancing knowledge or building an “archive of the past.” It was about forming stronger, healthier human beings on the model, or at least the idealized model, of the ancient and classical Greeks. The real philologist was a lover of antiquity, someone who sought to transform himself through an encounter with a superior culture. Every good and worthwhile science, he wrote, should be kept in check by a “hygienics of life”—practices by which whatever one learned could be integrated into how one lived.

Despite his stylized iconoclasm, Nietzsche was a traditional German Grecophile for whom antiquity of the Greek sort was a moral utopia. But he was also a modern scholar struggling to come to terms with the ascendant research university and what we recognize today as its basic elements: the division of intellectual labor, academic specialization, and the constant struggle to integrate new technologies and practices for sifting through and making sense of the past.

Nietzsche’s polemics against big philology were precursors to contemporary anxieties about what might become of the humanities in the digital age. Data—be it 180,000 inscriptions or hundreds of digitized novels—cannot speak for itself, but it is never incoherent. It’s always collected, organized, edited, framed, and given meaning, whether in nineteenth-century printed volumes or twenty-first century graphs. With his bombast and passions, Nietzsche made the case for values and interpretation at a moment when textual empiricism was ascendant and positivism loomed. “Yes, but how are we to live!” was his constant refrain.

The catch, of course, is that most of us aren’t Nietzsche, though arguably too many contemporary scholars of the strongly critical-theoretical bent aspire to be. Scholarship and knowledge might be better served if many such would-be master interpreters settled for the humble but necessary drudgery of collecting, annotating, and commenting on the “archive of the past,” maintaining cultural inheritances and providing invaluable grist for the equally important job of hermeneutics. We shouldn’t forget that Nietzsche the philosopher, the moral psychologist who diagnosed the ethical ills of modernity, grew out of Nietzsche the philologist, the erudite scholar who reverentially tended ancient traditions and texts.

Nineteenth-century practices of collecting and evaluating data don’t exhaust the work of the humanities, but they highlight a broader history of the humanities in which collecting and evaluating data has been a central and even noble pursuit. Thinking of the humanities and the sciences in terms of what humanists and scientists actually do might help us develop a longer history of the humanities and see continuities that simple polemics only conceal. Nietzsche and his fellow nineteenth-century philologists struggled to reconcile more interpretive methods with historical approaches, to blend pleasure and delight with critical distance, and to temper particularity with timeless value. But Nietzsche represents only one side of the debate. While his critiques of the utopian impulses of big philology were necessary correctives, he ultimately left the university and withdrew to a life in extremis, writing at the edge of lucidity and under the shadow of genius.

[Originally posted on The Infernal MachineMay 2014]

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