The use of computers in the humanities has a long and fine history. What is striking though is how lucid scholars reflected on their tools even in the earliest days. Here’s a beautiful citation by Irwin C. Lieb from a text published in the the inaugural issue of Computers in the Humanities, a journal started in 1966.

The great advances which have so far been made with computers have been in those fields where we find countable items or have ready substitutes for them. The real or seeming extraneousness of computer studies for the humanities is owed to the fact that, in the humanities, what are most important are, if items at all, items that we can’t count, or can count only most artificially. We know, for example, how little definite we mean in saying that we have two or three ideas, that there are four themes in a play, or that there were this or that number of historical events. Our “counting” is not the counting of items that were somehow there separate, waiting to be pointed out; it is a “counting” in which judgments themselves mark out what come to be the items that we count. Apart from the judgments, there are no separate items. Therefore, no technique of counting such items so as to yield, for the first time, a judgment or a summary is possible at all. But, granting that this sort of limitation is inescapable, computers could, it seems, still come to have a more vital use in the humanities than we have seen so far.


The suggestion, then, is that some of the simplest but most important work to be done in deepening the usefulness of computers for the humanities will be in imagining those schemas by which we will model what we know cannot be modeled undistortedly: — ideas, themes, events and even more importantly, insights, appraisals, and appreciations. There are, there must be, revealing models for all of these. And as we think of them, and then use them in the humanities, the achievement for us will come as we feel out just what the distortions are, as we make the right mistakes. For as we see them as mistakes, we will penetrate further and still more appreciate what we are most concerned to understand. With the possibilities for computer studies of depth and importance in the humanities seeming still so genuine, it would be a mistake, I think, to curtail our exploration of them soon.

Post filed under critique, epistemolgy.

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