The Place of Computation in the Study of Culture

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Introduction, in lieu of an abstract:

In the course of a somewhat weary trek through more departments and disciplines than I ever intended, it gradually dawned on me that, while there isn’t really any difference between that which is generally called “Social Science” and that which is sometimes called “the Humanities” and sometimes “the Arts,” there is a very real distinction to be drawn between two cultures of knowledge production, each of which is to be found in both of the aforementioned. There is a place for computation—that is, for mathematical calculations, executed with or without the assistance of a machine—in one of these cultures, but in the other, there is not—and I submit that wider acknowledgment of this point might be of help to that which refers to itself as “the Digital Humanities,” as its relationship to the rest of the academy continues to develop and evolve. In order to draw a line between my argument and that of C. P. Snow (1959), I shall refer to the two cultures that I have in mind as the “empirical” and the “hermeneutic.”

Under the empirical culture of knowledge production, one answers research questions that are fundamentally about the world. Some (although not all) such questions are susceptible to approach through the use of what are conventionally known as “quantitative methods”—which is to say, through the use of methods wherein the analytic stage involves computation. However, under the hermeneutic culture of knowledge production, one answers research questions that are, by contrast, fundamentally about meaning. Although there have been attempts to recast hermeneutic questions in apparently objective terms—most famously, the intentionalist argument that the only meaning that can validly be ascribed to a text is the meaning that its author demonstrably intended (see especially Hirsch 1967), and the structuralist argument that the meaning of a text is a function of its relationship to a system that can potentially be described in its entirety (see above all Culler 1975)—it remains the case that the only measure of success for an interpretation of Hamlet, the Theses on Feuerbach, or the Sermon on the Mount is its intersubjective acceptability for an audience of the interpreter’s peers. And computation has nothing to contribute under such a paradigm—unless we mean those computations which go on, unnoticed, in the background, incessantly, so that emails can take the place of the postal service and a word processor can take the place of a typewriter. But almost nobody cares about those.

That’s just the way it is, and I’m not going to waste anybody’s time by trying to change it. I’m not talking about a revolution.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Bloomsbury Handbook to the Digital Humanities
EditorsJames O'Sullivan
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Publishing
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9781350232129
Publication statusPublished - 3 Nov 2022


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