RLI 284 An Overview of the Digital Humanities 5 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC 2013 28 Corollary Features of the “Digital Humanities” One can easily observe the overwhelming evidence that reliance on digital tools and methods is not only increasingly pervasive and powerful in the humanities but necessary simply to deal with the fire hose of scholarly evidence that has been converted to digital form or is natively digital. Yet, respected scholars like Anne Burdick and her colleagues in their recent MIT Press book repeatedly aver that “the mere use of digital tools for the purpose of humanistic research and communication does not qualify as Digital Humanities”7 (my emphasis). What more needs to be added to what I have just argued is the primary, concise meaning of the “digital humanities”? Perhaps the aversion of practitioners and observers of the digital humanities to such a concise definition is that we have only recently emerged from an era in which critical theory dominated the humanities and downplayed, as a lesser form of scholarship in the humanities, any emphasis on methodology in the handling of evidence. The retreat under critical theory from any serious treatment of these kinds of methods in the humanities has thus left many in the field with an impoverished vocabulary about the subject, and this weakness is manifest in many discussions of the digital humanities. Part of the definitional problem is that more needs to be said about the nature of the tools and methods for interrogating evidence in the digital humanities. Fortunately, some scholars have begun systematic efforts to rehabilitate an understanding of the use of methods for evidentiary materials in the humanities. One of them is the distinguished medievalist, Stephen Nichols. In a recent article, Nichols draws on the work of philosopher John McDowell8 and makes the distinction between “how possible?” and “why possible?” questions. “How possible?” questions are the province of engineering and the sciences. “Why possible?” questions, according to Nichols, are the foundation of the humanities because they “underlie most great literature, philosophy, history, and even theology…”9 What is the significance of this distinction for an understanding of methods in the digital humanities? Nichols criticizes Burdick and the co-authors of Digital_Humanities for conceptualizing methods primarily in terms of engineering and the sciences, which typically operate in the service of “how possible?” questions. Instead, research in the humanities requires tools and methods that are appropriate to “why possible?” questions.10 Relying on the work of another philosopher, Richard Rorty,11 Nichols emphasizes that the objects of study in the humanities are characterized by “contingency” and “irony” rather than truth or falsity, and require specialized methods. These methods are, in the words of Rorty, “experimental, nondogmatic, inventive, and imaginative.” Disciplined, but not necessarily rule-based, they involve the application of “critical intelligence.”12 As Nichols summarizes the argument: “why possible?” questions “inform the dialectic between the inquiring mind and the object of investigation that critical intelligence engages when it thinks through and with contingent and ironic—that is to say, aesthetic—objects.”13 If we accept the basic distinction that Nichols makes between methods in the service of “how possible?” questions and methods in the service of “why possible?” questions, then our understanding of the digital humanities is enriched if we are then able to begin to create a typology of the disciplined methods and
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