The Philosophy of the Digital Humanities

David M. Berry, The Computing Turn, Thinking About the Digital Humanities, in: Culture Machine, Vol. 12, 2011

A short cut

Digital technologies mediate research. They also change underlying epistemologies and ontologies. David M. Berry, Associate Professor/Reader in Digital Media, has been thinking about this. Here a short cut of his interesting article:

Discrete encoding allows to process an object by a computer. Everything must be transformed from our reality into a code or a grid of numbers that represents this reality. Whereas the “first wave” of Digital Humanities was quantitative, the second one is “qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive [and] generative”, Berry says, following the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0: As soon as the digital infrastructures are built for the humanities, they work on digital born materials with their own “methodological toolkits” (again).

But Berry goes a step further: He thinks the “third wave of the Digital Humanities“. In this he explores “the digital component” itself, he looks at “the way in which digital technology highligts the “anomalies” in humanities research projects as close reading, canon formation or periodization  for instance. Following Presner, Berry finds himself in the midst of a transformation of the “generation, transmission, accessibility, and preservation of knowledge”. For him, there is “an undeniable cultural dimension to computation”. He seeks to problematize computationality for the university, as its new unifying idea will be the cultural importance of the digital. In short: Berry calls for a digital intellect to understand the underlying codes we are working with.

This all leads to a computational turn in the Digital Humanities. Berry agrees with Lazer et. al. that computational social science “leverages the capacity to collect and analyze data with an unprecedented breadth and depth and scale”. It will be possible to understand large scale cultural, social and political processes. In this context, Berry refers to Moretti who distinguishes a distant versus a close reading of texts. There will be a distinction between pattern and narrative as differing modes of analysis.

Berry thinks that the computational approach towards research leads to a post-disciplinary university. Computationality creates a new historical constellation of intelligibility: “If code and software are to become objects of research of the humanities, we will need to grasp both the ontic and ontological dimensions of computer codes”, he says.

We will see what this means for the Digital Humanities in future.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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