Humanities computing?

Willard McCarty (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Sun, 20 Aug 1995 15:28:06 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 105.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities
Princeton and Rutgers

[1] Subject: humanities computing
From: Willard McCarty <>
Size: 33 lines

From: Willard McCarty <
Date: Sun, 20 Aug 1995 10:15:55 -0400
Subject: humanities computing

The (for some) drowsy days of mid August are perhaps not the best time to
raise a topic of broad interest, but like the fool with money in his pocket,
I cannot exercise restraint. I have some hope that not all of us are retired
to our villas in Tuscany or Umbria but are, perhaps, seeking relief from the
summer doldrums in a nice, stimulating discussion, e.g. about humanities

I begin with a quotation from a paper in worthy volume of conference
proceedings, <t>Linguaggi nella societa\ e nella tecnica (Milano: Edizioni
di communita\, 1970)</t>:

"One may wonder whether computer science is really a discipline of
its own, or whether it is merely a series of loosely connected
techniques drawn together from different sources. It is quite
certain, however, that digital computers provide a fruitful
contact area between many different kinds of human activity."
(Ole Johan Dahl, "Decomposition and classification in programming
languages", p. 371)

Sound familiar? I suspect that our distinction between what constitutes a
"discipline" and what does not is highly arbitrary or is based on factors
extrinsic to the area of study. (Not that these extrinsic factors invalidate
a discipline created to serve them, but we should be clear about what we
mean by a "discipline" and under what conditions we recognize one.) In any
case, I am wondering if we can justify the practice of humanities computing.
Another, and perhaps more fruitful way of asking the same question is, what
properly belongs to humanities computing as such? What is not the proper
pursuit, for example, of a specialist in French literature but has not yet
found a home in that department?

I know, we have all hashed this one out many times. The big topics are few,
however, and bear revisiting from time to time as -- let me be the optimist
-- our understanding of the field deepens.



Willard McCarty, Centre for Computing in the Humanities (Toronto)
(416) 978-3974 voice (416) 978-6519 fax