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Humanist Archives: Nov. 5, 2019, 6:14 a.m. Humanist 33.373 - what is...

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 373.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Michael Piotrowski 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.372: what is...? (58)

    [2]    From: Manfred Thaller 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.372: what is...? (17)

        Date: 2019-11-04 22:54:28+00:00
        From: Michael Piotrowski 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.372: what is...?

On 2019-11-04, Willard McCarty  wrote:

> Comments?

Personally, I think the refusal of large parts of the “digital
humanities” to even discuss what they mean by “digital humanities” is
one of the biggest problems that plague the field, in several respects.

For some reason, many people seem to believe that a definition has to be
either a complete, exhaustive account of everything that is currently
being done under this heading, or some kind of ontological definition of
its essence or “true nature.”  Neither is possible, nor is it what is
required.  What we rather need is an explication that makes clear what
we intend to understand by this term.  Even though consensus is
desirable, different explications are certainly possible; what is
important—at least at this point—is to be explicit and internally

If anyone’s interested, here is my explication of digital humanities:

  Piotrowski, M., (2018).  Digital Humanities: An Explication.  In:
  Burghardt, M. & Müller-Birn, C. (eds.), INF-DH-2018.  Bonn: GI.  DOI:

I thus clearly don’t believe that “the humanities elude definition.”
Rather, my impression is that many scholars seem to abhor clarity and
explicitness.  Of course humanities disciplines are “defined,” just
rarely explicitly—but when one talks to scholars one quickly finds out
what belongs to their discipline and what not.

Thank you for mentioning grant applications; they are a good case in
point.  If you refuse to define what you’re doing, how do you ensure
that your proposal receives a fair and competent review?  Most funding
agencies associate reviewers with disciplines, and the disciplines come
from lists that are effectively closed.  If what you’re doing is
actually well situated in an established discipline then, sure, you can
act mysteriously and remain vague about what you mean by “digital
humanities”—it certainly sounds more interesting than “we’re using a
computer.”  For those of us who think there is more to it, however, this
attitude is disastrous and will eventually hurt the whole field.  It’s
already hard enough to get funding for interdisciplinary research (the
Swiss National Science Foundation, for example, explicitly excludes
interdisciplinary research from all but one of its funding instruments).
Getting politicians, administrators, and funding agencies to recognize
that DH can be a serious endeavor worth funding is not easy.  I don’t
think boasting how ill-defined DH is will help us with this challenge,
nor do I see why DH would have to be ill-defined.

Best regards

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Michael Piotrowski 
Professeur en humanités numériques · Université de Lausanne
Codirecteur académique du dhCenter UNIL-EPFL
☎︎ +41 21 692-3039 · Quartier Chamberonne, bât. Anthropole, bureau 3137
OpenPGP public key 0x926877BF1614A044

        Date: 2019-11-04 09:43:45+00:00
        From: Manfred Thaller 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.372: what is...?

Dear Willard,
> Another answer, specific to the humanities, is that
> the disciplines thus named can only be defined by what they are not:
> formerly, not the study of the affairs proper to God (that's theology);
> now, not the study of the physical world, nor the study of society.
are you sure, there is anything human - or Human - that can be
understood outside society?

ἐστιν ἄνθρωπος ζῷον πολιτικόν ...


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