Exploring the Significance of Digital Humanities for Philosophy

On February 23, I was honored to speak at an Invited Symposium on Digital Humanities at the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division Meeting in New Orleans. Organized by Cameron Buckner, who is a Founding Project Member of InPhO and one of the leaders of the University of Houston’s Digital Humanities Initiative, the session also featured great talks by Tony Beavers on computational philosophy and David Bourget on PhilPapers.

“Join in,” by G A R N E T

One of the central questions that we explored was why philosophy seems to be less visibly engaged in digital humanities; as Peter Bradley once wondered, “Where Are the Philosophers?” As I noted in my talk, the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities has only awarded 5 grants in philosophy (4 out of 5 to Colin Allen and colleagues on the InPhO project). Although the APA conference was much smaller than MLA or AHA, I was still surprised that there seemed to be only two sessions on DH, compared to 66 at MLA 2013 and 43 at AHA 2013.

Yet there are some important intersections among DH and philosophy. Beavers pointed to a rich history of scholarship in computational philosophy. With PhilPapers, philosophy is ahead of most other humanities disciplines in having an excellent online index to and growing repository of research.  Most of the same challenges faced by philosophers with an interest in DH apply to other domains, such as figuring out how to acquire appropriate training (particularly for graduate students), recognizing and rewarding collaborative work, etc.

My talk was a remix and updating of my presentation “Why Digital Humanities?” In exploring the rationale for DH, I tried to cite examples relevant to philosophy. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a dynamic online encyclopedia that predates Wikipedia, has had a significant impact, with an average of nearly a million weekly accesses during the academic year. With CT2.0, Peter Bradley aims to create a dynamic, modular, multimedia, interactive, community-driven textbook on critical thinking. Openness and collaboration also inform the design of Chris Long and Mark Fisher’s planned Public Philosophy Journal, which seeks to put public philosophy into practice by curating conversations, facilitating open review, encouraging collaborative writing, and fostering open dialogue. Likewise, I described how Transcribe Bentham is enabling the public to help create a core scholarly resource.  I also discussed recent critiques of DH, including Stephen Marche’s “literature is not data,” the 2013 MLA session on the “dark side” of DH, and concerns that DH risks being elitist. I closed by pointing to some useful resources in DH and calling for open conversation among the DH and philosophy communities. With that call in mind, I wonder: Is it the case that philosophy is less actively engaged in digital humanities?  If so, why, and what might be done to address that gap?

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16 responses to “Exploring the Significance of Digital Humanities for Philosophy

  1. Philosophy has one of the first open-access journals, Philosophers’ Imprint (www.philosophersimprint.org), now in its 13th year. It also has a number of open access logic courses (e.g., http://www.nyu.edu/classes/velleman/blogic/Logic/), now 10 years old. [Disclosure: I am editor of the former, author of the latter.]

    Other open-access resources in philosophy include the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (ndpr.nd.edu/) and the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy (http://www.jesp.org).

    In short, philosophers are more active on the Internet than Prof. Spiro knows.

  2. There is also the OJS-based Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy (www.jhaponline.org) which is edited by Mark Textor in collaboration with Juliet Floyd, Chris Pincock, Richard Zach, Greg Frost-Arnold, Henry Jackman and Sandra Lapointe.

  3. Oh, I agree that philosophy has been a leader in the humanities in promoting open access. In my post, I mention the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and PhilPapers, but I’d also point to Peter Suber’s work and Philosophers’ Imprint. (Thanks for making me aware of the other journals.) What I’m wondering, though, is why philosophers don’t seem to be very active in the digital humanities (DH) community, at least as measured by grant awards, conference sessions, etc.

  4. There are I think good reasons why philosophy is less present than other disciplines within the digital humanities. They mostly have to do with the fact that kinds of analyses to which we submit our “data” are in general not easily replicated by algorithm. Very little of what concerns the philosophers is quantitative and data mining, for instance, has limited import help. While the scale of data is a limitation to any kind of investigation the kinds of technology that are available to humanists are of very little help when it comes to generating philosophical output. The kind of research questions with which philosophers engage require precisely the kind of intelligence that we haven’t been able to teach machines.

  5. I’ve been thinking about the question quite a bit since I’ve taken up the position of Academic Director of the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship and it also occurs to be that digital publications such as those mentioned above, while they are perfectly consistent in spirit with what drives most of the collaboration around DS and DH, remain very traditional: not only does the research involved very rarely resorts to automated techniques but the research produced is presented merely in digital versions of research that would otherwise find its way to print-based medium. When it comes to knowledge dissemination, it seems to me that the tag DS should be applied only to products that could not be supported without computers (e.g. interactive maps or graphs). But this is just a conceptual point. I think free, open access online publishing that operated under liberal copyrights licensing is the way of the future.

  6. Jonathan Webber

    I am a philosopher with a Digital Humanities project ready to roll, but it needs funding and I can’t find anyone offering it in the UK. Anyone know something I don’t?

  7. David and Sandra,

    In Lisa’s defense, she did review a number of other projects in her presentation not mentioned here. It’s always hard to mention everyone, and venues like Philosopher’s Imprint and NDPR are surely success stories. However, the main question of the session, as Lisa noted, was why more philosophers aren’t going “DH-branded”–applying for NEH grants from the Office of Digital Humanities, attending DH conferences and THATCamps, listing digital experience on resumes, etc. While the NEH has made the name “digital humanities” all but inevitable in the U.S., donning the mantle is implicitly advocating for a reorganization of priorities—and whether philosophy should do this, and why it hasn’t already as aggressively as the other humanities, is an interesting question indeed.

    I reviewed a number of possible explanations for our discipline’s reluctance in my introduction. These included some of the obvious practical problems, such as a lack of a grant-writing tradition in philosophy and problems in valuing work for promotion and tenure. But these tensions exist in other humanities, and so can’t explain the asymmetry. I’ve also heard some explanations that I think can be dismissed out of hand—such as that philosophy is more resistant to fads (ha!) or less threatened than the other humanities by recent financial crises and concerns about preparing humanities graduates for an increasingly computerized world.

    I think three more interesting possible explanations are that (1) philosophers are more methodologically skeptical than other humanities, (2) philosophers have long integrated computational methods in their work and so don’t need a revolution, and (3) the practice of philosophy is somehow more bound to traditional text-based approaches than other humanities. The first answer has some appeal, but other methodological revolutions such as X-Phi seem to be thriving, at least as measured by disciplinary footprint (though perhaps we as a discipline can only process one methodological revolution at a time). Tony Beavers explored the second answer in his presentation (available online–http://badhumanist.blogspot.com/2013/03/computational-philosophy-its-place-in.html). I think there’s certainly something to this answer, though philosophers tend to underestimate the rich tradition of “humanities computing” that exists in other humanities like English, History, and the Classics.

    The third explanation is also interesting and probably the most significant, I think, though I suspect we’re just suffering from a collective failure of imagination. Graduate training in philosophy so relies upon heavy reading loads and perfection of the art of the term paper that it can seem inevitable that textual dialectic is essential to the practice of philosophy. When we compare the familiar methods of reading and writing to some of the more recent computational methods and visualizations, the former can seem a transparent window on philosophical truth and the latter comparatively opaque and bewildering. But surely the art of reading and writing text is itself merely another technology, and there is no essential link between traditional text-based methods and philosophical truth. As Tony’s presentation noted, there are scads of interesting ways to apply computational techniques to philosophical problems. And many more wait on the horizon for someone who can combine a deep familiarity with philosophical problems with methodological creativity (and also with, let’s be honest, a heavy dose of professional risk).

    Moving forward, you’re quite right to note that machines appear to lack the kind of intelligence required to solve philosophical problems. But that’s not what’s proposed by any melding of DH and Philosophy that I’m aware of. A different approach would be to use computers to help us see patterns, argument forms, implications, or comparisons that are philosophically relevant, but that would be difficult or impossible to appreciate unaided. This is how DH typically works in other disciplines; in digital history projects, computational methods don’t interpret history for the historians, but rather lay out the patterns of history in a way that makes richer interpretations possible. In digital philosophy, it will still be up to us to interpret any patterns we find and say why they matter to truth, justice, beauty, consciousness, life, meaning, etc.; but if you go through the examples in the presentations, I think you’ll find that the idea that computers can help us make philosophical progress is not as far-fetched as it might have initially seemed.

    (I can’t help but end by plugging some of the fascinating comparative work of new folks on the InPhO project—see our Data Blog here: http://inpho2.cogs.indiana.edu/datablog/ .)

  8. Pingback: Philosophy’s relatively limited digital presence compared to other humanities fields

  9. Hi Jonathan,
    What’s the gist of the project? Have you looked at JISC?
    Some other thoughts here: http://www.digitalhumanities.cam.ac.uk/funding .

  10. Dear all,

    I think this is a very interesting subject. The research group of which I am a member is currently conducting some DH projects in the (history) of philosophy (Interactive Maps and text mining).

    We do not quite understand why philosophers are so little represented in DH, nor why few philosophers employ computational tools.

    Is it really true, as Sandra Lapointe claims, that “Very little of what concerns the philosophers is quantitative and data mining, for instance, has limited import help”? What is the evidence for this claim?

    There is many research in the history and philosophy of science in which scholars take into account vast amounts of data. I would think that computers (which, as Cameron points out, allow us to detect patterns in large data sets) can significantly aid this kind of research. Ordinary language philosophy may perhaps be helped by large scale analysis of linguistic corpora. Maybe quantitative analysis provides additional support and evidence for interpretations developed in the history of philosophy. And perhaps computers can provide philosophers of science tools to study conceptual change.

    We should not, in any case, dismiss these possibilities a priori. Rather, I would think that philosophers should get engaged and ask themselves the question how DH can aid their research. I have not, however, seen many philosophers tackle such methodological questions. This is a pity, because these methodological questions relate to very traditional philosophical problems: what is the method of philosophy? What is evidence? and so forth. I would think philosophers should be ideally suited to invistigate the potential of Dh methods for their field.

  11. Pingback: Is philosophy digitally significant compared to other humanities? | It's a Simpler Philosophy

  12. @Jonathan: as to funding: I only have experience with EU funding, but in addition to DH calls such as Digging into Data or similar, I’d say: just join forces with a a computer science/computational linguistics group, develop proposals together with them, and submit them either together or alone (as requested by the scheme) for their (disciplinary) and your (disciplinary) funding. This is what I/my group (= Hein’s above, Axiom Group at VU University Amsterdam, we do (history of) philosophy with a history-of-ideas approach) did so far. We are now involved in three funded digital humanities projects and developing another four or five. We just hired our first computational linguist to help us understand more and better what tools we need or we should tweak, develop and calibrate, and are greatly excited about it. I should also say that it is all quite challenging – when I started going into this direction a couple of years ago I often felt there was nobody to turn to. But then came twitter :)
    http://axiom.vu.nl/digitalphilosophy.html

  13. Philosopherspipe.com aggregates and categorizes philosophy podcasts from many sources.

  14. The Digital HPS Consortium has a new website up, and is worth exploring. http://digitalhps.org/

  15. I think the discussion in this blog post is in itself a demonstration why philosophers aren’t perceived as dh-people – although a number of people work on such projects, they begin a discussion of the topic in a blog that is not run by a philosopher. The attitude of the philosophical blogosphere towards DH is nicely summarized in this Leiter “post” that made me really angry: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/02/digital-humanities-scholarship.html So I heartily invite the commenters here to present their projects at my blog (http://emto.tumblr.com). You can easily get in contact with me via the social web channels mentioned there (fb, g+ twitter). Or you comment on my recent post on visualizations in philosophy. ;)

  16. Pingback: InPhO and Open Access | InPho Data Blog

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