„Digital Humanities“ and Cultural Sciences: Πραξις · τέχνη · θεωρία · ἐπιστήμη ? Practice – Technology – Theory – Science?

Peter Grzybek

Emergence and impact of Digital Humanities (DH) over the last years are indisputable. On the one hand, this has been celebrated as a true paradigmatic shift: occasionally, even the notions of a “digital turn” or “computational turn” (in analogy to linguistic, spatial, visual, and other turns) have been discussed in the last years. In this context, an empirical turnaround has been (pro)claimed for the humanities, attempting to take leave from traditional hermeneutic (individual) research. On the other hand, doubt and critique as to the claims and procedures of DH have been brought forth, aiming at the quality of their approaches, which are seen as genuinely reductive, due to the restriction to computer-based devices of analysis and abstraction; these procedures lack, in this view, the element of “interpretation and meaning understanding”, still seen as essential for (digital) humanities.

In context of these discussions, it is conspicuously clear that the ideas about the status of DH are diffuse and yield a disparate picture, oscillating between the application of traditional methods from the humanities to digital objects, on the one hand, and the application of digital techniques to traditional research objects of the humanities. As a consequence, the spectrum of (proto)typical DH fields of work and research ranges from the theory of digital media, over the design of electronical texts and corpora (data bases, visual archives, etc.), or the visualization of complex data structures, to descriptive or eventually theory-driven analyses of data and material. In this sense, DH are insufficiently differentiated, indeed; after all, and from a pessimistic (if not provocative) perspective, the various attempts to conceptualize or even define them have but one trait in common: namely, that DH deal, in one way or another, with computers.

In this address, it will be argued in favor of seeing the balancing act outlined above as a continuation of the traditional dilemma of human sciences in general, to arrive, on the basis of a generally accepted (or at least acceptable) theory of science, at a self-definition and legitimation which, since Wilhelm Dilthey’s fundamental writings in the 19th century, has been predominantly grounded either on allegedly specific objects (“data”), or on allegedly specific methods (“analyses”). Taking the perspective of a theory of science, different positions of DH will be analyzed; different levels of DH will be distinguished, none of which is ‘better’ or ‘more important’ than any of the others, but all of which belong, in one way or another, to the complex business of the (human) sciences. Special emphasis will be laid on the analysis of concrete examples from various fields of the humanities, including language and text, film, and music. Examples from the Distant Reading approach as well as from Quantitative text and film analysis will be discussed. Referring to these analyses, it shall be shown which requirements DH must meet and fulfil, claiming to be a scientific discipline (incl. specific theory formation), and which boundaries are expected to be met in this endeavor.