Digital Humanities In Philosophy: What’s Helpful & What’s Hype?


“I must say, it is rather addictive, and sometimes really satisfying.”

That’s Massimo Pigliucci (CUNY) writing at Plato’s Footnote about the digital humanities—in that line, specifically about using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which, he adds, “philosophers make surprisingly little use of.”

In his post, Pigliucci notes that philosophers were among the early adopters of some forms of digital humanities: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example (the start of which predates Wikipedia), and one of the very first online open-access journals, Philosophers’ Imprint. And new examples have sprung up, such as PhilPapers, InPhO, and other journals, like Ergo. See here for more examples of digital humanities in philosophy.

But how useful are some of the newer tools for philosophy? Pigliucci writes, skeptically:

Just like in any discussion of “the old fashioned ways” vs the “new and exciting path to the future,” there is hype and there is curmudgeonly resistance. An example of the first one—in the allied field of literary criticism—is perhaps an article by Bill Benzon (2014), which begins by boldly stating that “digital criticism is the only game that’s producing anything really new in literary criticism.” It is obvious to retort that new may or may not have anything at all to do with good, however.

The standard example mentioned in this context is the work of Stanford University Franco Moretti, a champion of heavily data-based so-called “distant reading.” The idea, which can easily be transferred to philosophy (though, to my knowledge, has not been, yet) is that instead of focusing on individual books (classical, or “close” reading), one can analyze hundreds or thousands of books at the same time, searching for patterns by using the above mentioned Ngram Viewer or similar, more sophisticated, tools. It seems, however, that this cannot possibly be meant to replace, but rather to complement the classical approach, unless one seriously wants to suggest that we can understand Plato without reading a single one of his dialogues, for instance.

Still, they could be of some value:

Distant reading is not the only approach that legitimately qualifies as an exercise in the Digital Humanities, and an interesting paper by Goulet (2013) is a good example of the potential value of DH for scholarship in philosophy. The author presents some preliminary analyses of data from a database of ancient Western philosophers, spanning the range from the 6th Century BCE to the 6th Century CE. The survey concerns about 3,000 philosophers, confirming some well known facts, as well as providing us with novel insights into that crucial period of the history of philosophy. For instance, it turns out that about 3.5% of the listed philosophers were women—a small but not insignificant proportion of the total. Interestingly, most of these women were associated with Epicurus’ Garden or with the Stoics of Imperial Rome. Goulet was able to identify a whopping 33 philosophical schools in antiquity, but also to show quantitatively that just four played a dominant role: the Academics-Platonists (20% of total number of philosophers), the Stoics (12%), the Epicureans (8%), and the Aristotelian-Peripatetics (6%), although he notes an additional early peak for the Pythagoreans (13%), whose influence rapidly waned after the 4th Century BCE. Goulet is able to glean a wealth of additional information from the database, information that I would think from now on ought to be part of any serious scholarly discussion of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy.

The whole post is here. Discussion welcome.

ngram sample 3

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