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Humanist Archives: May 24, 2021, 6:47 a.m. Humanist 35.38 - interdisciplinary

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 38.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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    [1]    From: Manfred Thaller <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.35: interdisciplinary (91)

    [2]    From: Willard McCarty <>
           Subject: strategies towards interdisciplinary work (46)

        Date: 2021-05-22 13:23:56+00:00
        From: Manfred Thaller <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.35: interdisciplinary

Dear Tim, Dear Max, Dear Willard,
allow me a few words of clarification.

Yes, we absolutely need disciplines. If I would be in a punning mode,
I'd simply say without them there would not be any possibility to be

<emph>Why</emph> we need them, may be more controversial, actually. For
me whose mother discipline is history for a rather simple reason.

Professional historians - different from amateurs and activists of ANY
stripe - are required to have two mild mental disorders. They should
have a mild case of paranoia, holding the suspicion that each and every
source has been created specifically to mislead them, mixed with equally
mild schizophrenia allowing them to suspect their own mind formed by
contemporary society possibly joining the conspiracy of the sources.
For me very much follows from that: A strict belief in the necessity of
thorough training in the artisanal parts of handling source material on
the one hand; great difficulties to take Hayden White or Frank Ankersmit
serious, on the other, both having never encountered the nitty gritty
of  somebody else's contemporality and pontificating about the way how
other people handled their encounters with it.

I have the feeling I am not really alone in that. There's an interesting
study by a young researcher, his doctoral thesis: Daniel Plenge:
Geschichtswissenschaften, Sozialontologie und Sozialtheorie, Metzler,
2019. He fills roughly 600 densely printed pages to clarify the
relationship between historiography, philosophy of history, and theory
of history. (Note: the difference between "Geschichtsphilosophie" and
"Geschichtstheorie" is clearer than the one between philosophy of
history and theory of history.) Short summary: historians almost never
read philosophers of history; philosophers of history read historians
even less frequently.

Part of the reason for that may be an observation by a rather prominent
theoretician of history, who was an exception to the rule above, as he
also wrote quite substantively on Polish history: "The gradient between
their [the historians, MT] philosophical opinions and their practice is
an ubiquitous phenomenon."
Jerzy Topolski: Narrare la storia. Nuovi principi di metodologia
storica. Con la collaborazione di Raffaello Righini, Milano, 1997, 53.
(Translated by me from Plenge's German translation - apologies.)

As a private observation: Whensoever you are confronted by historians
invoking the glories of hermeneutics against "digital methods" what most
of them really mean is: Why should I bother to do things differently
than I have done so far? Just try to probe almost any of these
enthusiastic hermeneuticians about any detail of Dilthey, Gadamer and Co.

Enough on history.

The position described makes me an enthusiast for well defined academic
disciplines, understood by me as an intellectual agenda together with a
work program on how to pursue this well defined agenda under an accepted
standard of evaluation.

But precisely this opinion, that we need clear disciplinary standards in
the Humanities make me an absolute fan of interdisciplinarity. The
clearer disciplines are defined, the greater the danger that huge areas
of the problem space formed by the world we live in, are left in the
dark, and the greater the need to look at such areas with a combination
of professional standards drawn from more than one discipline. Those
areas deserve our professionality at least as much as those covered by
traditional disciplines.

And, sorry Tim, but I have very great difficulty finding all that much
professionality in the "digital" branch of huge parts of the "Digital
Humanities" as they are. Or not so much in the digital part, but in the
understanding of some of the implications of employing the technologies
underlying those parts - and their true potential.

This is not intended to depreciate anybody's work. If historians use
vague labels to avoid having to think about their methodological
assumptions, digital humanists may, of course, employ the same
evasionary tactic as historians. As I dislike this tactic in history, I
reserve the right however, to dislike it in the digital humanities at
least as strongly. And in the later case the most widespread use of
"interdisciplinary" is exactly such a label. (And, sorry again,
"transdisciplinary" or "co-disciplinary" are no improvement in my view.)

And polemicizing against this empty labeling was exactly the point of my
first answer to Willard.

Nice Sunday,

Prof. em. Dr. Manfred Thaller
Zuletzt Universität zu Köln /
Formerly University at Cologne

        Date: 2021-05-24 05:39:37+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: strategies towards interdisciplinary work

The question I posed a few days ago about interdisciplinary work in
digital humanities (or indeed in any other discipline) was mischievous
by intent, as some of my questions are. My aim in being mischievous is
not (as a member of this seminar once charged) to 'troll' the group but
to provoke a discussion. And that has indeed been the result! But, if I
may, I'd like now to turn serious (with a twinkle, of course) and make a
few points about the topic of interdisciplinary work that I hope will
withstand the slings and arrows of outraged intelligence.

First of all, interdisciplinary research cannot happen, or at least be
done well enough to qualify as scholarship, unless the person attempting
it is thoroughly grounded in some discipline. Disciplines in my view,
for what it's worth, are starting points. But as in a traditional
apprenticeship, one has to spend much time under tutelage to one or
another of them before hazarding the open fields Gillian Beer writes
about. Being awarded a PhD just means that you've started that

Second, there is no resting place, no neutral ground, no mountain top,
no panopticon from which all other disciplines can be viewed. (Read
Foucault on the image of the panopticon.) That's why "being
interdisciplinary is so very hard to do", as Fish wrote, meaning
impossible, and why the claim to 'interdisciplinarity' is vacuous and
may become a delusion of grandeur. Being is not the point, becoming is.

And the further point of my question, apart from just stirring the pot,
was to start us talking about which disciplines we need to make intimate
friends with in order to grow digital humanities, to inform the digital,
rather than merely to apply it willy-nilly to whatever area of life it
has impacted. I think that before we can have much of importance to say,
we have to ask what 'digital' is, exactly how it is made, what the
tradeoffs are, what these tradeoffs mean for other disciplines, how the
digital, esp in the form of intelligence made by art, can be developed
to become of the humanities (and other human sciences).

But sparks from the anvil are the point here, not impregnable bunkers --
or so I dream.


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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