Origin of Digital Humanities in the Western World


In the beginning, there was the word and the word was Philosophy.

Just after the height of Aristotelian ideology, Philosophy broke away to become a variety of disciples that branched out further. One such was technê, and another was epistêmê. There were many others, but these two are important for understanding the computational humanities as an interdisciplinary field of its own. In general, however, according to Greek philosophy, there are five main virtues of thought:

  • Technê (craft)
  • Epistêmê (knowledge)
  • Phronêsis (practical prudence)
  • Sophia (skillful wisdom)
  • Nous (truthful erudition)

Epistêmê is the Greek word most often translated as knowledge, while technê is translated as either craft or art. The difference between knowledge and art at first glance might seem subtle. Plato famously described Knowledge to be justified true belief (JTB). Knowledge, therefore, is supposed to be a quantifiable evidence that supports the testimony from first-person observation. The application of this knowledge for the production of any new object is a practice. When you practice anything for long enough, it is an art. When further knowledge is derived from this practice, it can be observed to be a science, with a regulated body governing the rules and setting universal precedents.

Further down the timeline, knowledge split into various disciplines. One discipline, the Humanities came to the forefront, perhaps most popularly, during the Renaissance era. Derived from the Renaissance Latin expression studia humanitatis, or “study of humanitas” the term was used for all the arts and sciences known to mankind. Today this includes, but is not limited to Anthropology, Archaeology, Classics, History, Linguistics and languages, Law and politics, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Performing arts, and the Visual arts. These are loosely defined as “the humanities”, or, as is more familiar in my part of the world, “the arts.”

While technically, technology or the instrumentality as a way of getting things done is from the Greek technikon (which in turn is derived from technê), Heidegger argues that technê is closer to poeisisPoiesis is the act of bringing forth that which did not exist before. Technê, by this definition, refers to all kinds of manufacturing – practical tools to poetry.

Technology further can be distinguished between software and hardware. Each requires its own expertise to be operated on. So what do the humanities think of Technology now?

There is a rift here. When you apply to a college, you are asked to apply for a particular field, and these are broadly categorized under Arts, Pure Sciences, Engineering, Law, Finance, and Management. Technology majors are found especially under Engineering tab. One could argue that technology is so omnipresent, it is naturally existent in all fields, but the creation or development of the modern technology itself is relegated to Science and Engineering technology. How did this come to be?

History of Philosophy
Source: SuperScholar.org/

It is this omnipresence that I am investigating. Or rather, the lack of omnipresence of modern technology in the field of Humanities. Be it Management (Fintech, Banking solutions, Accounting applications), or the pure sciences (Healthcare software), nowhere else has there been such a defense against the application of technology for the propagation of knowledge – than in the Humanities. There is a traditionalist perseverance to preserve the method of processing information in front of a scholar – only via his eyes and capabilities

Fear of technology is pervasive, the maker’s creation becoming a maker has been parodied and succinctly observed in several films all over the world. How is it that humanistic scholars have been resistant to change, even more so? Is it because the so-called pure Humanities subjects, Literature, Linguistics, and languages are considered more humane in nature? The romanticization of antiques, vintage curios, includes a fond nostalgia for the days of yore like the Renaissance – which is still considered the one true Age of Reasoning and Age of Questioning.

The fear of machine over man – The inverse of this conception, now commonly heard, is that the instrument has taken control of its maker, the creation control of its creator (Frankenstein’s monster) – has thus far impeded progress.

Clark, 2000

What would Aristotle and Kant think of Digital Humanities?

Federica Frabetti, Senior Lecturer in the Communication, Media, and Culture Program at Oxford Brookes University explains that in the 55th century Athens, Sophists were scholars of rhetoric, skilled in the construction of philosophical truth. They were characterized by a certain indifference to establishing truth in philosophy without long-winded discussions (think not Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place) or even worse as an attempt to make truth an instrument to power.

Chidi Anagonye rapping a musical on Kierkegaad.
Can you imagine though? How does a Danish, Christian, social critic, poetic grow up to be an Existentialist philosopher?!

Technology, as opposed to Knowledge, can be substantially political in nature, since there are real-world applications of it. Aristotle even described a technical being as one that does not have any individuality by itself. Techne is only a tool used by someone to meet their ends.

Raphael's Plato, and Aristotle are chillin' and theorizin' in The School of Athens.
Raphael’s Plato, and Aristotle are chillin’ and theorizin’ in The School of Athens.

Throughout, the technology aspect has been outward. It is the tool which speeds up, democratizes, and creates greater efficiency if only because the amount of data collated and processed is more than possible with one just human’s contribution. That has been the overall point of technology everywhere after all. The trend is toward, faster, sleeker, smarter, more storage space, less time-taking, less effort-inducing, etc.

On their own, the trajectory of both technology and humanities have flourished. However, the Age of Industrialization is tightly interwoven with machinery. Given the simultaneous innovation in technological advancements, some may argue that this child of technê is the more important of the two, presently.

So Aristotle would be more than slightly conflicted about humanities marrying with technology. Apart from obviously being bewildered with the possibility of getting a computer to analyze a manuscript, he would have found it inconceivable all the same.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant weighs in on the philosophy of sciences in his seminal work in 1786, Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Sciences. Kant found value in the sublime nature of modern technology’s ability to inspire a discord within the imagination and reason of a human’s mind.


Emil Doerstling’s Kant and Friends at Table actually chillin’.

Immanuel Kant banks on human initiative and will (both greatly caricatured in the humanities) as agents of the modern age of technology. He compares the awe and power of natural earthquakes and the artificial nuclear bomb as an example. Kant also points out that it is the exercise and development of our vocation or predisposition of our nature that helps us improve. Developing technology that helps us is one way to it. In conclusion, he would be completely in the right to smugly say, “Oh hey, I told you so!” to us now.

In the beginning, we were already technical.

According to the philosopher Jacques Derrida, life has always been contaminated by an ‘originary’ technicity. What is the meaning of this claim? How does it change the way we think about life, nature and the being that we ourselves are?

Originary Technicity: The Theory of Technology from Marx to Derrida by Arthur Bradley explores the claim by various philosophers that life began with technology. This is directly opposing the traditional, Aristotelian view is that technology is an extrinsic to human nature as a tool which is used to bring about certain ends. That is to say, technology is applied science, an instrument of knowledge.

At its origin and up until now, -philosophy has repressed technics as an object of thought. Technics is the unthought. – Steigler, 1998

So why should the Humanities matter if that is the case? Is it in pursuit of a romanticized idea of literary, cultural, and societal study? 

Jorge Luis Borges is magical and real.
Jorge Luis Borges is magical and real.

Jorges Luis Borges in his Norton Lectures to Harvard students, The Craft of Verse and specifically, The Riddle of Poetry, “Although I do not know if I have been a particularly happy man (I hope I am going to be happy at the ripe age of sixty-seven), I still think there is beauty all around us.” 

For a long time, Humanities were meant to showcase the reason and purpose of humanity.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” is a famous dictum allegedly uttered by Socrates at his trial for impiety and corrupting youth, for which he was subsequently sentenced to death, as described in Plato’s Apology.

The Humanities study what being human means. Examining fandom culture points out the strong connection people evidently feel with various works. Entire movements have gained momentum as a result of people looking for relatability in the pop culture, or media we consume. Sophists were perhaps against long-winded discussions that went nowhere, but that has been the defining characteristic, and pitfall of the humanities. In other words, in this world of corporate consumerism, people are looking for action-oriented results for everything we do. 


Yeah, I’d say to my dad I wanted to be a writer and he’d say, journalist. I’d say I wanted to have a refuge for stray cats and he’d say, veterinarian. I’d say I wanted to be an actress and he’d say TV newscaster. It was this constant conversion of my fanciful ambitions into practical moneymaking ventures.


– Celine from Before Sunrise (dir. Richard Linklater)
Pretty pretty covers courtesy The Criterion Collection Before Sunrise
Pretty pretty covers courtesy The Criterion Collection Before Sunrise

We are all Celine here. At the very least, I am. In fact, I used this very same reasoning to convince my parents that Digital Humanities was a worthy enough choice to pursue and entangle the rest of my life in. It is a pioneering field! One of the biggest MNC out there, Google has an entire branch dedicated to Google Arts and Culture! Microsoft and others will soon follow!

There is a beautiful and fascinating story that came out in Neil Gaiman’s conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro about the importance of literature in scientific advancement. Gaiman attended the first ever state-sponsored, Party-approved science convention in China, around 2007.

Oh look it is Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro with their creations.
Oh look it is Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro with their creations.

I took aside one of the Party organizers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.

In the philosophical film, Mindwalk, a disillusioned physicist, Sonia Hoffman essentially argues with Jack, an American politician about the way we run things in the world. She says everything is inter-connected and must be solved in a more holistic manner. 

Mindwalk: Sonia knows what's up. Jack and Thomas are in for the French Island ruins ride. As are we. Phillip Glass' music will soothe your headache, don't worry.
Mindwalk: Sonia knows what’s up. Jack and Thomas are in for the French Island ruins ride. As are we. Phillip Glass’ music will soothe your headache, don’t worry.

 Sonia states, “The essential nature of matter lies not in objects, but in interconnections (at the subatomic level.)” “Ultimately, whether we like it or not, we’re all part of one inseparable web of relationships.” … “You see, you’re still searching for the right piece to fix first. You don’t see that all the problems are fragments of one single crisis, a crisis of perception.”

 This heavily cerebral film directed by Brent Capra, is based on his brother’s book The Turning Point. It makes a good case for bringing together not just epistêmê and technê, but phronêsis, sophia, as well as nous. 

Sonia talks about Descartes and Bacon as references for the way the sciences have been broken down to their bare bones, that is to say, mechanistic form, rather than viewing the big picture. I became curious about what they actually said about the meeting of technology with the humanities. 

French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, René Descartes encouraged craftsmanship to produce tools for easier bodily existence. Robert Arnăut states that the contemporary understanding of technology is forever indebted to such views from both Descartes and Bacon. Francis Bacon was a major influence for Descartes, in the emphasis of mechanical arts. Certain importance was given to the “scientist-craftsman” who until now, was considered lowly. They had their differences which can be further explored as “Cartesian technology” and “Baconian technology”.

Whatever their schools of thought, by this point in time, the very Renaissance characteristic of questioning the Ancients’ for their philosophy was in full swing. Just as Gettier questioned Plato’s JTB theory, Aristotle’s stance on the technology being external was questioned.

Now that we have established that the sciences need the humanities, and vice versa, it can also be considered true that humanity has relied on both for their own civilization and advancement. Creation of technology was not only in the image of nature, but was considered more a possible product of the human mind and imagination.

If Originary Technicity is true, what does that make of Digital Humanities? Why is it a fairly recent explosion in academic circles, just now? Does that mean Digital Humanities is also a thread in Originary Technicity? I believe so, but just like every other academic discipline, it has undergone a huge shift towards software.

Application Software in Humanities

The birth of Humanities Computing can be traced to the arrival of Computing itself. Lexical Text Analysis and Literary or Linguistic Computing was at the forefront of the modern computer processing system. The History of Humanities Computing by Susan Hockey even details Father Roberto Busa’s contribution to Humanities Computing as the earliest.

What happens when an Italian Jesuit priest, the CEO of IBM, and Thomas Aquinas are in the same room? Digitization. Lots of it.

In the 1980s journals like Computers and Humanities, and Cornell University Press shed more light on this new and upcoming field. But not before the so-called Father of Humanities Computing won the first ever Busa Award.

Web comic about a professor who wants to unite the sciences and the humanities.

Lucky for the Professor, a huge subsection of Digital Humanities does just this!

One of the landmark cases has been the analysis of the disputed authorship of twelve of the Federalist Papers, which Mosteller and Wallace 1964 successfully ascertained to be James Madison.

Meanwhile, a vast range of dictionaries, poetry and novel archival was also taking place. The amount of textual and media output was growing with the advent of Television, Films, and Design technologies. After the 1980s, efforts were concentrated in the consolidation of various texts.

This gave way to more interdisciplinary thought: Lines were blurring between technology usage in different spheres of our daily life even. Marsha Kinder describes the electric pervasive mood of the academia in MEDIUM SPECIFICITY AND PRODUCTIVE PRECURSORS: An Introduction (pp. 3-19 of Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities) thus: In 1999 at the Interactive Frictions conference, one could still hear echoes of Marshall McLuhan’s famous refrain that fetishized medium specificity for the fifties—“The medium is the message!

The Text Encoding Initiative of 2001 was brought about by an agreement of the “Poughkeepsie Principles” for building a new encoding scheme just for required computational methods. Once the term “Archive” was agreed upon for the contents of digital libraries, there was no going back. Digital Humanities was here to stay.

Here is a Google NGram depicting the different points in time where the interest in particular subjects.

Technology has peaked and you will notice, is still going strong.

Technology has peaked and you will notice, is still going strong.
I can attest to this. I spent hours checking out Google Trends and Ngram Viewer

What is the state of Digital humanities now?

In the Recode Decode podcast episode on Leonard da Vinci hosted by Kara Swisher, Walter Isaacson said, “If you can stand at that intersection between the arts and sciences, or between beauty and engineering, that’s where you’ll be the most creative.”

There's that The Da Vinci Code joke here somewhere... I mean,  Recode, decode? And LdV? Come on.
There’s that The Da Vinci Code joke here somewhere… I mean,  Recode, decode? And LdV? Come on.

Indeed, our original cool inventor + artist + polymath + sculptor + military engineer + overall genius, Italian born Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci knew this all too well. It is the humanism of artificial intelligence that will help it pass the Turing test. It is the patterns of nature that we adapted to our own needs that helped us discover the music of the spheres. 

Controversial and still facing resistance, despite the aging dinosaur-like momentum in the academia itself, I believe funding is also a problem. Computers are now firmly interwoven into every scholar’s work. Nonetheless, much like the Gutenberg transformation from vellum, papyrus, tree bark, etc. (which was explosive only in hindsight), Digital Humanities has been considered an encroachment.

In 1957’s issue of IBM Journal of Research and development, Paul Tasman said, “The use of the latest data processing tools developed primarily for the science and commerce may prove a significant factor in facilitating future literary and scholarly studies.” 

This has now become an understatement, if not a prophecy.

Digital Humanities has evolved further in the last few years to encompass even Data Visualization and the Internet too. I imagine if Busa were to see the state of Digital Humanities right now, he would understand the time taken, and would also be taken aback by copyright issues, but I believe there is still so much unexplored, uncharted territory to explore in this field. It has been decades since Busa met Watson for a high-performance linguistic machine, but we are still in its nascent stages. Humanities itself is a field that is a large growing mountain of work. Indeed, Dan Cohen believes that in just a few years time, Digital Humanities will be a prerequisite, daily life application, in every scholar’s day-to-day activities.

And that would still be an understatement. Kant, Bacon, Descartes, and even da Vinci would welcome Digital Humanities studies in the classroom, even considering it necessary.  Aristotle and traditional humanities scholars – not so much.

Would you agree? What do you think the effect of Western Philosophy has been for present day scholars? Will Digital Humanities really become the buzzword in scholarly circles? Do let me know, I would love to learn more. Thank you for reading.

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