Digtal Humanities and Philosophy: A Project-Based Introduction
Philosophy has always been a public endeavor. During antiquity in the time of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, philosophy (or the love of wisdom) was never meant, or less controversially, treated as a private enterprise. The father of western philosophy, Socrates, referred to himself as a sort of gadfly, buzzing around unsuspecting Athenians, challenging them to justify and provide reasons for holding the beliefs they did about justice, piety, knowledge, and the soul. Today, there is perhaps no more compelling companion to this public enterprise than those methods offered by the digital humanities.
For the first entry into KU’s DH Blog, we focus on three digital humanities projects in philosophy. There are a number of notable digital projects in philosophy that embody its public nature and mission:
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is perhaps best project to start this conversation. Initially, many digital projects began with the simple goal of sharing academic scholarship with other scholars. This is true of the SEP. The project is an online encyclopedia that serves as a database of philosophical articles that undergo the sort of rigorous vetting process one would find with an academic print journal. Although many of the entries are written by well-established philosophers, and are perhaps written with general philosophers in mind, the database itself is free to the public and can be accessed by anyone.
Since its creation in 1995, the database has accumulated nearly 1600 articles as of March 2018. The creators define the encyclopedia as a dynamic reference work. As a dynamic reference work, it is defined by four characteristics: (1) an article can be continuously revised following publication; (2) it curates comprehensive articles specific to philosophical subfields and topics; (3) in connection with (1) remote access is provided to authors so that they may easily revise their entries; and (4) quality is maintained by an Editorial Board; and (5) entries are made public and curated on a quarterly basis. All this allows the project to evolve and be “responsive to new research.”
As a response to the vastness of the SEP and to a general need to navigate in a way that is efficient and user-friendly, philosophers and programmers at the University of Indiana created a data-mining project: InPhO. The project operates by focusing on four sub-ontologies. Quickly, for non-philosophical and non-academic readers, ontology is the study of the nature of being or existence. Beyond this, ontology can also involve cataloging and categorizing things that exist along with their properties, creating ontologies. Some ontologies are more controversial or complex than others. For example, one controversy is one that persists between atheists and theists: whether God belongs in any ontological system. In science, there are realists and anti-realists who dispute whether the entities posited in scientific theories actually exist beyond their being posited within the theory. Note, there is a great deal of nuance that I am glossing over here, but I hope the general idea is clear. When creating any model of the world, some sort of ontological account is required to get it off the ground. How complex or simple it is may depend on the programmatic goals of the researcher.
Now, back to InPhO, the four sub-ontologies they focus on include: (1) Thinker; (2) Idea; (3) Document; and (4) Organization. The most important of these sub-ontologies is the Idea sub-ontology. According to the creators, ideas or topics within the SEP database can get fairly specific and broken down into sub-fields. In order to better deal with the breadth of the database, InPhO employs “automated statistical methods.” These methods are utilized to create visible models of possible relations between ideas curated in SEP. In order to ensure that their methods are turning out accurate relations, project managers confirm with the authors of SEP entries.
Not all digital projects concern themselves with making information databases easier to navigate. They can and are also about showing a different, perhaps less explored, side of the profession. Like all academic fields, philosophy has developed canon of what is taught in “history of philosophy” courses. With the creation of canons or preferred historical narratives, academic disciplines often risk subverting certain ideas, thinkers, and texts. This has not gone unnoticed by certain academic philosophers. Take, for example, KU’s own Dr. Marcy Lascano. Dr. Lascano recently taught a project-based course where students not only explore the ideas and interpretations of a lesser known philosophy such as Margaret Cavendish, but the course also included a transcribe-a-thon to all interested parties at KU and elsewhere. The transcribe-a-thon focused on Cavendish’s Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663). It is as an effort to make widely available a text that lies outside of the traditional canon. The class also introduced students to digital humanities methods and tools based on minimal computing principles, such as the Ed./Jekyll platform for digital textual editions. Jekyll is a static website generator designed to make updating, maintaining, and sharing websites easier. Ed. is a theme for Jekyll specifically for developing easy-to-read digital editions that can enable recovery projects (such as the Cavendish project). As many humanists are not experienced in computing or programming methods, Ed. allows for simple digital editions that do not require complex programming.