Sunday, April 10, 2016

digital support for argumentation in the humanities

Perhaps it is especially obvious to someone who has just published his first book that monographs are large complex theoretical undertakings that could benefit from more digital support than word processing, map drawing, or Google and Amazon Kindle books (as searchable sources) provide---however helpful all of these things are!

At the same time, these analogous tools give an appreciation for the limitations of the support one should expect realistically: for example, it took about two weeks of low-level LaTeX tweaking to get my monograph just right, with judicious page stretching and negative-space fiddling and, in the end, we were stuck splicing a page-break into a generated file (the output from the indexer) in order to get the look "just right" (TM by Goldilocks)---a computer-science no-no if there ever was one!

The basic idea behind argumentation in the humanities is simple enough: I would want other people, given the data that I used, and applying to these the analysis that I applied, to come to the same conclusion that I arrived at. In the limit, that process should be effectively mechanical.

The practice of actual scholarly argumentation is of course vastly more complicated, where people often challenge arguments, by

  • challenging the data selection, meaning that there is other data that should have been used
  • challenge the data use, meaning that other features of the data set should have been used 
  • challenging the models (scripts, in the language of Schank and Abelson) that are used to interpret people's actions 
  • etc
The implied criticism is always that these differences in strategies would have led to differences in the argument outcomes (everything else would be supporting evidence). This means that an argument that can be followed and agreed to under its premises is only a small part of the scientific process in the humanities. 

While this is true,  it also stands to reason that the infrastructure developed for digitally supporting the construction and maintenance of humanities arguments and narratives are a good launching pad for digitally supporting the comparison of different arguments and narratives in the humanities. 
So, while effort expended in the digital support of humanities argumentation will not solve "the problem", it is an interesting incremental improvement of supporting ever more of the scientific work of the humanities digitally.

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