We live in a world where knowledge is increasingly specialised. The sheer breadth and depth of scientific enquiry in the twenty first century inevitably leads to individuals working in one area of research and having only a superficial understanding of the work done by colleagues in closely related fields. This problem is only magnified when extrapolated across the two cultures divide, a gulf which still separates those working in the sciences and humanities today.
The idea of two cultures cleaving scientific from humanistic enquiry has a long and turbulent history. In 1880 Thomas Huxley ignited the debate by arguing for the primacy of the sciences in education. Only scientific training could foster the critical spirt Huxley saw as essential for young people living and working in industrial society. Matthew Arnold disagreed, arguing that an education excluding the study of literature, or letters, would ultimately lack an appreciation of culture and what it means to be human.
The debate continued into the twentieth century. C. P. Snow saw in post-war Britain ‘a gulf of mutual incomprehension’ separating what he described as ‘the two cultures’. For this he was vigorously attacked by F. R. Leavis, who questioned the legitimacy with which Snow claimed to speak as both a novelist and scientist bridging the divide. Although there are serious problems with Snow’s thesis (such as his failure to account for social scientific disciplines like anthropology and sociology) the gulf Snow perceived, I believe, largely persists to the present day.
We are at a time in human history, however, when the need for insight and collaboration across the sciences and humanities has never been more urgently required. Multifaceted ecological crises are simply too complex to be effectively tackled by individuals in any one traditional discipline, scientific or humanistic, working in isolation. There is a strong argument that environmental degradation is as much a crisis of thought as it is a crisis of material processes.
What we require, therefore, is the collapse of the two cultures.
Digital humanities (DH) will be of central importance in achieving this. Indeed, the process has already begun with, what Richard Lane terms, the ‘Big Humanities’ increasingly the site of intersection between the two cultures. Cathy Davidson has also suggested that DH can address ‘a structural problem in the contemporary educational system’, the same problem Huxley and Arnold were interrogating all those years ago.
Yet, because of this great potential, it is important to avoid seeing DH as what Lane has warned might become ‘a humanistic unifying theory of everything’. Such a view would risk losing the possibility for the collaboration of skills and integration of knowledge across traditionally siloed disciplines that makes DH the potentially revolutionary field of enquiry that it is. Davidson describes it succinctly, stating that the ‘goal for digital humanities is to value collaboration by the best minds working across all fields in order to create something that no one person (no matter how talented) could have created alone.’
The great strength of digital humanities is this plurality of ideas and broad range of expertise. Humanistic enquiry can take many forms, as can scientific investigation, where the cultures meet is in a shared methodology which seeks to observe, interrogate, interpret and explain. Hence the image of Stuttgart Library accompanying this piece, a building which to me seeks to merge the laboratory and the library in a shared exploratory space.
As an MA student working in the areas of literature and science and the environmental humanities, the more I learn about DH the more excited by the possibilities I become. In my next post I will outline how I might apply an approach inspired by DH to my own research, exploring how digital technology will be of vital importance in investigating Victorian conceptualisations of environment.
This will also provide a stronger understanding of what work in the digital humanities actually involves and serve as a case study into how DH might address ecological crises more broadly. Prepare for an investigation of the darkly weird and wonderful world of Franco Moretti’s distant reading.
C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961)
F. R. Leavis, Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962)
Richard J. Lane, The Big Humanities: Digital Humanities/Digital Laboratories, (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017)
Cathy N. Davidson, ‘Why Yack Needs Hack (and Vice Versa): From Digital Humanities to Digital Literacy’, in Between Humanities and the Digital, ed. by Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), pp. 131–143.
The link for Huxley’s address can be found here: http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1880huxley-scicult.asp
The link for Arnold’s response can be found here: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~ian/arnold.htm