An article entitled “One Republic of Learning” by Armand Marie Leroi appeared on the 13th of this month in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times. I’ve reproduced what I think is most significant below:
It’s easy to see how it will go. A traditional, analog, scholar will make some claim about the origin, fate or significance of some word, image, trope or theme in some Great Work. He’ll support it with apt quotations, and fillet the canon for more of the same. His evidence will be the sort that natural scientists call “anecdotal” — but that won’t worry him since he’s not doing science.
But then a code-capable graduate student will download the texts — not just the canon, but a thousand more — run the algorithms, produce the graphs, estimate the p values, and show the claim to be false, if false it indeed is. There will be no rejoinder; the analog scholar won’t even know how to read the results. Quantification has triumphed in field after field of the natural and social sciences. It will here, too.
If the rudiments of a new cultural science are visible, so are its limits. There is one great difference between human and natural things: The former have meaning; the latter do not. That is why the humanities are filled with critics and the natural sciences are not: Critics tell us what artifacts mean.
When Edmund Wilson tells us that Sophocles’s ‘Philoctetes’ is a parable on the association between deformity and genius; or when Arthur Danto says that Mark Rothko’s ‘Untitled (1960)’ is simply about beauty, then we are, it seems, in a realm of understanding where numbers, and the algorithms that produce them, have no dominion…. fundamentally, the truth of art criticism is not the same kind as scientific truth.
Will there be a new kulturkampf — a great battle between quantification and interpretation? Or will the humanities, weakened by their own interminable, internecine Theory Wars, gratefully accept the peace imposed by science? Some will fight. Hard words such as ‘imperialism,’ ‘scientism,’ and ‘vaulting ambition’ will be flung about — the vocabulary of anti-science is rich, well-honed, and all the more pungent for a little Shakespeare.
But most scholars, I believe, will simply accept quantitative tools for the power that they offer. Some will use them to survey vast bodies of literature; others to unravel the tiniest philological knots. Under the Pax Scientia criticism will continue, but be tamed. The epistemological feuds of the 20th century will yield to the technical quarrels typical of science. The scene will be less tumultuous, some will say less exciting, but it will be a renaissance.
My favorite responses to the piece are Dick Mulliken’s, from Jefferson, New York, who says “Chuckle. fadoodle. the article take the 2015 naive chuztpah award The bright graduate data boy will ‘prove’ whatever he likes, by his definition . When he has algorithms that tell me precisely how and why she walks in beauty like the night, or what makes the sea wine dark I will walk humbly away. Meantime no doubt he can tell me the frequency of adverbs in the complete works of Senator Saltonstall. I am not grateful.” and MarkF’s in California: “The question whether Shakespeare wrote a particular passage is not the same as how to interpret that passage. The former is more amenable to quantitative methods, and the latter more susceptible to hermeneutics. Methodologies are naturally selective of their preferred questions.”
My own impression is that Leroi paints a doomsday picture wherein he acknowledges that the digital and the “analogue” are apples and oranges in terms of what they have to offer, but that in spite of this, “Quantification…. will [triumph].” And the old guard will be left spewing Shakespearean insults. I think it would be easier to swallow the gesture towards harmonious cooperation if Leroi’s disdain for the “traditional, analog, scholar mak[ing] some claim about the origin, fate or significance of some word, image, trope or theme in some Great Work…. support[ing] it with apt quotations” weren’t so palpable…