Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What humanists do

I recently stumbled across an interview with the very articulate Astronomer Royal Martin Reese that included this observation:

But the aim of science is to unify disparate ideas, so we don't need to remember them all. I mean we don't need to record the fall of every apple, because Newton told us they all fall the same way.

(The full transcript of the interview is here, under the arresting title "Cosmic Origami and What We Don't Know.")

I think that this remark really captures a quintessential difference between the natural sciences and the humanities.  Humanists, too, unify disparate ideas, but we must record each unique phenomenon that we study.  If we develop a unified view of oral poetry, for example, we will never conclude that "I'm familiar with the Iliad, so I don't have to remember the Odyssey," or "I've studied Greek poetry so I don't need to know about the Serbo-Croatian oral poetry that Parry and Lord recorded."  We don't study apples.  Recording and remembering are basic to scholarship in the humanities.

This has important implications for how we work in a digital world.  We record and remember through citation, so before anything else we must develop a sound infrastructure for citation.

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