21st-Century Hermeneutics of Textual Scholarship: a Computational Approach

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This paper presents an ethnography of twelve years of software engineering that helped shaping and supporting digital textual scholarship at a Dutch humanities research institute. The study shows that internal and external digital and computational developments are persistently accompanied with a promise to deliver significant scaling benefits for the scholarly editing process: powerful OCR (e.g. Kahle et al. 2017) will speed up transcription, automatic alignment (e.g. Haentjens Dekker and Middell 2011) will dramatically reduce the turnaround of collation, stemmatic analysis will be much facilitated by tools such as StemmaWeb (e.g. Andrews and Macé 2013), and digital publishing platforms will significantly broaden access to scholarly editions (e.g. Beaulieu, Van Dalen-Oskam, and Van Zundert 2012). After critical assessment this ethnography finds that such digital developments indeed bring clear benefits and new affordances to textual scholarship. However, it also finds that such attempts to computationally support textual scholarship consistently fail to produce the promised reduction of cost and turnaround associated with scholarly editions. A primary cause for this is that ultimately all textual editing at a particular level requires hermeneutic scholarly intervention. That is, it requires expert scholarly interpretation and judgement which ultimately cannot be outsourced to any current computational algorithm. This expert authority has been claimed by some (for instance Bordalejo 2018) as an argument to conclude that computer science and digital humanities have no bearing on textual scholarship. This study suggests however—as do others (e.g. Thaller 2018)—that there are solid methodological grounds to actually intensify the interplay between textual scholarship and computation (Van Zundert 2019). To benefit from a computational approach, however, the focus of this interplay needs to be broadened. Current digital work in textual scholarship can be characterized mainly as structural modeling and computer supported collaborative work (CSCW, cf. Greif 1988). This type of computing takes text-as-data and non-hermeneutic processes as its objects of automation. I argue that these approaches should be augmented by an approach that specifically examines the computability of hermeneutic scholarly tasks. This is a tremendous challenge for both computer scientists and textual scholars. A challenge, however, that we need to rise to, to ensure the viability of textual scholarship in the next decades.


## References

Andrews, Tara L., and Caroline Macé. 2013. “Beyond the Tree of Texts: Building an Empirical Model of Scribal Variation through Graph Analysis of Texts and Stemmata.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 28 (4): 504–521. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqt032.

Beaulieu, Anne, Karina Dalen-Oskam, van, and Joris Zundert, van. 2012. “Between Tradition and Web 2.0: ELaborate as a Social Experiment in Humanities Scholarship.” In Social Software and the Evolution of User Expertise: Future Trends in Knowledge Creation and Dissemination, edited by Tatjana Takševa, 112–129. Hershey PA (USA): IGI Global. 10.4018/978-1-4666-2178-7.ch007.

Bordalejo, Barbara. 2018. “Digital versus Analogue Textual Scholarship or The Revolution Is Just in the Title.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 7 (1): 7–28. https://doi.org/10.1353/dph.2018.0001.

Greif, Irene, ed. 1988. Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings. San Mateo (CA, USA): Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, Inc.

Haentjens Dekker, Ronald, and Gregor Middell. 2011. “Computer-Supported Collation with CollateX: Managing Textual Variance in an Environment with Varying Requirements.” In Supporting Digital Humanities 2011. Kopenhagen (DE).
P. Kahle, S. Colutto, G. Hackl, and G. Mühlberger. 2017. “Transkribus - A Service Platform for Transcription, Recognition and Retrieval of Historical Documents.” In 2017 14th IAPR International Conference on Document Analysis and Recognition (ICDAR), 04:19–24. Kyoto: IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/ICDAR.2017.307.

Thaller, Manfred. 2018. “On Information in Historical Sources.” A Digital Ivory Tower (blog). April 24, 2018. https://ivorytower.hypotheses.org/56#more-56.

Van Zundert, Joris 2019. “Why the Compact Disc Was Not a Revolution and Cityfish Will Change Textual Scholarship, or What Is a Computational Edition?” Ecdotica, in print.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • computational edition
  • hermeneutics
  • textual scholarship

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