Why We Should Think About a Domain Specific Computer Language (DSL) for Scholarship

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In this paper I will claim that current general purpose computer languages are fundamentally unsuited for the expression of hermeneutic aspects of scholarship and that it is up to digital humanists to find a solution for this problem if scholarship is to computationally express sophisticated scientific interpretations. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation. Classically textual criticism has been the technique associated with hermeneutics (cf. Van Zundert 2016). Theory of interpretation and textual criticism combined produce the hermeneutic method: a reflexive mode of interpretation that is invoked by initial textual criticism. The act of textual criticism establishes the semiotic surface of a text, hermeneutics takes the result of this criticism as a form of reading instructions and asserts an intersubjective meaning of the text (cf. Eco 1981). Criticism is thus concerned with establishing the factuality of an inscription while hermeneutics reflexively determines a situated meaning. Scholars may thus perfectly well argue different but valid meanings on the basis of the same underlying textual criticism. Exactly this pluralism is a quintessential property of scholarship (Small 2013:3). Current general purpose computer languages (Java, Ruby, C, Python, etc.) do not support formal expressions for the hermeneutic reflexive part of interpretation. In part this is due to the nature of first order logic in which they are rooted. Predicate logic, which eventually traces back to Aristotelian syllogism, allows for the formal expression of factual assertions ("Aristotle is a man"; 'a = b'). In this sense predicate logic corresponds to the level of textual criticism. But first order logic based computer languages are interpretationally weak: they cannot compute simultaneously with different interpretations of the underlying fact. While scholars may assert "Aristotle may be a man, but he may also be a fictional person", a statement in first order logic such as 'a = b && a = c' is always false. It follows that current general purpose computer languages cannot fully remediate scholarly argument into computable statements. To really be able to compute over scholarly argument computable expressions are needed for hermeneutic relations—i.e. pluriform interpretations of an asserted fact: 'a may_be c && a may_be b'. Modal logic (Orgun & Ma 1994) incorporates some similar interpretational notions ('a is possibly b' and 'a is necessarily b'). However, no usable and widely supported implementations of modal logic based computing languages exist. Therefore, to render interpretational statements truly computable, digital humanists themselves will have to extend their thinking towards the logical foundations of the computer languages they use. Especially the collaborative intellectual exercise of elucidating a domain specific computer language for scholarship could yield the hermeneutic relations (verbs c.q. operators) current general purpose computing languages lack. Together with existing work to turn computing into a tool fundamentally geared towards humanistic research (Thaller 2018), and combined with public test data and assignments, such work may become the blueprint for implementations in the form of a shared task in the digital humanities (Reiter 2016), which might eventually result in a hermeneutical DSL or hermeneutically augmented variants of general purpose computing languages. ---- References Eco, U. (1981) ‘The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader’, The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 14(1), pp. 35–45. doi: 10.2307/1314865. Orgun, M. A. and Ma, W. (1994) ‘An Overview of Temporal and Modal Logic Programming’, in Proceedings. Temporal Logic, First International Conference, ICTL ’94, Bonn: ICTL, pp. 1–36. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221160663_An_Overview_of_Temporal_and_Modal_Logic_Programming (Accessed: 13 July 2018). Reiter, N. (2016) An Initiative for Shared Tasks in the Digital Humanities, GitHub. Available at: https://github.com/SharedTasksInTheDH (Accessed: 13 July 2018). Small, H. (2013) The Value of the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thaller, M. (2018) ‘On Information in Historical Sources’, A Digital Ivory Tower, 24 April. Available at: https://ivorytower.hypotheses.org/56#more-56 (Accessed: 16 June 2018). Van Zundert, J. J. (2016) ‘Screwmeneutics and Hermenumericals: the Computationality of Hermeneutics’, in Scheibman, S., Siemens, R., and Unsworth, J. (eds) A New Companion to Digital Humanities. Malden, Oxford, etc.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, pp. 331–347. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118680605.ch23/summary (Accessed: 26 July 2016).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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