Towards a Computational History of Ideas

CEUR Workshop Proceedings, 1681 (2016)

Arianna Betti
University of Amsterdam
Hein Van Den Berg
University of Amsterdam
The History of Ideas is presently enjoying a certain renaissance after a long period of disrepute. Increasing quantities of digitally available historical texts and the availability of computational tools for the exploration of such masses of sources, it is suggested, can be of invaluable help to historians of ideas. The question is: how exactly? In this paper, we argue that a computational history of ideas is possible if the following two conditions are satisfied: (i) Sound Method . A computational history of ideas must be built upon a sound theoretical foundation for its methodology, and the only such foundation is given by the use of models , i.e., fully explicit and revisable interpretive frameworks or networks of concepts developed by the historians of ideas themselves. (ii) Data Organisation. Interpretive models in our sense must be seen as topic-specific knowledge organisation systems (KOS) implementable (i.e. formalisable) as e.g. computer science ontologies. We thus require historians of ideas to provide explicitly structured semantic framing of domain knowledge before investigating texts computationally, and to constantly re-input findings from the interpretive point of view. In this way, a computational history of ideas maximally profits from computer methods while also keeping humanities experts in the loop. We elucidate our proposal with reference to a model of the notion of axiomatic science in 18th -19th century Europe.
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