From Humanism to Humanities Computing


This post briefly explores the origins of the humanities and the transition to humanities computing.

From the Renaissance, human thought and inquiry began to shift from a “theocratic worldview to a human-centred one” (Burdick et al. 4). The Renaissance was further promulgated in Europe through the founding of schools and universities, and the invention of the printing press.  Indeed, the printing press revolutionised the dissemination of information in Europe, and is often compared to the Internet in terms of the information revolution of the 1990s (Kreis, Burdick et al. 6). Humanism then became more specialised over time, and broke down into disciplines that we might associate with the humanities today (Kreis, Burdick et al. 6). From the nineteenth-century, the humanities “began to assume their temporary guise” (Burdick et al. 6), and they became “typically defined as those disciplines that investigate the expressions of the human mind” (Bod 8). In present day, the Stanford Humanities Centre describes the humanities “as the study of how people process and document the human experience.” The pioneering work which introduced the traditional humanities to computational methods can be traced back to the late 1940s, through the work of Father Roberto Busa. In 1949, Father Busa approached IBM with a view to using a computer to create a concordance of the words in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas (Ramsay 1, Hockey, Edwards 215; Ess). This may be considered as one of the first instances of an example of “text analysis” as performed by a computer (Ramsey 1). In 1966, a journal titled Computers and the Humanities began publication (Hockey). GML emerged in the early 1970s as a “way of marking up technical documents with structural tags”, and in turn initiated the use of the term markup language (Anderson). Throughout the 1970s, conferences were held in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) which focused on computing in the humanities (Hockey). Advances in software allowed for more consistency in the preparation of electronic texts, and spurred the establishment of the Oxford Text Archive (OTA) in 1976 as a depository for electronic texts, but also highlighted a need for documented procedures to describe electronic texts (Hockey). Other archival projects emerged in Europe and the US, and courses for humanities students in the areas of computing were also introduced, but not without debate on what aspects to focus on (Hockey). The development of processing tools assisted the organisation of material into databases, though documentation on humanities computing lay outside the mainstream of humanities scholarship, and there was soon a recognised focus on “the need for standard software and for archiving and maintaining texts” (Hockey). According to Booch, Rumbaugh and Jacobson: “Object-oriented modeling languages appeared sometime between the mid 1970s and the late 1980s as methodologists, faced with a new genre of object-oriented programming languages and increasingly complex applications, began to experiment with alternative approaches to analysis and design.” Consequently, technology developments in the introduction of electronic mail and the personal computer moved humanities computing forward (Hockey), and the real first wave of digital humanities gathered momentum from the late 1980s (Burdick et al. 8).

While the disciplines within modern-day humanities, such as philosophy, classics, history, literature, art, design, and music, may have embraced “intellectual rigor and free enquiry”, they, nonetheless, have never been confined to the “strictest forms of empiricism” (Burdick et al. 4). However, with the melding of digital capabilities to the humanities, Burdick et al. suggests that humanists are now challenged “to make explicit many of the premises on which those understandings are based in order to make them operative in computational environments” (4). Therefore, digital humanities has the potential to renew humanities scholarship via “new modes of knowledge formation enabled by networked, digital environments” (Burdick et al. 7). So, for many commentators’ digital humanities is not a replacement for traditional humanities, rather it is an extension to humanities scholarship, through technology, which enables new skills and methods of inquiry (Burdick et al. 16; Svensson; Kirschenbaum 3).


  • Anderson, Tom. “Introducing XML.” Tim Anderson’s ITWriting, 2004. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. <>
  • Booch, G., Rumbaugh, J., and Jacobson, J. The Unified Modeling Language User Guide. USA; Canada, Addison-Wesley, 1999. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. <>
  • Burdick, A.; Drucker, J.; Lunenfeld, P.; Presner, T.; Schnapp, J.  “Digital Humanities is born of the encounter between traditional humanities and computational methods.” Digital_Humanities, The MIT Press, 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
  • Edwards, Charlie. “The Digital Humanities and Its Users.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 11 November 2014.
  • Ess, Charles. “”Revolution? What Revolution?” Successes and Limits of Computing Technologies in Philosophy and Religion.” A Companion to Digital Humanities. Eds. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
  • Hockey, Susan. “The History of Humanities Computing.” Companion to Digital Humanities.Blackwell, 2004.
  • Kreis, Steven. “The Printing Press.” The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. Web. 02 November, 2014 <>
  • Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is ‘Digital Humanities,’ and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?” Differences 25.1 (2014): 46-63. Web. 10 November 2014. <>
  • Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4.1 (2010). Web. 11 November 2014. <>
  • Ramsey, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Champaign, IL, USA: University of Illinois Press, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 12 November 2014.

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