WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Herbert Hrachovec: "Evaluating the Bergen Electronic Edition", in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 364-376. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.3.10).

Herbert Hrachovec: Evaluating the Bergen Electronic Edition

Prospects with XML

Criticism of digitised text faces a dilemma. If such text were required to achieve general cross-platform compatibility on all available computer systems it would be forced to use ASCII code. But this is unacceptable, since this code lacks even the most basic typographical conventions needed by a philologist. A simple concept like quotation, to pursue the previous example, is transformed into a software construct on a WYSIWYG virtual page. While ordinary scholarly quotation is insensitive to the peculiarities of paper, ink and print, this is no longer the case where computer generated pages are concerned. The first part of this paper is in fact an elaboration on this crucial point. Computer systems, convenient as they may be for scholarly purposes, introduce entirely new and partially disturbing factors into the field of philology. One of the greatest challenges is to resolve this dilemma, and it is here I find the CD edition a somewhat unconvincing compromise between the requirements of highly professional criticism and highly volatile media tools. Is there a better way to approach the inherent conflict between long-term standards of independent scholarship and the market pressures that affect the required software equipment? The answer is a resounding yes and, furthermore, it is a cue to take a closer look at what the Bergen Wittgenstein project has actually achieved.

The digital Nachlass, as edited in Bergen, resists the scepticism just expressed, although one would hardly think so by looking at the monitor. Electronic scholarship has found a solution to the dilemma described above. To put it very simply: use ASCII meta-code to indicate the desired additional information within straight ASCII text. A so-called mark-up language does not try to render italics on the screen of the end user. There is no single way to achieve this, given the plurality of digital interfaces. Rather than attempting to please a transient majority of readers a scholarly mark-up language captures philological content in meta-tags and does not involve itself in questions of presentation. The down side is that this does not give you – for example – italicised text on any platform. It simply indicates that a certain sequence of characters should be italicised, or put into a footnote, or omitted from the final version. This caution is, on the other hand, a crucial move to win independence from the software requirements of the day. A two-step procedure, as envisaged by mark-up languages, defers the satisfaction of immediately dealing with virtual mirror pages of any given page. But it preserves the autonomy of scholarship against the flux of digital consumer economy. And it is this approach that guides work at the Wittgenstein Archives. The Folio Views product is just one instance of a vastly more extensive corpus of information coded into the so-called source transcriptions. It is here that things begin to get interesting.

On the one hand we have transcriptions of the textual evidence into a sophisticated mark-up language (MECS), which preserves every step of Wittgenstein’s work flow by means of complex constructions in a technical language. At the other end of the spectrum users are given two fairly rigid views of the Wittgenstein Nachlass, building upon programs that are presumed to be user friendly at a given time. There has to be a software bridge between marked-up code and something philosophers can actually read on their machines. But it is by no means necessary to use Folio Views, or any other commercial product that is bound to undergo alterations due to forces beyond the reach of academia. Instant 1:1 correspondence between facsimiles and this year’s technology is, in fact, the wrong way to go. It is, of course, a time-honoured and very gratifying state of affairs in the world of printed books, witness the splendid edition of the Philosophical Investigations by Joachim Schulte et al. published in 2001.1 Yet computer texts should not attempt simply to mimic printed originals. Electronic philology loosens the grip traditional books hold upon our imagination. It is crucial to notice that the new presentational medium offers considerably more flexibility in conveying change within its subject matter and of changing the medium itself. A monitor is not a printed page and it is precisely because of the software bridge that mediates between source transcriptions and WYSIWYG output that the cluster of problems I have presented in the first part of this paper arises. Even though the Bergen edition has to satisfy the expectations of scholars reared on the Gutenberg Galaxis the project team would be ill advised to aim for just books in digital disguise. Attention has to be directed towards the software mechanism in order to reveal the full potential of computer-aided philology.

So, what are the alternatives to filtering the source transcriptions into the present mould? Since they are subject to a certain well-defined grammar they can, in principle, be translated into any desired additional format. One rendition is, however, of special importance to our present purpose. The Wittgenstein Archives and Claus Huitfeldt are working on a MECS-to-XML converter, the availability of which will have a decisive impact upon the present editorial arrangements. The reason is that such XML documents, unlike those we have at the moment, can be used by everyone, irrespective of designated operating systems and word processors. Such documents, it is true, do not provide an isomorphism to the underlying originals that you could recognize at a glance. Reading the source transcriptions is like listening to a theatrical performance in which all the stage instructions are verbalised. XML is itself a mark-up language, enabling its users to capture the relevant features by way of meta-data as described before. The crucial difference to MECS is that the XML standard is widely popular and that there are numerous commercial as well as open source applications that allow users to extract, rearrange and further process XML-encoded information.

Notice the difference between source code distilled into the format of some particular word processor and translated into XML. All the convenience of being able to work immediately on the text is lost in the second case. Yet this is the price one pays for a significant improvement in the general scholarly setting. With XML, dependence on the specifics of particular machines is minimized and one can choose one’s own way of processing the data. I should immediately add that this is not something one would expect the average reader of Wittgenstein’s Nachlass to do. There is an indubitable need for the CD edition in its present form. But the points made about its rigidity are not just theoretical complaints. They are mentioned in order to prepare the ground for a broader vision of digital transcriptions. Documents coded in XML provide platform independent patterns of textual information which can be enriched with suitable content and without loss of generality. To illustrate these challenging opportunities I turn finally to an international research project entitled “Tracing Wittgenstein: Digital Explorations” (http://wittgenstein.philo.at, accessed November 1, 2004).

“Tracing Wittgenstein” is working with XML (and HTML) versions of manuscript 115, which are publicly available from the Bergen archive. One editorial improvement that many of Wittgenstein’s collations seem to call for is some guidance to the overall structure of the assembled remarks. The need for some table of contents was felt, for instance, by Rush Rhees, whose 1964 edition of the Philosophical Remarks starts out with an extensive tableau briefly describing the contents of the manuscript in sequence. While this is certainly a helpful addition, Rush Rhees goes on to violate some basic rules of textual criticism by superimposing his own accounting system upon Wittgenstein’s collection, mentioning only in passing that none of this is to be found in the original text. It seems obvious that a critical edition must refrain from such beautifications of the evidence, although most people will still want to be given a general idea of what the author is up to at any given point. Traditionally, introductory and exegetical writing has tried to provide such help. One fairly simple thing one can do, given an XML version of one of Wittgenstein’s original sequences of remarks, is to adjoin them to a tree-like representation of some table of contents. This is already implemented in one of the outcomes of the project which can be downloadad from http://wab.uib.no/wab_115ape.page (accessed November 1, 2004). The branches of this tree, in other words the sections, chapters and further subdivisions one’s hermeneutics has produced, can serve as handles to access the underlying material which, at the same time, is preserved without inappropriate interference. This strategy seems to differ very little from well-known hermeneutical procedures. But make no mistake; it opens up some options hitherto unavailable within the academic world.

One comparatively moderate enhancement is the ability to regard one’s involvement with Wittgenstein’s text as an ongoing, public enterprise. One does not have to come up with more or less definitive results which are then put into print and preserved unalterably. Electronic structural analysis of the Nachlass is sensitive to peer criticism and can easily respond to suggestions and improvements from outside commentators. A second step suggests itself, and here we enter into a realm unprecedented in traditional book culture. Without much effort we can include several competing proposals for the proper account of the structure of the underlying remarks. This means that a group of scholars may cooperate, offering distinct views based upon the same textual material. Subdividing Wittgenstein’s sequences into smaller units, designing different hierarchies and dependencies, is just a start, however. One or more commentaries can be run parallel to the text with any of them referring to further text, or commentaries, or additional outside information by hyper-links. The Nachlass evidence will again remain outside such possible features, serving as the common point of reference for those digital add-ons. A more ambitious plan would be to extend the present mark-up to include semantic information. The development of Wittgenstein’s discussion of Zahnschmerzen, to mention but one example, contains some remarks on Magenkrämpfe, which will be overlooked by anyone searching for the more prominent term. One or several scholars might develop a kind of thick description of (parts of) the Nachlass preparing the ground for more specific, individual philosophical work.

1Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophische Untersuchungen. Kritisch-genetische Edition. Herausgegeben von Joachim Schulte in Zusammenarbeit mit Heikki Nyman, Eike von Savigny und Georg Henrik von Wright. Frankfurt/M 2001. Suhrkamp

Last change: 2005.3.10 by ap