WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Cameron McEwen: "Wittgenstein in digital form: Perspectives for the future", 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. 377-389. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.3.9).

Cameron McEwen: Wittgenstein in digital form: Perspectives for the future

Perspectives for the future

Some of the future of digital research may already be seen in nuce in a database like Wittgenstein’s Gesamtbriefwechsel, where original language primary texts are annotated in layers of commentary. To take a particular example, the database includes a letter Wittgenstein wrote Keynes from Puchberg on July 4, 1924. He thanks Keynes for some books which Keynes had sent with a letter on March 29 that year. Links have been installed between these letters so that the preceding context of Wittgenstein’s letter is immediately available. Wittgenstein’s usual greeting to ‘Johnson’ in his letters to Keynes is linked to a note identifying this as William Johnson. This annotation, in turn, is linked to a short biography of Johnson. Puchberg is described in the Ortsverzeichnis of the database and Wittgenstein’s stay there is located in the Chronik. The book of Keynes which Wittgenstein discusses in his letter (The economic consequences of the peace, 1919) is described in the Erwähnte Literatur section. Navigation between these sections of the database is intuitive and may usually be made via single-click jumplinks.

It is predictable that these same principles will be applied in a comprehensive way to the other Wittgenstein resources which are already in electronic form. The effect will be to create a sort of second stage to the research platform concept discussed above. The first stage converts texts available in print and/or microfilm to electronic form, aggregates them and supplies powerful search tools: the resulting database allows new access to these previously edited texts through user-specified searches. As illustrated in the last decade of humanities research, this in itself does not, however, bring startling changes to the established patterns of humanities scholarship.

The second stage adds electronic editing, which will often, or perhaps always, be accomplished through a networked group of researchers (as was the case with the Gesamtbriefwechsel). This seemingly small step to electronic editing entails a series of important changes for research in the humanities and, perhaps, a further highly important step regarding the relationship between such scholarship and the larger society around it.

The first change which results within scholarship is to change the form of scholarly contributions. Where contributions in a print environment are usually formulated in lectures and then in journal articles (which may then be further developed into books), contributions in an electronic environment may be made in a much more concise and focused way linked (in the case of Wittgenstein research) to a specific passage (or passages) in the Wittgensteinian corpus. The result is to de-emphasize the sort of literary exposition which is required in lectures and articles and to emphasize instead the formulation of discrete points in specific relationship to a particular passage or passages in the primary texts.

In this way, electronic editing has the effect of building expert knowledge into the presentation of texts. This will obviate the need for much of the sort of research which was required with print texts. Scholarship in a print context is related to such questions as: Where are the relevant texts to be found? When can these texts be dated? How do these texts interrelate? What special knowledge and special skills are needed to interpret them? How can the results of such research be formulated in articles and books? In an electronic environment, many of these questions are answered on, so to say, the very surface of the subject. All of the texts are already there. All of the intertextual references are already identified and set out with jumplinks. A great deal of the special knowledge needed for interpretation is available with a single mouse-click. Time and energy do not have to be spent getting to know the places where Wittgenstein discussed such and such a topic – anyone can compile such contexts in seconds through electronic searches.

In turn, this change in form will effect a corresponding change in the focus of research. In a print world, scholars are explorers mapping a mostly unknown continent and contributions are judged in terms of the number of new landmarks they are able to situate, the detail they are able to bring to unexplored regions, the corrections they are able to make to other maps, etc. To a greater or lesser extent, everybody produces a map of their own. In the digital dispensation, by contrast, scholars will be contributing to a shared map where original exploration is not by any means excluded (as will be taken up below), but the emphasis lies in the explication of particular textual points (which can, of course, occur in a great variety of different ways).

In a print world, information is arrayed in serial order along a continuum stretching from those who know nothing about it to those to know all there is presently to know about it. The continuum is marked along its way by different sorts of resources and different goals from beginning instruction to leading-edge research. In a digital world, all of the information and resources relating to the field are already present for everyone. What differentiates the beginner from the expert is the way he or she is exposed to the total information mass. The role of the specialist ceases to be that of exploring distant realms and reporting the information back to those who have not made the journey, but of participating in the on-going indexing of the knowledge base to facilitate research, teaching and practical application. Here, too, the global village replaces what were formerly isolated states. Although, indeed because, this trend has had extremely negative effects on the physical environment and on languages and cultures around the world, in humanities scholarship it might and should have the contrary effect of introducing consideration and analysis to what has been reflex action.

The consequence is to shift the activity of humanities research in the direction of current scientific research. Being a chemist means knowing how to participate in the further investigation, or applied use, or teaching, of existing chemical knowledge. It is foreseeable that research in (say) Wittgenstein will come in comparable fashion to be defined by a knowledge of its present state (including open questions in the field) as represented in a complex digital desktop. In both cases, a rough map of accepted results and known uncertain areas serves to define the field.

The progress of events will probably be something like the following: A networked group of Wittgenstein researchers will undertake to edit and annotate the entire corpus (doubtless beginning with specific texts or topics and building out from there). Text passages of various lengths (word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, etc.) will be fitted with different icons leading to annotations regarding (say) the chronology of the passage, related texts, the place of the passage in different areas of Wittgenstein’s concerns (logic, values, language use, etc.), the centrality of the passage to his overall enterprise, etc. Decisions regarding these notes will be made according to some agreed procedure and users will have the ability to turn on or off any set of annotations. Differing readings and opinions can be accommodated through further annotations to the text or through annotations to the annotations. Since the cost of digital storage is disappearingly small, there is no limit to the amount of annotation and disagreement which might be recorded, but ongoing considerations would of course have to be given to the best way or ways to organize the growing mass of materials. This sort of meta-consideration will, indeed, be one of the single most important questions for research in the field (just as it is in the sciences) – especially since both the content and form of the texts left by Wittgenstein may be taken to contribute to the debate around it.

As illustrated by Google, ‘organization’ in this sense is just ‘indexing’. The goal is to organize or index materials in such a way that as much information as possible is present, but present in such a way that it is useful for on-going research, for practical application and for instruction. ‘Useful’ in this context means something like: organized in a coherent manner, but open to modification in ways which are neither merely willful nor subject to unreasonable (authoritarian, bureaucratic, connection-dependent, etc.) barriers. Such balance doubtless entails much on-going work of attention and adjustment.

Perhaps successful indexing of this sort is exactly what enables the transition from pre-scientific speculation to scientific inquiry. The latter requires clarity in regard to (a) the existing state of a field of knowledge, (b) the open questions implicated in it, (c) the ways in which those questions might be addressed, (d) the ways in which answers to such questions can be then fed back into (a) with corresponding changes in (b) and (c). Scientific inquiry is this circling movement. Dynamic indexing is exactly what enables such clarity and, therefore, the properly scientific inquiry which can result from it.

It is possible that the difference between the hard and soft sciences or between the sciences and the humanities is not that they concern fundamentally different sorts of objects or involve fundamentally different sorts on inquiry, but that the latter are simply more difficult to index. The new possibilities for indexing offered by digital technology may be able to solve this problem and therefore institute a qualitatively different sort of inquiry within the humanities from what has characterized them in the past.

Digital indexing will allow individual researchers to create their own desktop with their own editions of texts and their own sets of annotations (just as a chemist is free to set up her lab in any way she wants). But there will be a standard notion of Wittgenstein research through the on-going work of indexing and maintenance of the resources associated with the field.

How participation in such indexing and maintenance is decided is an important question requiring research of its own. This is a contested question in the sciences, however, and will not serve to differentiate research in the humanities from them. On the contrary, such consideration will be one more way in which the two will tend to coalesce. In both, a rough consensus will be agreed around certain central points, but different schools and individual theories will exist at the margins of research and it is at these margins that new work is concentrated. It will therefore be important to consider how such margins are best to be identified and investigated.

These changes flowing from research in a digital environment will allow, indeed enforce, a new precision in the field. This new precision, in turn, will allow the application of insights from the humanities to problems and policy decisions in society at large – an innovation which should prove as salutary for the isolation of the humanities as for the enormous needs of society. Questions will cease to arise exclusively within the discipline and will instead begin to be addressed (in both directions) between it and the surrounding world.

In this environment, a company like InteLex will continue to aggregate content and to make it available to researchers online. But networked tools for new content creation and for annotation of existing content will become increasingly important. Close cooperation with scholars will be imperative for the design and maintenance of these tools and of the network in which they function. The renewed integration of the humanities in culture and society, an integration essential to both sides, may well begin at this level. In all of this, Wittgenstein scholarship should play an exemplary role for future research in the humanities generally.

Last change: 2005.3.9 by ap