The Big Humanities

chad wellmon

 Before there was big science or big data, there was big humanities. Until the last third of the nineteenth century, the natural and physical sciences imitated many of the methods and practices of the humanities, especially disciplines like philology, which pioneered techniques in data mining, the coordination of observers, and the collection and sorting of information—what Lorraine Daston terms practices of “collective empiricism.” [Daston has also recently, April 2016, discussed the ‘big humanities’ in her Page Barbour Lectures at UVa. As with lots of things I think about these days, I am deeply indebted to her work and our conversations.]

One of the most successful and long-lasting projects was led by the Berlin philologist August Böckh. In a proposal to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in 1815, Böckh and his colleagues requested funding for a long-term project to collect as completely as possible all Greek inscriptions, printed, inscribed, and…

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