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Willard McCarty

Willard McCarty, PhD (Toronto), is Professor emeritus, King’s College London and Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is Editor-in-Chief of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (2008-) and the online seminar Humanist (1987-) and recipient of the Roberto Busa Award, Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (2013); the Richard W. Lyman Award, Rockefeller Foundation (2006); and the Canadian Award for Outstanding Achievement, Computing in the Arts and Humanities (2005). Currently he is co-organiser of the ongoing workshop series “Science in the Forest, Science in the Past” (Cambridge, 2017-) with G.E.R. Lloyd and Aparecida Vilaça. His current book project is an historical, methodological, technical and anthropological study, Digital Humanities and the Art of Intelligence. See


Keynote Lecture: Centrum ubique circumferentia nusquam: Perspectives of and from digital humanities?

In many if not a majority of instances, academic departments and centres of digital humanities are based on diverse conceptions of digital humanities, differing from one another more than might ordinarily be expected. This is not a fault but a sign that the discipline is protean and so points to a richness and reach of its many possibilities. Etymologically a ‘discipline’ is simply what its disciples, i.e. practitioners, do (OED s.v.). From an institutional point of view, the most important question to ask at the outset—we are, after all, just beginning—is this: ‘what is to be done with or about digital computing?’ Note the crucial prepositions, which connote a fork in the road, towards application of the machine on the one hand, and on the other its multidisciplinary problematics.

Both paths are necessary; it’s a matter of emphasis. Application of the computer-as-tool is the easier (but hardly without challenge): older disciplines supply source materials and questions, the computing system offers techniques for access and analysis. Conversation between practitioners of the two, or within the person who does both, clarifies and deepens the questions. But what about evidence of value from the results? Wisdom counsels patience. Fifty years ago historical sociologist Gerry Runciman cautioned that at least a generation must pass, perhaps even two to three hundred years, “before we know what are the most rewarding applications of quantitative methods” to the Geisteswissenchaften (1971, 943). What he didn’t foresee then was the digitalisation of resources, their exponential growth and the effects of machinic ‘intelligence’ on the questions to be asked.

Now it should be obvious that producing evidence of value from results is insufficient for digital humanities if it is to live up to its name. It must deal with the problematics of those unforeseen developments. Nor is it enough to let the philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, computer scientists et alii—essential colleagues all—work alone on the problems stirred up by this ‘intelligence’. No one perspective suffices. The problematics are by nature interdisciplinary. Hence collaboration is necessary, but it is not sufficient: true interdisciplinary research takes place within each single mind informed by and adding to that collaboration.

Do we not, then, have an intellectually rich and most compelling prospect before us? And more than that. The big question lurking in those problematics is what can be done concretely in the context of the human planetary agenda. In this lecture I will make some suggestions. But my practical aim is to suggest that our incunabular digital humanities has the potential to expand as far as we need to go.