Humanities and science: Reflections after a workshop on NLP for literature

At a conference on human language technologies (NAACL-HLT 2012, Montreal), I participated in a stimulating discussion in the workshop on Computational Linguistics for Literature. The main issue we discussed was an ontological question about the field of NLP for literature – that is, whether such a field exists at all, and whether it is different from the digital humanities in any way.

Although researchers who are inherently interested in applying NLP to literary study can go ahead and do their research regardless of what the name of their field would be, the ontological questions do have impact on public perception of the field and of its utility, and thus policy and funding decisions as well. Policy and funding in turn have impact on instrumental motivation and practical considerations, which for some – if not most – researchers are difficult to tease apart from inherent motivation.

I expressed my opinion during the discussion that quantitative studies of literature are very promising and revealing interesting insights that complement more traditional approaches to literature. Of course, the NLP researchers working on literature are not attempting to provide all the answers to questions about literature; their answers are only a part of the picture, but a very important part. The empirical results they obtain on a large scale are simply impossible to obtain without automatic procedures. At the same time, these automated procedures for data coding or analysis should not be ‘dumb’ ones, but should rather be nuanced to reflect earlier insights in literary analysis, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and other relevant fields.

No one can claim a monopoly on research directions or methodologies, and neither qualitative nor quantitative methodology should be the only way to look at literature. A humanities scholar asked me whether I, as a cognitive scientist, would consider including the humanities in a cognitive science program/department. I would welcome it and embrace it (if I had any say in the matter), provided that the CogSci division of the humanities program offers something different (a scientific, quantitative approach) from a non-CogSci division employing traditional approaches – the two should co-exist, though not necessarily in the same department. I always enjoy and value interdisciplinary collaboration, and I was very glad to meet the like-minded scholars at the workshop. The trouble is, not everyone is so enlightened as a renaissance scholar. I can foresee a lot of sociological – this is a euphemism for ‘dogmatic’ – resistance to the idea of putting numbers on literature, even if it’s not intended as the only way of looking at literature.

Nevertheless, my kindred spirits and I will go on. Participating in the workshop led me to discover insightful and interesting work by Jerry Hobbs and Inderjeet Mani, among others, and also interact with up-and-coming scholars whom I hope I will continue to see at future workshops and conferences.

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