Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Words Without Context

One of the biggest problems in understanding Egyptian religion is not lack of texts but lack of contexts. My colleague, Martin Stadler, writes perceptively about problems with certain types of research:
Die bisherige Forschung zu Thot wird dominiert von einer eher additiven Nebebeinanderstellung der Belege ohne analytische Ordnung oder dem Versuch, einen Zusammenhang zu finden, wenngleich einzelne Arbeiten das Material thematisch gliedern und dabei einen zentralen Wesenszug indentifizieren möchten, aus dem alle anderen Zuständigkeiten des Gottes hergeleitet werden. (M. A. Stadler, Weiser und Wesir [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009], 36.)
Although his purpose was not such, he has identified one of the problems with computerized research in the humanities. It is the same problem that often plagues philologists, like those who have preceded him in researching aspects of Egyptian religion.

While today we can gather large amounts of data, we can digitize books and have the computer turn them into text, and have the computer search them for words, we still may not know what is in the book. Our philological analysis will consist, as Stadler points out, of merely a continuous stream of passages without any analytical system or the attempt to find a context. The computer is great at finding words or phrases in a work but the mere ability to do so does not give the researcher any sense of context unless the researcher already knows the work. Thus the computer can only help to a certain extent and does not relieve the researcher of the burden of reading the text.