When people talk about uncertainty in a historical context in digital humanities, most of the time they talk about questions such as the exact date of birth of a person, whether two names refer to one or two persons, what geographical location a place name refers to, or the location of a person at a specific point in time. These are important questions and it is important to find ways to computationally model the associated uncertainty. However, history is ultimately not about drawing exact maps or time lines, even if those can certainly help: history is about causality. In this talk, I would like to reflect on some of the issues on the level of historical interpretation, i.e., historiographical rather than historical uncertainty.
The last two days I’ve been teaching a course on formal modeling in the context of our new doctoral program in Digital Studies (Programme doctoral en études numériques); in fact, it was the first ever course taught in this program. It would certainly have been easier to give a course on the basis of material that you already have, but I wanted to teach something new rather than just warming up old material. In accordance with my ideas for developing the digital humanities at UNIL, I decided on the topic of formal modeling. This meant, however, a lot of work over the summer and, with the date of the course coming closer, nagging doubts about the—newly developed and thus untested—content. Would I have enough material? Would the participants be able to relate to it, or would it be too hard? And so on.