Panel: What is text? A debate on the philosophical and epistemological nature of text in the light of humanities computing research

Susan Hockey, Chair
Arts Technologies for Learning Centre
University of Alberta
5-21D Humanities Centre
Edmonton, AB T6G 2E6

Allen Renear
Brown University
Box 1841
Providence, RI 02912

Jerome J. McGann
Department of English
University of Virginia
Bryan Hall
Charlottesville, VA 22906

The Text Encoding Initiative and other recent markup research projects in humanities computing have fostered lively debate and discussion on the nature of text. If we are to represent text in a form suitable for electronic processing, we need to define what text is and what structures we want to be able to recognize in text. This focus on the structural components of text, pioneered by Allen Renear and his colleagues at Brown University, became the foundation of much of the SGML-based encoding seen in today's electronic text projects. But it also developed at a time when many textual scholars, notably Jerome McGann, began to move away from the linguistic and structural properties of text and to place more emphasis on what McGann calls "bibliographical codes", that is on texts as material phenomena where appearance and rendition are important.

This session will take the form of a debate between Renear and McGann, two well-known scholars who have written and spoken extensively on the nature of text. Each will present their views in an opening statement of approximately twenty-five minutes. They will then be given a further five minutes to reply before the topic is open to the floor for further discussion and questions.

1. Position statement from Renear

I will present and defend a particular view of textuality. It is a view which has roots in common sense and tradition, and which has also proven to be heuristic in directing research and practical for guiding system and software designers. It is a view that seems to illuminate textual practices in the humanities and it is arguably implicit in work of the Text Encoding Initiative. However it is, at least in parts, coming increasingly under suspicion. This is too bad, as this view is not only a rather good account of textuality, it is the best account we have.

I will advocate this theory by defending five theses; I will argue that texts are:

  1. real: they have properties independent of our interests in them and our theories about them.

  2. abstract: the objects which constitute texts are abstract, not material, objects.

  3. intentional: texts are, necessarily, the product of mental acts

  4. hierarchical: the structure of texts is fundamentally hierarchical

  5. linguistic: texts are linguistic objects; renditional features are not parts of texts, and therefore not proper locations for textual meaning.

I will rehearse the arguments, which I believe to be decisive, and consider alleged counterexamples, which I believe fail. I do not claim that this view encounters no hard cases, or that it solves all problems. But in the course of the discussion we will see that this account of text is rich in explanatory and predictive power, implied by our modal intuitions about cultural artifacts, and useful both in regulating further inquiry, and in guiding the development of tools and resources. Finally, and very importantly, I argue that this view has no serious competitors. It is the best account of text that we have, and, fortunately, it is a good one.

This theory of text has been developed in collaboration, over the last ten years, with colleagues at Brown and elsewhere -- however most of those involved would demur from the ambitions, and commitments, of my formulations here. The development of this view can be found in the following papers.

James H. Coombs, Allen Renear, and Steven J. DeRose. "Markup Systems and The Future of Scholarly Text Processing,", Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, 30:11 November, 1987.

Steven DeRose, David Durand, and Elli Mylonas. "What is Text, Really?" Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 1:2 Winter, 1990.

Allen Renear, Elli Mylonas, and David Durand. "Refining Our Notion of What Text Really Is: The Problem of Overlapping Hierarchies," in Research in Humanities Computing, Oxford University Press 1996. (Version presented at ALLC/ACH92 at Christ Church, Oxford; 1992:

Allen Renear "Practical Ontology: The Case of Written Communication," In Kjell S. Johannessen and Tore Nordenstam, Culture and Value: Philosophy and the Cultural Sciences, Kirchberg am Wechsel 1995.

Allen Renear. "Theory and Meta-Theory in the Development of Text Encoding," Target paper for the The Monist, currently (1996) in circulation in the Interactive Monist Seminar.Summary published in The Monist, 80:3 July 1997. See: .

Steven J. DeRose, David Durand, Elli Mylonas, and Allen Renear "Author's Response to Three Comments on 'What is Text, Really?'". Journal of Computer Documentation. 1997.

Allen Renear. "Out of Praxis: Three (Meta)Theories of Textuality" Electronic Textuality: Investigations in Method and Theory, Kathryn Sutherland, ed. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Although criticisms of this view from within the humanities computing community have been expressed in conference papers by Claus Huitfeldt, Dino Buzzetti, Fabio Ciotti, and others (see:, it is widely thought that very serious problems for this theory can also be found in the influential work of the theorist of textual criticism, Jerome McGann.

2. Position statement from McGann

The question framing this ACH session involves a misconception. It assumes that "text" is a unitary phenomenon and that its concept can be thought as self-identical. But while both of these assumptions may be undertaken for heuristic purposes, neither represents what Wittgenstein called "the case".

In the field of Humanities Computing the idea of text has been dominated by conceptions practically realized in the TEI implementation of SGML markup. Several key theoretical papers published by Steve DeRose, Allen Renear, "et al." explain the ground of that implementation.

This ground, explicitly "abstract" (Renear1997), represents a view of text as essentially a vehicle for transmitting information and concepts (final cause). Text is "hierarchical" (formal cause) and "linguistic" (material cause), and it is a product of human intention (efficient cause).

I invoke these Aristotelian categories because Renear correctly insists upon the "platonic" character of the TEI/SGML approach to textuality. That self-description, traceable to several Platonic works, the Republic in particular, helps to clarify the differential involved in "poetic" or noninformational forms of textuality. There is no question but that most of our textual archive is hierarchically organized. On the other hand, there is also no question but that poetical texts comprise a key, perhaps even a defining, part of the corpus of our humanities archive. When Plato called for the expulsion of the poets from the city, he was arguing for a certain theory of textuality.

Unlike expository text, poetry is not organized in a determinate hierarchy. TEI and SGML markup, therefore, while reasonably adequate vehicles for expository and informational texts, fails to render those features of poetic text that are most salient for its makers and users. Poetical texts are recursive structures built out of complex networks of repetition and variation. No poem can exist without systems of "overlapping structures", and the more developed the poetical text, the more complex are those systems of recursion. So it is that in a poetic field no unit can be assumed to be self-identical. The logic of the poem is only frameable in some kind of paradoxical articulation such as: "a equals a if and only if a does not equal a".

This essential character of poetical text helps to explain why content in poeisis tends to involve more broadly "semiotic" rather than narrowly "linguistic" materials. The sonic and visible features of text are, so far as the poets who make these texts are concerned (or the readers who engage them), nearly as apt for expressive poetical purposes as the semantic, syntactic, and rhetorical features. Each of these features represents a field of textual action, and while any one field may be individually (abstractly) framed in a hierarchized scheme, the recursive interplay of the fields produces works whose order is not hierarchical. Of course a governing hierarchy can be imposed upon such works. TEI and SGML create, as Renear shows, a certain type of "linguistic" hierarchy, one that privileges text as a container for storing information. But even that linguistic hierarchy is highly specialized (it does not consider, for example, the rhetorical structures that overlap and infect the syntax and semantics).

The case of poetry in fact defines a kind of textual ethos, as it were, that may be seen to pervade genres not normally thought of as poetical. Certain kinds of philosophers lend themselves to a hierarchical approach - St. Thomas, Kant, Hegel. Others don't. Not without reason has the Bergen Wittgenstein project abandoned TEI/SGML as a system for marking up the corpus of Wittgenstein's texts; and the scholars setting out now to "edit" the Peirce archive are well aware that TEI/SGML does not lend itself to an adequate treatment of Peirce's work, and least of all to his existential graphs. "Text" in Kant "is" one thing, but in Peirce it "is" something else again.


Renear, Allen. "Out of Praxis: Three (Meta)Theories of Textuality". Electronic Text: Investigations in Theory and Method. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. 107-26.