Humanum: from digital humanities to digital humanism

‘Digital humanities’ refers to the use of technologies for information and communication in human and social sciences, whereas ‘digital humanism’ refers to the study of the consequences of digital technologies for humans. Thanks to its multi-disciplinary approach, Sorbonne University plans to be at the leading edge in these two areas. The Humanum chair is one of the key engines of this goal.


In 2012, Sorbonne University created a laboratory for digital humanities, the Observatoire de la vie littéraire (Obvil), which received Laboratory of Excellence certification. The Obvil is digitizing vast bodies of work (literary works, handwritten archives, critical works and more) and designing innovative IT tools for exploring them: methods for text alignment, semantic and logical analysis, visualization and mapping, which would allow, for example, the study of literary works’ origins and the way in which collective judgments on their value are made. Based on these bodies of work and tools, the Labex conducts research on either cross-disciplinary themes (such as the history of polemics regarding the theatre in 16th- to 19th-century Europe) or authors (for example, understanding how opinions on Molière gradually formed, as well as what the author borrowed from his predecessors and what his successors borrowed from him).


With 21 projects of this type involving more than 300 researchers in France and abroad, the Obvil is now one of the leaders in its field, but Sorbonne University wanted to go beyond the mere practice of digital humanities and to bring a strong theoretical basis to its approach by creating a digital humanism chair, Humanum, which is a forum for both reflecting on the digital world and disseminating these reflections.


Main areas of research

This chair was introduced at the start of the 2014-2015 academic year (to last for two years). Its main mission was to cast a critical eye on the work of the Obvil by reflecting on the epistemological, ethical and societal challenges of digital humanities: How does the digital world change the profession of researchers? What is its impact on the production and dissemination of knowledge? What are the limits of a computerized and quantitative approach to human and social sciences?

The work of Humanum also contributes to research on digital cultures: How are the practices of authors, publishers and readers reconfigured due to digital practices? What myths are at play in the development of information technology?


To help further and showcase this work as well as that of the Labex, the chair is helping to develop scientific exchanges on the implications of the digital world in the context of human and social sciences. At the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, for example, it organized an international conference in conjunction with the Obvil and the BNF, Vers une littérature mondiale à l’heure du numérique?, the proceedings of which will be published during 2016. Another conference of this type should be taking place in the autumn of 2016.



The mission of the chair is also to develop teaching on the challenges of the digital world and digital humanities. Besides doctoral training, the chair-holder gives two bachelor’s- and master’s-degree classes at Paris-Sorbonne:

Cultural history of the Net, a unit on the invention of the Internet and its developments up to the current digital sociability, aimed at students in their third year of the bachelor’s program

Initiation to digital humanities: a class on the history and uses of digital technologies in human and social sciences, aimed at students in their first year of the master’s program


Furthermore, Humanum is co-organizing the Obvil seminars and contributing to one of the main projects of the Labex: the introduction of a dual bachelor’s degree in humanities and computer science, in a partnership between Paris-Sorbonne and the UPMC, beginning in the 2016-2017 academic year.


The players

Humanum brings together two partners at Sorbonne University:

The Obvil Labex, supporter of the chair, which comprises researchers in computer science and cognitive science from the Laboratoire d’informatique de Paris 6 (LIP6) and literature specialists from Paris-Sorbonne (Center for the study of French language and literature 16-21, Center for comparative literature research, Anglophone voices, literature and esthetics, Civilizations and literature of Spain and America from the Middle ages to the Enlightenment, Center for inter-disciplinary research on contemporary Iberian worlds, and the Italian literature and culture team)

The laboratory of human and social sciences of the University of Technology at Compiègne, or Costech (knowledge, organization and technical systems), specialist in relationships between humans, technology and society.


The BNF is also a project stakeholder.


The scientific resource person for Humanum is the director of the Obvil. Didier Alexandre, professor of French literature at Paris-Sorbonne University.


The chair-holder is one of the main theorists of the changes brought about by the digital revolution in society and research in human and social sciences. Milad Doueihi, former holder of the chair for research on digital cultures at Laval University in Quebec.


Related to the article

To read

The Obvil website


Didier Alexandre

Milad Doueihi

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