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- Topic Modeling, Epistemology, and the English and German Novel « CA: Journal of Cultural Analytics.
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The major discrepancy between the two corpora pertains to the twentieth-century. The percentage participation of the German novels from that period shifts upward Another view of the data allows us to approach these shifts from a more granular perspective. Figures 1 and 2 plot the epistemology topic percentages of the novels in the English and German corpora published between and , with year of publication and percentage participation in the epistemology topics as the respective x and y axes. The two plots indicate that the aggregate drop in the means of the two corpora actually corresponds to a downward trend.
These are noisy patterns, to be sure, but they align well with other recent computational work on the nineteenth-century novel. To my mind, the most plausible hypothesis for the decline is a variant of the argument presented by Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac in their Stanford Literary Lab pamphlet from May Working with an English-language corpus of over 2, novels and a series of semantic taxonomies they constructed using the OED's historical thesaurus, Heuser and Le-Khac present compelling evidence of a significant drop in the frequency of terms denoting abstract values.
This drop, moreover, proved to be historically correlated with an increase in what they call "hard seed" terms - a collection of more concrete and physical description words. Considering the overwhelming predominance of abstract terms in topics 32 and 12, the aggregate data from the epistemological topics can serve as a corroboration of these results, one indicating that the decline in abstract values holds for both German and English literature, at least until the beginning of the twentieth century. Further support for this hypothesis can be found in categories identified by the topic models that correspond quite closely to Heuser and Le-Khac's "hard seed" field.
In addition to the epistemological topics, in other words, the topic modeling also generated parallel topics across corpora in which concrete terms predominate. Most notable among these are a "body parts" topic G We can thus link the aggregate results of the topic modeling to a broader decline over the course of the nineteenth century in novelistic abstraction and a correlated rise of concrete terms.
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By honing in on the question of epistemology, however, we are able to add some additional nuance to the picture presented by Heuser and Le-Khac. First and foremost, the aggregate trends should not blind us to the fact that the decline is not constant but ebbs and flows, at least as far as the epistemological preoccupations identified by the topic models are concerned. In fact, the outliers may ultimately be more productive as a starting point for literary-historical arguments than aggregate trends. Novels with significant e. Indeed, inasmuch as these high-scoring novels feature explicit engagements with questions of knowledge and cognition rather than affect, we can perhaps see it as a kind of companion genre.
While the topic percentages can give us a sense of which novels share a semantic field with the epistemology document, they tell us nothing about the how the terms in this field are deployed in concrete instances. As the excerpts cited previously suggest, and as a review of other top-ranking passages confirms, novels do incorporate explicit, abstract reflections on the sources and validity of knowledge. But they also offer a range of examples of applied, and often embedded, epistemological inquiry. I will have more to say about embedding — the "how" of novelistic epistemologies — shortly.
Before turning to that subject, however, we can use the results of the topic modeling to identify some distinctions at the level of content — the "what" — and thus begin to develop a preliminary typology that speaks to national particularities as well as cross-cultural parallels. At issue is the question of what other topics predominate in those novels that rank highly for epistemological content.
One way to answer this question is to select a subset of those novels - we took the top 25 - and then determine the top non-epistemology topics for each - we chose the top three. We then aggregated the results to establish which of the non-epistemology topics most frequently rank among the top three non-epistemology topics for novels in our selection. Table 4 lists the results and includes the number of novels and their titles together with the top 20 words for each topic.
It also includes an interpretive label for each topic for the purposes of orientation, but it should be noted that the topic words are disparate enough that there is room for debate here, especially in the case of the German topics.
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These lists prove revealing on a number of levels. Before turning to the lists themselves, however, it is important to note that epistemological content is highly ecumenical in its affiliations, that is to say, it appears together with a wide range of other thematic concerns. The tables include only the non-epistemological topics that ranked among the top three in the highest number of novels, but in fact no less than 21 topics from the German corpus and 24 topics from the English ranked among the top three non-epistemological topics for at least one high-epistemology novel.
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Nonetheless, it is also the case that for both sets of novels, the epistemology topics occur most frequently in conjunction with other abstract topics. It appears, in other words, that epistemological engagement tends to manifest as part of a broader "philosophical" orientation or at least an emphasis on interior states. This is perhaps not surprising, but a careful consideration of the topic words also suggests a few notable divergences between the national literary traditions.
Limiting ourselves to the most frequently occuring non-epistemology topic for each corpus, we find a suggestion of life in society in English topic 7 as compared to the more abstractly intellectual concerns of German topic 0, despite the fact that in both cases the majority of novels come from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Things become somewhat more complicated when we bring in additional topics, since English topic 14 is also highly abstract, albeit less in the sense of broad categories of intellectual inquiry in the German corpus: It is also associated with a group of later nineteenth-century novels that place heavy emphasis on criticism of societal institutions, either in direct form or ex negativo through the presentation of utopian communities. Even as they demonstrate a range of similar concerns across time periods and across both corpora, then, these results also point to differences in emphasis between the German and English novels.
While one finds no evidence that German novels are more epistemological than English novels in any straightforward sense, except perhaps at the beginning of the twentieth century, they do appear to be differently epistemological, and the predilection for a certain mode of generalization and abstraction around may help to explain the stereotype. A further perspective on the non-epistemological content of the epistemological novels can be acquired by approaching the question from the opposite direction, that is to say, by identifying other topics that predominate in the novels that rank lowest for epistemological content.
Table 5 includes the single highest-ranked non-epistemology topic that occurs in a subset of the bottom 20 epistemology novels for each corpus participation levels in the epistemology topics from roughly. The overlap between the two corpora in this context is quite striking, not only in terms of historical distribution very late nineteenth and early twentieth century but also in terms of the top words: One can interpret these results as offering further support of Heuser's and Le Khac's argument about the decline of abstraction - the very lowest epistemology quotients are associated with a high level of concrete descriptive vocabulary and publication dates in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century - even as they add nuance to that argument by demonstrating the ongoing existence of clusters of novels that buck the trend.
The existence of such clusters, moreover, together with the repeated appearance of epistemological outliers throughout the century, point to the possibility of linking the decline that appears in the aggregate data to an expansion and segmentation of the market. The nineteenth century bears witness to a dramatic expansion in the size of the literary market, and especially in the market for popular fiction. If mass market novels in general tend to include more plot and less reflection, then the expansion of the market will lead to a great proportion of such novels being published and to a corresponding decline in the relative degree of abstraction, even if not all works participate in the trend.
The question of participation is not simply one of canonical versus popular works or authors - Joseph Conrad and D.
Lawrence rank low for both of the abstract topics discussed thus far 32 and Genre may be a better category for trying to understand the fate of abstraction, and in this regard the high epistemology novels associated with topic 14 prove especially interesting, because they also challenge us to rethink our generic categories. Might we tie these together on the basis of their concern with social criticism? With human and societal evolution? With a particular narrative perspective? The final possibility reminds us of the previously mentioned shortcoming of the topic modeling approach; namely, that it can bind us to thematic content in a manner that de-emphasizes the multiple levels at which epistemological engagement can play out.
In fact, to the extent that one can speak of a uniquely novelistic mode of such engagement, one would expect it to be not merely applied, in the previously mentioned sense that it departs from the narrowly disquisitional approach of philosophical texts, but also embedded. Novels that explicitly address "the epistemology of x" at the level of content may not even be the most epistemological novels in a general sense. Our topic-modeling derived measures provide a useful proxy for identifying general trends, but any method according to which Woolf's To the Lighthouse ranks well below average 1.
Finding a proxy for sub- or supra-lexical features of epistemological engagement is no easy task. In the remainder of this essay, I will describe some first steps taken in this direction, which are limited to the German novels and based on the epistemic modal adverbs discussed previously.
Our first effort in this regard was inspired by results of the initial topic modeling. For the German corpus, the second highest ranking topic for the epistemology document 47 , although far less significant in terms of percentage participation 2. Two of Kafka's novels, famous for narrating failed quests for absolute knowledge, had ranked highly for the primary epistemology topic, but the participation levels for this second topic made it clear that topic 47 was more or less a Kafka topic.
It was at this point that we began investigating the scholarship on epistemic modality and decided to re-run the topic modeling on a corpus that had been part-of-speech tagged and then reduced to include only adverbs and adjectives. Interestingly, these topics split along two significant lexical axes. The question that emerged from these results was whether a case could be made that one mode of epistemological engagement is more frequently combined with or even displaced by another as the nineteenth century progresses, that is to say whether we could identify a historical shift away from explicit epistemological reflection and toward epistemic narration, understood as a narrative perspective that foregrounds the epistemic relationship between the speaker or narrator and the content of his or her utterance.
From a literary-historical perspective, the most striking result of this set of results is the fact that the canonical modernist Franz Kafka appears together at the top of the list with Karl May, the popular and prolific author of adventure novels of the American West and, occasionally, the Far East.
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Frequently this effort entails evaluating competing interpretations of specific events or behaviors, and even more frequently the protagonists are engaged with interlocutors whose reliability remains open to question or who are in need of instruction. In other words, dialogue figures prominently and narrators tend to be either first-person or covert. A typical example from May is the following, which comes from the travel narrative Und Friede auf Erden She acted as though she had been reassured by this report, but she probably hadn't been, at least not entirely, as was proven to me by her very silence.
Here the uncertainty finds expression not only in the use of epistemic adverbs "wahrscheinlich" and quasi-epistemic phrases "nicht ganz" but also in the use of the subjunctive form "tat, als ob. Also noteworthy here is the spectrum of possibility presented. The first-person narrator interprets the apparent relief of the woman as insincere but also indicates that his interpretation is only probably correct.
One finds precisely these same elements in Kafka, as in the following brief exchange between K. It may in fact be the case, K. Right, right, said the baliff, as if it were a matter of something self-evident. Again we have a two-tiered equivocation, in the sense that reaction of the baliff casts doubt onto the reasonableness of K's claim but is itself rendered ambiguous through the use of the subjunctive as if it were a matter of something self-evident. Both authors, then, are concerned with delineating what we might term a hermeneutics of intersubjectivity in situations of threatening opacity, except that in May this opacity arises from travel to exotic lands whereas in Kafka it has become a feature of an environment that ought to be familiar.
One should also note that despite the stylistic and rhetorical similarities between the two authors, May documents both the opacity as well as many successful efforts to render it transparent, whereas in Kafka the hermeneutics ultimately seems to spin out of control in a kind of mise-en-abyme of interpretation.
Most significant in the context of the current analysis, however, is the fact that these passages provide support for the notion of an evolution toward a greater emphasis on epistemic narration, that is to say, toward novels in which epistemological concerns have become more deeply embedded in the narrative structure. This is not to claim that these novels have no explicitly philosophical content. Five passages from May's novels and three from those of Kafka also appear in the list of the top high-ranking passages for epistemology topic The point, rather, is that this content represents only part of what makes the novels epistemologically interesting, and, even more importantly, that there may be other novels that lack such content but nonetheless exhibit a strong epistemological orientation at the level of narration.
Establishing or refuting the existence of a historical phenomenon of the sort under consideration here will require additional analysis and significance testing, especially if one wants to incorporate a cross-cultural comparison.