Thomas Jefferson’s Mind: Polymathic and Polygraphic

This summer I am a Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies (ICJS) at Monticello writing a grant proposal for the study of Thomas Jefferson’s Mind through his libraries. The day I arrived – May 8, 2015 – was the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s sale to the Library of Congress of 6,497 volumes for $23,950 to replace the Library which was burned during the British invasion of Washington on August 24, 1814. This sale more than doubled the library’s catalog of 3,076 volumes and forever changed this national institution.

On Thursday, June 4, Colin Allen and I will be presenting our proposal to the Center via a public lecture for feedback from the community of historians, librarians, and other vested interests. The abstract and our bios are below.

Thomas Jefferson’s Mind: Polymathic and Polygraphic
Jaimie Murdock and Colin Allen
ICJS Fellows’ Forum, June 4, 2015

Jefferson collected thousands of books, wrote nearly 20,000 letters, and generated tens of thousands of other papers, keeping copies made with his famous double-penned “polygraph” machine. The digitization of his own writings, and the possibility of recreating his libraries from digital collections such as the HathiTrust, presents members of the public with unprecedented opportunities to explore and understand the interleaved themes of Jefferson’s life and career through the network of themes crisscrossing his reading and writing. We present our proposal to the Prototype Phase of the NEH Digital Projects for the Public Program, TJmind, which aids humanistic interpretation through novel, informative interfaces to both the books he read and the letters he wrote. These tools will make it possible for members of the public interested in Thomas Jefferson to discover themes writ large and small, and to drill down from high-level “distant readings” of the words that shaped his work into specific texts. By encouraging the public to engage directly with the texts and supporting their own “close readings” of thematically related documents, we can educate a broad audience about the interpretive process of the humanities. Our approach will also allow scholars who wish to apply computational methods in more depth to address research questions of interest to historians and other humanists, and to make these investigations available to a broad, general audience. Through both scholarly and public interactions, we set out on a discovery of the many facets of Jefferson, polymathic and polygraphic: from his interest in the Virginia climate to his concerns about the effects of Barbary pirates on American foreign trade, and of course from his historically significant role in designing the constitution, to his central position in defending American interests during two major wars.

Colin Allen is a Provost’s Professor at Indiana University, where he teaches in the Cognitive Science Program and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. He is a philosopher of science whose research spans animal cognition, the prospects for artificial moral agents, and algorithmic analysis of philosophical texts.

Jaimie Murdock is a joint PhD Student in Cognitive Science and Informatics at Indiana University studying the dynamics of expert learning and innovation through the lenses of history and philosophy of science, machine learning, and cognition. He is a prolific programmer with eight years of research experience in digital humanities as the lead developer of the InPhO Project.