What is the "humanities"?

It is often the case that when non-academics, or even non-humanities academics, talk about my generic field, they refer to it as "arts", and mean by this the creative arts, like performing arts, crafts, and corporate accounting. So they justify the funding for the "arts" (or "the yartz", as a Barry Humpries character calls them) because we are supposed to entertain people and add to cultural life.

Those who know me know this is not what I do. I have been known to sing in the shower, but that is about it. So I was very pleased to see this piece in the Australian Higher Education section recently, by a former head of humanities at the Australian National University, Simon Haines. He discusses how to define the humanities, and comes up with a "quantity/quality" distinction. I am not so keen on that (because, as a humanities scholar, I reject the notion of quality, so I would cause a singularity and make the whole thing get sucked into a black hole of definitions).

What defines the humanities? Well, I think it is history, mainly. The humanities are those disciplines that studied the human aspect of the universe, before the social sciences had a fit of independence. So now they are what is left over after social science, linguistics, psychology, mathematics, and the sciences in general have gone their own way. Great! They're a trashcan categorial.

Only I think there are positive fields within the humanities that have something definite about them. Philosophy is about metaphysics, epistemology and ethics (what is, what humans know about what is, and what humans think should be done about it). History is about what humans did in the past. Literary studies are about what humans have written, and how that gets received in human society. There is something starting to be a theme here. The humanities are about aspects of humans; it doesn't matter that not everything about humans is included in the domain. Even religious studies is about what humans think of a particular aspect of human behaviour (ritual and numinal).

But what if, as I think, there is no real distinction to be had between the sciences of the natural and the sciences of the human? What if humans just are natural things themselves? This is, I think, reason to hope that the humanities will continue to generate new sciences. Philosophy of science is my field because I think it tells us about how we know the world; as Paul Griffiths says, that is where the epistemic action is. Epistemology not grounded in real knowledge gathering (done by introspection of the contents of Cambridge academics' minds) is otiose and misleading. Watching what happens when humans engage the world is far more interesting. One day that, too, will be a science; there are attempts to use the methods of social science in what is called "experimental philosophy" (or X-Phi, a term that makes me throw up in my mouth a little) that suggest this is already happening, as also in cognitive science.

The humanities are the breeding ground for new sciences. Yes, they contribute to the cultural discourse, but if sciences aren't doing that too, there's something very wrong. They should be funded the same way fundamental research in sciences is: because you simply can't tell what will pay off in the future. Sure, you might get Freud. But you might also get cognitive science.


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An interesting idea, and probably a good one. But I think in this context, the analytical "sciences" will always lag behind any cutting edge arts and humanities, whatever they may be in the future. Greater minds of synthesis will always set the agenda for lesser minds of analysis. I suspect that may even be true of philosophy, which to me is all-encompassing field about meta-everything, including itself - and it can go as meta as synthesizing minds would like. (BTW, the term "X-Phi" nauseates me as well).

This is very interesting ( I speak as someone with a straight humanities background). I was also taught by Simon Haines in the English department at the ANU for a few years, and may I start by saying that he was a wonderful, gifted teacher and I will never forget some of the things I learned from him.Anyway, just a personal comment I couldn't resist making as an up for him.

I am focussing on the line about Freud, here. I'm sure you weren't suggesting that his thougths were of no merit whatsoever to his field, rather, that as a scientist,he made a good humanities guy.

When you remarked that we might get a Freud but we might get (lucky?) and get cognitive science, it made me think about the analogous story in psychology/psychiatry (which might look a jump, but I'll bring it back).

Nowadays, cognitive science is widely influential in psychological medicine, while Freudian Psychoanalysis is less so, in Australia a least. Part of the reason for this is economics, undoubtedly. One result is that the CBT guys are given repeat funding to further research into neuroscience/ behavioural science, and it gains in stature . I'm not arguing that it should or should not be the case, only that it is the case.
Arguably, a side- effect is that the Freudian end of psych med is deemed comparatively unscientific, and therefore of little *value* to our understanding of aspects of humanity. I wonder, is it the case that society now has v. little use for a *synthesis* of the humanities and science - ( which is how I view Freud)- as a means to that? And is there something to say here about qualitative and quantitative divisions?
Anyway, that was a very interesting article and blog. Thanks.

By Abigail Dunleavy (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

What do you think of the naturalistic view, maybe attributed to E.O. Wilson, that since the Humanities are about the study of different aspects of Homo sapiens they are subdisciplines of Biology? Just as Entomology is the study of the taxon Hexapoda.

That's layer cake reductionism, and I reject it. All sciences are reducible directly to physics, but that doesn't mean one has to do this by some intervening sciences. Maybe aspects of psychology are chemistry, but I don't see what is gained by trying to fit psychology in general into chemical or biological constraints. Where it can be, great; but it isn't just biology or chemistry.


... philosophy, which to me is all-encompassing field about meta-everything ...

Err, no, not in my view. To me philosophy is a zero-covering field about nexta-nothing.

Of course olde worlde philosophy led to natural philosophy and the untangling of natural from super-natural which gave us the sciences, but modern philosophy? It seems to be a bunch of highly literate know-nothing wankers in a literary rutting ritual. The words "post-modernism" on their own condemn it the field as an infantile sham. The better philosophical arguments come (in my view) from specialists in other fields who can bring real knowledge to bear on a subject, because they have metaphorical bricks to build a wall and can find decent mortar easily enough, whereas philosophers have excellent mortar but no bricks, so no wall.

From the post:

What defines the humanities? Well, I think it is history, mainly.

Possibly in a different way than you mean. Modern sciences have current disputes at the bleeding edges, but once settled, history is ignored, facts are everything. Studying biology, I learnt about evolution, but not about Darwin. Studying mechanics, I learnt about Newton's Laws but not about Newton. When a subject has "schools" which maintain different approaches, be they Marxists, Modernists, Rogerians, it is clearly not part of the scientific scene.

Thirty years ago, I remember a geography student pointing out that there wasn't really any such field as "geography" because all the bits of it were labelled as something else: cartography, geology, demographics, economics, etc.

"Humanities" seems to be in the same boat - a cover-all for bunches of vaguely related subjects which are too small (in terms of popularity or coverage) to deserve full departments and courses of their own!

Of course "humanities" is going to be a bit of a ragbag term, and "lose" fields as they firm up.

Interesting post. I can get behind the idea of humanities as a breeding ground for science--history certainly supports this notion. I just can't see the NIH, the largest funder of basic research, funding a humanities department. But maybe that's what they're doing with the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. You win some, you lose some.

Why Arts, why Humanities?

I tend to think that anything that I know is something that is known by anyone with a reasonable education, which is of course not true. This being the case I thought that some of Johnâs readers might not know the historical origins of the concepts âartsâ and âhumanitiesâ and might be interested in learning them. What follows is not a strict historical discourse but just a rough outline of the development of the faculty of arts at the European university from its beginnings up till the 19th century.

Of the two designations the faculty of arts is the older and goes back to the founding of the European universities at the beginning of the High Middle Ages. In those days the faculty of arts was the lower faculty in which all students took their first degree a bachelor of arts in order to qualify to study on one of the higher faculties; theology, medicine or law. This qualification was roughly equivalent to a modern American High School Diploma, English A-Levels, a German Abitur etc. (I have no idea what the Aussie equivalent is?) Here the word âartsâ is the Latin âarsâ, which means art, skill or craft and in the 13th century the word art meant âskill as a result of learning or practiceâ. The skill or crafts learnt in the faculty of arts were the so-called âseven liberal artsâ an ideal scheme of education propounded by Boethius in the Early Middle Ages. The seven liberal arts consisted of two parts, the Trivium (which is the source of the word trivial meaning basic) consisting of the disciplines grammar, rhetoric and logic and the Quadrivium consisting of the four mathematical sciences arithmetic, geometry, music (which was actually the mathematical theory of proportions) and astronomy. The Quadrivium as the divisions of the mathematical sciences is said to go back to Archytas, a fifth century BCE Pythagorean. This remained the general scheme of things at most European universities until well into the 17th century.

The change to the humanities came much, much later and has its roots in the Humanist Renaissance which is considered to have its origins in the early 15th century but which can already be detected in the 14th century. The humanists were scholars who rejected the educational scheme of the Mediaeval Scholastic University that was based largely on the Trivium, the Latin language and the works of Aristotle (the Quadrivium was to a large extent neglected!). Instead the humanists oriented themselves on the Renaissance in Greek literature in the original and the model humanist scholar was a tri-lingual (Latin, Greek and Hebrew) student of classical, i.e. Greek and Latin, literature. (Humanist is from It. umanista, coined by It. poet Lodovicio Ariosto (1474-1533) "student of human affairs or human nature." Humanities (L. literæ humaniores) were those branches of literature (ancient classics, rhetoric, poetry) which tended to humanize or refine.) I donât actually know when the faculty of arts became the humanities but I suspect that it was not before the 19th century.

Contrary to one popular opinion the humanists were not anti-science, many of the leading scientists of the 15th and 16th centuries were humanists, Peuerbach, Regiomontanus and Copernicus for example, and many of the leading humanist philologists were avid supporters of the mathematical sciences. Philipp Melanchthon introduced the mathematical sciences as a separate discipline, with chairs for mathematics, into the schools and universities of the Protestant educational system. Joachim Camerarius translated Greek astronomical works into Latin and edited them for publication. Conrad Celtis the so-called arch-humanist established an institute for mathematics at the University of Vienna, which played a very central role in the evolution of astronomy in the 16th century. Cardinal Bessarion the leading and most influential humanist in Italy in the 16th century was an avid collector of Greek mathematical manuscripts and we owe the rediscovery of the work of Diophantus to him.

It is first in the 18th century that the sciences start to split of from the faculty of arts and to acquire a separate status, while at the same time other disciplines such as philology and history established themselves in the humanities. The full-scale separation of the âartsâ and the âsciencesâ is really a product of the 19th century.

In German the humanities are called the Geisteswissenschaften, which literally translates as the sciences of the mind or intellect!

People such as Sam C. above who think that the âartsâ or âhumanitiesâ are

"Humanities" seems to be in the same boat - a cover-all for bunches of vaguely related subjects which are too small (in terms of popularity or coverage) to deserve full departments and courses of their own!

are just displaying their own pitiful ignorance and are in need of a good education.

Epistemology not grounded in real knowledge gathering (done by introspection of the contents of Cambridge academics' minds) is otiose and misleading

I couldn't agree more. Sometimes I feel lonely in the philosophy department, because it seems like I'm the only person who finds the majority of what goes on in epistemology and metaphysics to be completely uninteresting. The professor of a metaphysics class I took once went on and on about the "tiny bit of freedom" of an electron passing through a nerve in the brain, as if that had something to do with free will. When I objected, "But the brain doesn't work that way at all," he looked at me inquisitively, like he couldn't figure out why that should matter.

Wes, there's a movement in philosophy called "experimental philosophy". Google it and you'll find a score of references and sites. It intends to do philosophy empirically (which raises some interesting epistemological questions for me) by surveying various what Foucaudians call epistemes.

For myself I like philosophy to be grounded in the science (cognitive science) or to be about the science (philosophy of science). All the rest is, in my mind, interesting but not really probative. In that respect I am post-analytic, as experimental philosophy also is. It may take a while for the profession to catch up, but in effect this is what the nineteenth century Anglophone philosophers were doing, before Cambridge came along and squashed it. And even then Carnap and others continued to do it.

For myself I like philosophy to be grounded in the science (cognitive science) or to be about the science (philosophy of science). All the rest is, in my mind, interesting but not really probative.

Few can argue with the empirical success of the scientific method, and I certainly won't. But I have always been one to question everything - and I mean everything. I believe that is in the fundamental spirit of philosophy. To me, philosophy has always been more about freely asking questions than it is about answering them - exploring a problem space that has little or no restrictions. I certainly have no objection to those who would pragmatically restrict their philosophy to the applied, seeking more immediate answers - except if they claim that this view leads to some kind of absolute truth.

(or X-Phi, a term that makes me throw up in my mouth a little)

Why do I get this image of a huge gorilla chasing kids off his lawn in a crotchety old gorilla rage?:) (not to say that I don't have much the same reaction to that sort of labeling, but most of my friends know I'm pretty crotchety for thirty-two or thirty-three - I'm pretty sure thirty-three)

The humanities are the breeding ground for new sciences.

I think this is a very important point. I see the humanities as a place to deal with things that simply aren't currently quantifiable. I also take the attitude that just because something isn't quantifiable today, doesn't mean it never will be. It's important to realize that there are aspects of humanity that though they aren't quantifiable, most certainly exist and are no less important for our lack of measure for them.

Sam C is an excellent example of the importance of the study of humanities.

Err, no, not in my view. To me philosophy is a zero-covering field about nexta-nothing.

This is nothing but flat out ignorance. Philosophy is important for two reasons, it explores how to think and explores how large groups of people think and why. Unlike social psychology, which explores specific social paradigms, philosophy explores the abstract interplay of social and individual paradigms.

Sam C seems to fall into the category of people who believe that because something is not currently quantifiable, it is simply not important. This is an attitude that betrays an ignorance of where poly-sci, psychology and the methods of science come from. Philosophy is the playground of ideas - some of them mature and grow, while others never amount to anything for lack of a solid foundation. Without people spending time in the realms of thought exercises and abstract thinking, humans would be nothing more than any other animal, existing on a base level of strong ruling the weak and survival as the only point of living.

I'm reminded of the facade of the Wellington City Gallery, which bears inscriptions of several fields of study, including the "Fine Arts" and the "Useful Arts"...

"That's why it's always worth having a few philosophers around the place. One minute it's all Is Truth Beauty and Is Beauty Truth, and Does A Falling Tree in the Forest Make A Sound if There's No one There to Hear It, and then just when you think they're going to start dribbling one of 'em says, Incidentally, putting a thirty-foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy's ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles."

Crotchetty? Who are you to call me crotchetty, you young whippersnapper?! Come here and I'll do what your dad should have done years ago. And get offa my lawn!

It's not even like I have to shake my head and wonder what the hell these damned kids are listening to, once in a while...I do it pretty regularly now. And I'm pretty strongly inclined to verbalize my wonder and amazement when the crap they call music is particularly egregious and wrong.

I'm crotchety and I'm only thirty three (I figured it out this time).

Try the final chapters of Allen Bloom's 'The Closing of the American Mind' for a great analysis of the humanities vis-a-vis the natural- and social- sciences.

Not to mention a supremely 'crotchety' attack on rock music's debasement of philosophic thought.