Asking Questions in the Humanities

Questions in the humanities are not the same as questions in other disciplines. We could contrast humanities questions with those asked in the social sciences and the sciences. All these are important areas of human knowledge, but they are not the same. Put simply, the more scientific a question is, the more it searches for explanation. The more humanistic a question is, the more it searches for understanding. An explanation asks for cause and effect relationships, and connects data and facts together in a coherent whole in which we can understand how things came to be. In the humanities, we want understanding, which usually requires metaphors, analogies, and other comparisons between what we currently know and what we want to find out. If, for instance, I want to ask a question about the nature of the city, I could ask a scientific one (how do cities come to be the way they are? What is the relationship between crime rates, location in the city, and education?). On the other hand, I could ask a humanities question (How is the city represented in an artist's work? What is the relationship between peoples' religious beliefs and the way a city is organized?)

You may have to think about what kind of a question it is, as well. Is it a question that will require the tools of the historian? Or maybe the philosopher? Maybe some other discipline? Humanities uses the tools of various disciplines, but you have to know what they are. If, for example, you ask the question "Why did perspective develop in painting at the time it did and not earlier?", you could be asking one of several different questions, each of which would be answered in a very different manner:

You can probably see that the initial question, which seemed fairly clear, actually could be many different questions, each of which needs to be addressed quite differently. If you don't specify which question you are really asking, you will end up just including elements from several of these questions, and not really doing a very thorough job on any of them.

You might also need to narrow the question down. You might have to make clear just what you will not be addressing in this paper, given the space you have available to write. Believe it or not, you can write more on a focussed and narrow question than a broad, vague one.