Defining the Humanities

Here are some attempts at defining the humanities. Not all are necessarily accurate, or represent what we will do in this course, but they do reflect common ways of understanding the humanities.

According to the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act

"The term humanities includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life."

Brief Definitions

  1. The Humanities consist of Literature, the Fine Arts, Philosophy and History
  2. Major humanities works must:
    1. address themselves to a general audience;
    2. manifest excellence in style;
    3. express significant ideas about the human mind and society.
  3. Humanities is the history of ideas
  4. "The best that has been thought and said" (Matthew Arnold)
  5. Humanities is the integrative study of society, ideas, and the arts
  6. Humanistic study integrates understandings of aesthetic, intellectual, and moral value that are inherent in the works of human culture


Humanities as a Pursuit Within the University Context

B. Janz

The term "humanities" has come to mean different things in different universities (and I don't claim that this list is comprehensive):

General/Liberal Studies: This refers to foundational study, and is represented by the members of such groups as the Association of General and Liberal Studies. Courses tend to emphasize general skills and knowledge that extends across disciplinary boundaries, and also in some cases have emphasized content that will "make you a better person", as opposed to preparing you for a specific task. In some cases this is an attempt to recover some analogy of the mediaeval trivium, the liberal arts which were basic to all areas of knowledge. Many people do not see this as either a research area or, properly speaking, a discipline. but supports other research areas or disciplines, and is mainly for students in their early years, to inculcate a broad cultural understanding before they go on to specialize.

Cooperation of Disciplines: Probably the most common sense of "humanities" in most universities is as the cooperation of a set of disciplines. This may be in institutional form, as in a faculty, or in more deliberate form, such as in a humanities centre. Typically these centres provide resources and programs that can serve all the disciplines involved. The key here is that humanities deliberately comes after disciplinarity, as a conscious effort to find commonalities between already distinct and established disciplines. This version of humanities does not tend to face charges of dilettantism or irrelevance. On the other hand, it also tends not to challenge the home disciplines in any radical manner (although there's nothing necessary about that).

Great Books Programs: This refers to the program initiated at the University of Chicago, and carried on at such places as the Great Books Foundation, and Malaspina College in BC. The most prominent current exponent of the Great Books curriculum is St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe (see The program emphasizes overarching concepts, represented by the "classics" texts of Western thought. I only put classics in quotation marks to indicate the vexed nature of the category for many. These concepts come out of the "great questions" or perennial issues of human concern, ones which are assumed to transcend cultural/ethnic/gendered boundaries and bind all humanity together (although, Adler's original core list of 137 authors and hundreds of books only included two women, Jane Austen and George Eliot). The controversy over Great Books concerns the often-discussed issue of canonicity, or what should be included and why. A related issue is the possibility that the "great questions" represent only a subset of humanity, and not all of humanity (and, further, that it may not be "great questions" but "great answers" that are the goal here). There may be an evaluative sense of culture here (even a Matthew Arnold notion of culture as the study or pursuit of perfection - "high culture"). But Great Books programs can be somewhat less prescriptive and more critical as well (e.g., the Malaspina program is a "watered down" Great Books program, more willing to take critical perspectives into account).

History of Ideas: Although many Great Books programs are also vitally concerned with the history of ideas, I am differentiating them here. Great Books programs tend to prescribe the right ideas that everyone should know about. History of ideas programs tend to be more interested in accounting for the ideas we have and where they came from, the contexts in which they emerged, and also their limitations. In other words, there is a less prescriptive feel to these programs. History of ideas was a break-away from history, particularly the history of philosophy. It was originally seen as "soft" history.
The University of Washington has a "Comparative History of Ideas" program, which is interdisciplinary and emphasizes what they call "parallel thinking", or multiple forms of understanding of a problem.
However, not all history of ideas programs are focussed on problem-based research. In fact, that's historically something that is found more in interdisciplinary programs. History of ideas programs can be critical (like Helen Sheehan's course in Ireland or it can be fairly conservative.

Cultural Studies: While it is a bit misleading to call cultural studies humanities (after all, cultural studies has resisted both disciplinarity and humanism, if not humanities), it does make sense to identify cultural studies as a historical way of resisting more positivist or quantitative analyses of society and human experience.
Cultural studies resists location in a specific department, but in fact it usually ends up there anyway. I typed "cultural studies" into the UCF search engine, and most of the top 20 hits were my pages. That suggests to me that the phrase doesn't have much currency here. There are certainly some in English who do this, but the department doesn't seem to officially emphasize it as one of their strengths. It may be that the term "cultural studies", like the term "postmodern", is a term whose time has past. It seems to be used less than it once was, and because of this might be a term to be avoided. What might have changed is the associations of cultural studies (and for that matter, postmodernism) as primarily destructive or relativist enterprises. Cultural studies has had bad press because its tradition of questioning the status quo has not always been accompanied by its ability to present new ways of understanding human meaning and value.

Interdisciplinary Programs: Interdisciplinarity has often emerged "from the ground up", that is, from specific interests of two or more disciplines. Sometimes, though, it has existed as a category or academic unit, general enough to house new or emergent interests. Sometimes it has been seen as a kind of nursery for new programs, which eventually become their own academic units. Interdisciplinarity has often been seen as collective problem-solving (that's how it almost always appears in technical disciplines). Ultimately, though, interdisciplinarity must involve two or more approaches to knowledge "interrogating" each other, that is, raising questions about the assumptions about how knowledge is produced and how concepts are defined in the other disciplines. As a discipline questions another, it comes to understand itself, and not just the other discipline, since a form of knowledge production only becomes clear as it has to explain itself to another, and as it asks questions that are not entirely adequate or appropriate. Just as a mistaken question that an American might ask about someone from Kenya will tell us something about the assumptions and context of the American, so too interdisciplinary research allows disciplines to come to self-understanding, and will hopefully lead to the creation of new concepts.

Transdisciplinary Programs: These are programs that focus on a meta-language or meta-method. Several non-humanities versions exist, like systems theory. Semiotics could be seen as a humanities version, and there are departments that define themselves in terms of a particular method. Stand-alone cultural studies departments can be like this as well, although they aren't necessarily.

8. A friend of mine, Ross Emmett of James Madison College at MSU, suggested this as another way of doing humanities: "What about the
large number of programs in which writing becomes the vehicle through which humanities intersects with other parts of the university? Here [at James Madison], for example, what used to be known as American Thought and Language was the home of most of the university writings courses, which all students were required to take. So writing took place within a humanities (not specifically composition) setting. There may be other variants of this."