What are the Humanities?

I’ve been thinking about this question in rather literal terms over the last few days as I’ve been drafting the contact form for people interested in being one of our weekly guest editors (coming soon).  We’re looking for people who identify themselves as working within the humanities, which gets us out of answering this question somewhat, but in order to make sure we’re representing different areas each week I’ve made a tick-box list of different disciplines.  That way we (Jess and Krissie) can see at a glance who’s interested in what, making sure we have variety in the schedule.

Part of what I’m most excited about with this project is how many different jobs, research areas and interests we can potentially cover but it’s nagging at me that I’m still not entirely sure what I mean when I say ‘the humanities’.  How do we define ourselves and what does it mean when we exclude certain areas?  Does it matter that we might have different definitions in mind so long as we’re all in agreement that the humanities are important to societies, individuals and cultures – or is this difference prohibitive?  Will it get in the way of arguing for the importance of the humanities in public and private sectors and of how we might tackle cuts in funding and perceptions of value?

I’d be really interested in your definitions of the humanities, from the literal to the ideological; please add your thoughts in the comments.  If nothing else it will help make sure I don’t leave your discipline or role off that checklist…

Jess.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “What are the Humanities?

  1. Fine, fine. I’ll do it. (You must imagine a dramatically pained expression of self-sacrifice.) If only to get a discussion going.

    The humanities, as I see it, are the study of what humans do. And yes, I made that up from the name and it will include all manner of social sciences. It sometimes seems to me that what traditionally distinguishes us from the social sciences are their fondness for statistics and quantitative methods, but the distinction does not work all that well as there are plenty of us who enjoy that sort of thing and quite a few of them with a more qualitative outlook.

    I have also always thought of the humanities as the protectors of perspective. The natural sciences seem to be quite fond of the idea of an absolute truth, a mathematical certainty; we, studying humans, not the laws of nature, are able to note the richness inherent in human perceptions of the world. I should perhaps note that I say this as a literature scholar: I do not know whether historians get excited about this kind of thing in the same way. Or linguists.

    This also goes some way towards answering the question of our value. We are the students of consciousness and its product. The natural sciences try to understand the world around us; we try to understand the mind trying to understand the world. And more.

    As for your specific questions:

    1. How do we define ourselves and what does it mean when we exclude certain areas?
    –As I said above, it is hard to provide any kind of objective definition, or provide any sine qua non — although the bit about studying humans and what we do might be one. Could we think about it as a fuzzy set? This would help with the problem of excluding areas. Exclusion as a way of delineation can be a useful exercise, but it does not necessarily reflect the nature of the thing defined. As your question hints, exclusions may say more about us than about the thing we are trying to define.

    2. Does it matter that we might have different definitions in mind so long as we’re all in agreement that the humanities are important to societies, individuals and cultures – or is this difference prohibitive?
    –No, I think that is fine, really. It would probably help if we made clear which definition we had in mind when making bold statements about The Humanities, but other than that…

    3. Will it get in the way of arguing for the importance of the humanities in public and private sectors and of how we might tackle cuts in funding and perceptions of value?
    –Probably. I won’t pretend to understand the magics of funding and private sectors. But it must be possible to be able to treat a topic in different ways depending on context. Any definition will be provisional, after all.

    -Camilla

    • What a fabulous response- thank you so much. I’m going to keep on thinking about this but I had to reply straight away to tell you how much I LOVE the phrase ‘protectors of perspective’ – what a fabulous way if putting it and one I thoroughly identify. I’m interested to see whether people from other areas agree as well (another Lit student, sorry) and practitioners too. I also like that you brought social sciences into the discussion – my faculty at uni includes them but I know very little about them other than not all
      social scientists like numbers. There seems to be a division within some subjects like politics between quant and qual methods.

      Thanks again for sparking off the discussion- especially in such an enthusiastic interesting way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s