AskDefine | Define humanities

Dictionary Definition

humanities n : studies intended to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills (rather than occupational or professional skills); "the college of arts and sciences" [syn: humanistic discipline, liberal arts, arts]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Plural of humanity
  2. the branch of learning that includes the arts, classics, philosophy and history etc., but not the sciences


the branch of learning that includes the arts, classics, philosophy, intellectuality and history etc.

See also

Extensive Definition

The humanities are academic disciplines which study the human condition, using methods that are largely analytic, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural and social sciences.
Examples of the disciplines related to humanities are ancient and modern languages, literature, history, philosophy, religion, visual and performing arts (including music). Additional subjects sometimes included in the humanities are anthropology, area studies, communications and cultural studies, although these are often regarded as social sciences. Scholars working in the humanities are sometimes described as "humanists". However, that term also describes the philosophical position of humanism, which some "antihumanist" scholars in the humanities reject.

Humanities fields


The classics, in the Western academic tradition, refer to cultures of classical antiquity, namely the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Classical study was formerly considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities, but the classics declined in importance during the 20th century. Nevertheless, the influence of classical ideas in humanities such as philosophy and literature remain strong.
More broadly speaking, the "classics" are the foundational writings of the earliest major cultures of the world. In other major traditions, classics would refer to the Vedas and Upanishads in India, the writings attributed to Confucius, Lao-tse and Chuang-tzu in China, and writings such as the Hammurabi Code and the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia, as well as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.


History is systematically collected information about the past. When used as the name of a field of study, history refers to the study and interpretation of the record of humans, families, and societies. Knowledge of history is often said to encompass both knowledge of past events and historical thinking skills.
Traditionally, the study of history has been considered a part of the humanities. However, in modern academia, history is increasingly classified as a social science, especially when chronology is the focus.


The study of individual modern and classical languages form the backbone of modern study of the humanities, while the scientific study of language is known as linguistics and is a social science. Since many areas of the humanities such as literature, history and philosophy are based on language, changes in language can have a profound effect on the other humanities. Literature, covering a variety of uses of language including prose forms (such as the novel), poetry and drama, also lies at the heart of the modern humanities curriculum. College-level programs in a foreign language usually include study of important works of the literature in that language, as well as the language itself (grammar, vocabulary, etc.).


Law in common parlance, means a rule which (unlike a rule of ethics) is capable of enforcement through institutions. The study of law crosses the boundaries between the social sciences and humanities, depending on one's view of research into its objectives and effects. Law is not always enforceable, especially in the international relations context. It has been defined as a "system of rules", as an "interpretive concept" to achieve justice, as an "authority" to mediate people's interests, and even as "the command of a sovereign, backed by the threat of a sanction". However one likes to think of law, it is a completely central social institution. Legal policy incorporates the practical manifestation of thinking from almost every social science and humanity. Laws are politics, because politicians create them. Law is philosophy, because moral and ethical persuasions shape their ideas. Law tells many of history's stories, because statutes, case law and codifications build up over time. And law is economics, because any rule about contract, tort, property law, labour law, company law and many more can have long lasting effects on the distribution of wealth. The noun law derives from the late Old English lagu, meaning something laid down or fixed and the adjective legal comes from the Latin word lex.


Music as an academic discipline mainly focuses on two career paths, music performance (focused on the orchestra and the concert hall) and music education (training music teachers). Students learn to play instruments, but also study music theory, musicology, history of music and composition. In the liberal arts tradition, music is also used to broaden skills of non-musicians by teaching skills such as concentration and listening.
Theatre (or theater) (Greek "theatron", θέατρον) is the branch of the performing arts concerned with acting out stories in front of an audience using combinations of speech, gesture, music, dance, sound and spectacle — indeed any one or more elements of the other performing arts. In addition to the standard narrative dialogue style, theatre takes such forms as opera, ballet, mime, kabuki, classical Indian dance, Chinese opera, mummers' plays, and pantomime. Dance (from Old French dancier, perhaps from Frankish) generally refers to human movement either used as a form of expression or presented in a social, spiritual or performance setting. Dance is also used to describe methods of non-verbal communication (see body language) between humans or animals (bee dance, mating dance), motion in inanimate objects (the leaves danced in the wind), and certain musical forms or genres. Choreography is the art of making dances, and the person who does this is called a choreographer.
Definitions of what constitutes dance are dependent on social, cultural, aesthetic artistic and moral constraints and range from functional movement (such as Folk dance) to codified, virtuoso techniques such as ballet. In sports, gymnastics, figure skating and synchronized swimming are dance disciplines while Martial arts 'kata' are often compared to dances.


Philosophy is ancient Greek for the love of wisdom. It questions life, existence and human reasoning. Philosophy is one of the world's oldest subjects of study, branching and evolving into separate disciplines of physics in the sixteenth century and psychology in the nineteenth century.
According to Immanuel Kant, in the first line of his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals), "Ancient Greek philosophy was divided into three sciences: physics, ethics, and logic."
In present society, areas such as Cognitive Science have emerged where experts attempt to unravel the nature of intelligent systems and understand thought, speech and reasoning.


Most historians trace the beginnings of religious belief to the Neolithic Period. Most religious belief during this time period consisted of worship of a Mother Goddess, a Sky Father, and also worship of the Sun and the Moon as deities. (see also Sun worship)
New philosophies and religions arose in both east and west, particularly around the 6th century BC. Over time, a great variety of religions developed around the world, with Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia being some of the earliest major faiths. In the east, three schools of thought were to dominate Chinese thinking until the modern day. These were Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. The Confucian tradition, which would attain predominance, looked not to the force of law, but to the power and example of tradition for political morality. In the west, the Greek philosophical tradition, represented by the works of Plato and Aristotle, was diffused throughout Europe and the Middle East by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon in the 4th century BC.
Abrahamic religions are those religions deriving from a common ancient Semitic tradition and traced by their adherents to Abraham (circa 1900 BCE), a patriarch whose life is narrated in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and as a prophet in the Quran and also called a prophet in Genesis 20:7. This forms a large group of related largely monotheistic religions, generally held to include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam comprises about half of the world's religious adherents.

Visual arts

The great traditions in art have a foundation in the art of one of the ancient civilizations, such as Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, China, India, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica.
Ancient Greek art saw a veneration of the human physical form and the development of equivalent skills to show musculature, poise, beauty and anatomically correct proportions. Ancient Roman art depicted gods as idealized humans, shown with characteristic distinguishing features (i.e. Zeus' thunderbolt).
In Byzantine and Gothic art of the Middle Ages, the dominance of the church insisted on the expression of biblical and not material truths. The Renaissance saw the return to valuation of the material world, and this shift is reflected in art forms, which show the corporeality of the human body, and the three-dimensional reality of landscape.
Eastern art has generally worked in a style akin to Western medieval art, namely a concentration on surface patterning and local colour (meaning the plain colour of an object, such as basic red for a red robe, rather than the modulations of that colour brought about by light, shade and reflection). A characteristic of this style is that the local colour is often defined by an outline (a contemporary equivalent is the cartoon). This is evident in, for example, the art of India, Tibet and Japan.
Religious Islamic art forbids iconography, and expresses religious ideas through geometry instead. The physical and rational certainties depicted by the 19th-century Enlightenment were shattered not only by new discoveries of relativity by Einstein and of unseen psychology by Freud, but also by unprecedented technological development. Increasing global interaction during this time saw an equivalent influence of other cultures into Western art. Drawing is a means of making an image, using any of a wide variety of tools and techniques. It generally involves making marks on a surface by applying pressure from a tool, or moving a tool across a surface. Common tools are graphite pencils, pen and ink, inked brushes, wax color pencils, crayons, charcoals, pastels, and markers. Digital tools which simulate the effects of these are also used. The main techniques used in drawing are: line drawing, hatching, crosshatching, random hatching, scribbling, stippling, and blending. An artist who excels in drawing is referred to as a draftsman or draughtsman. Painting taken literally is the practice of applying pigment suspended in a carrier (or medium) and a binding agent (a glue) to a surface (support) such as paper, canvas or a wall. However, when used in an artistic sense it means the use of this activity in combination with drawing, composition and other aesthetic considerations in order to manifest the expressive and conceptual intention of the practitioner. Painting is also used to express spiritual motifs and ideas; sites of this kind of painting range from artwork depicting mythological figures on pottery to The Sistine Chapel to the human body itself.
Colour is the essence of painting as sound is of music. Colour is highly subjective, but has observable psychological effects, although these can differ from one culture to the next. Black is associated with mourning in the West, but elsewhere white may be. Some painters, theoreticians, writers and scientists, including Goethe, Kandinsky, Isaac Newton, have written their own colour theory. Moreover the use of language is only a generalisation for a colour equivalent. The word "red", for example, can cover a wide range of variations on the pure red of the spectrum. There is not a formalised register of different colours in the way that there is agreement on different notes in music, such as C or C# in music, although the Pantone system is widely used in the printing and design industry for this purpose.
Modern artists have extended the practice of painting considerably to include, for example, collage. This began with cubism and is not painting in strict sense. Some modern painters incorporate different materials such as sand, cement, straw or wood for their texture. Examples of this are the works of Jean Dubuffet or Anselm Kiefer. Modern and contemporary art has moved away from the historic value of craft in favour of concept; this has led some to say that painting, as a serious art form, is dead, although this has not deterred the majority of artists from continuing to practise it either as whole or part of their work.

History of the humanities

In the West, the study of the humanities can be traced to ancient Greece, as the basis of a broad education for citizens. During Roman times, the concept of the seven liberal arts evolved, involving grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium), along with arithmetic, geometry, astronomia and music (the quadrivium). These subjects formed the bulk of medieval education, with the emphasis being on the humanities as skills or "ways of doing."
A major shift occurred during the Renaissance, when the humanities began to be regarded as subjects to be studied rather than practised, with a corresponding shift away from the traditional fields into areas such as literature and history. In the 20th century, this view was in turn challenged by the postmodernist movement, which sought to redefine the humanities in more egalitarian terms suitable for a democratic society.

Humanities today

Humanities in the United States

Many American colleges and universities believe in the notion of a broad "liberal arts education", which requires all college students to study the humanities in addition to their specific area of study. Prominent proponents of liberal arts in the United States have included Mortimer J. Adler and E.D. Hirsch.
The 1980 United States Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities described the humanities in its report, The Humanities in American Life: Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason.
Criticism of the traditional humanities/liberal arts degree program has been leveled by many that see them as both expensive and relatively "useless" in the modern American job market, where several years of specialized study is required in many/most job fields. This is in direct contrast to the early 20th century when approximately 3% to 6% of the public at large had a university degree, and having one was a direct path to a professional life.
After World War II, many millions of veterans took advantage of the GI Bill. Further expansion of federal education grants and loans have expanded the number of adults in the United States that have attended a college. In 2003, roughly 53% of the population had some college education with 27.2% having graduated with a Bachelor's degree or higher, including 8% who graduated with a graduate degree.

The digital age

Language and literature are considered to be the central topics in humanities, so the impact of electronic communication is of great concern to those in the field. The immediacy of modern technology and the internet speeds up communication, but may threaten "deferred" forms of communication such as literature and "dumb down" language. The library is also changing rapidly as bookshelves are replaced by computer terminals. Despite the fact that humanities will have to adapt rapidly to these changes, it is unlikely that the traditional forms of literature will be completely abandoned.

Legitimation of the humanities

Compared to the growing numbers of undergraduates enrolled in private and public post-secondary institutions, the percentage of enrollments and majors in the humanities is shrinking, although overall enrollment in the humanities expressed in actual numbers has not significantly changed (and by some measurements has actually increased slightly).
While humanities scholars have decried the dilution of humanities study since Plato and Aristotle debated whether philosophers should or should not receive payment for their teaching services, the modern “crisis” facing humanities scholars in the university is multifaceted: universities in the United States in particular have adopted corporate guidelines requiring profit both from undergraduate education and from academic scholarship and research, resulting in an increased demand for academic disciplines to justify their existence based on the applicability of their disciplines to the world outside of the university. Increasing corporate emphasis on “life-long learning” has also impacted the university’s role as educator and researcher. Responses to those changing institutional norms, and to changing emphasis on what constitutes “useful skills” in an increasingly technological world have varied greatly and are representative of both scholars inside the academy and critics outside of the university system.

Citizenship, self-reflection and the humanities

Descriptions of the humanities as self-reflective—a self-reflection that helps develop personal consciousness or an active sense of civic duty—have been central to the justification of humanistic study since the end of the nineteenth century. Humanities scholars in the mid-twentieth century German university tradition, including Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans-Georg Gadamer, centered the humanities’ attempt to distinguish itself from the natural sciences in humankind’s urge to understand its own experiences. This understanding tied like-minded people from similar cultural backgrounds together and provided a sense of cultural continuity with the philosophical past. Scholars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have extended that “narrative imagination” to the ability to understand the records of lived experiences outside of one’s own individual social and cultural context.
Through that narrative imagination, humanities scholars and students develop a conscience more suited to the multicultural world in which we live. That conscience might take the form of a passive one that allows more effective self-reflection or extend into active empathy which facilitates the dispensation of civic duties in which a responsible world citizen must engage. There is disagreement, however, on the level of impact humanities study can have on an individual and whether or not the meaning produced in humanistic enterprise can guarantee an “identifiable positive effect on people.”

Truth, meaning and the humanities

The divide between humanistic study and natural sciences informs arguments of meaning in humanities as well. What distinguishes the humanities from the natural sciences is not a certain subject matter, but rather the mode of approach to any question. Humanities focuses on understanding meaning, purpose, and goals and furthers the appreciation of singular historical and social phenomena—an interpretive method of finding “truth”—rather than explaining the causality of events or uncovering the “truth” of the natural world. Apart from its societal application, narrative imagination is an important tool in the (re)production of understood meaning in history, culture and literature.
Imagination, as part of the tool kit of artists or scholars, serves as vehicle to create meaning which invokes a response from an audience. Since a humanities scholar is always within the nexus of lived experiences, no "absolute" knowledge is theoretically possible; knowledge is instead a ceaseless procedure of inventing and reinventing the context in which a text is read. Poststructuralism has problematized an approach to the humanistic study based on questions of meaning, intentionality, and authorship. In the wake of the death of the author proclaimed by Roland Barthes, various theoretical currents such as deconstruction and discourse analysis seek to expose the ideologies and rhetoric operative in producing both the purportedly meaningful objects and the hermeneutic subjects of humanistic study. This exposure has opened up the interpretive structures of the humanities to criticism that humanities scholarship is “unscientific” and therefore unfit for inclusion in modern university curricula because of the very nature of its changing contextual meaning.

Pleasure, the pursuit of knowledge and humanities scholarship

As Stanley Fish argues in his New York Times blog, the humanities can defend themselves best by refusing to make any claims for usefulness. For Fish, the academic study of humanistic subjects derives its value only from the pleasure contained in the immediate activity of reading and analyzing texts. Any attempt to justify it through an outside benefit such as social usefulness (say increased productivity) or through its supposed ennobling effect on the individual (such as greater wisdom or diminished prejudice) is not only doomed to dilute its results but will further provoke demands on the academic humanity departments they cannot possibly fulfill. To Fish, a broad education in the humanities also does not provide the kind of social cache (what sociologists sometimes call "cultural capital") that was helpful to succeed in Western society before the age of mass education following World War II. Further, while humanistic study very likely endows the individual with analytical skills applicable in many other life situations, this benefit is not limited to the scholarly study of texts in university class rooms. Critical thinking can be acquired in many different ways and settings. It thus cannot be defended as an exclusive domain of the scholarly pursuit of the humanities at universities.
Instead, one could argue that the humanities offer a unique kind of pleasure based on the common pursuit of knowledge (even if it is only disciplinary knowledge) that contrasts with the increasing privatization of leisure and instant gratification characteristic of Western culture. Such a public kind of pleasure meets Jürgen Habermas’ requirements for the disregard of social status and rational problematization of previously unquestioned areas necessary for an endeavor which takes place in the bourgeois public sphere. In this argument, then, only the academic pursuit of pleasure can provide a link between the private and the public realm in modern Western consumer society and strengthen the public sphere, which according to many theorists is the foundation for modern democracy. Such an argument need not insist on social usefulness as an explicit goal of humanistic study, but instead simply points to the fundamental commonality of the democratic ethos with such study.

Romanticization and rejection of the humanities

Implicit in many of these arguments supporting the humanities are the makings of arguments against public support of the humanities. Joseph Carroll asserts that we live in a changing world, a world in which "cultural capital" is being replaced with "scientific literacy" and in which the romantic notion of a Renaissance humanities scholar is obsolete. Such arguments appeal to judgments and anxieties about the essential uselessness of the humanities, especially in an age when it is seemingly vitally important for scholars of literature, history and the arts to engage in "collaborative work with experimental scientists" or even to simply make "intelligent use of the findings from empirical science." The notion that 'in today's day and age,' with its focus on the ideals of efficiency and practical utility, scholars of the humanities are becoming obsolete was perhaps summed up most powerfully in a remark that has been attributed to the artificial intelligence specialist Marvin Minsky: “With all the money that we are throwing away on humanities and art - give me that money and I will build you a better student."
Minsky's faith in the superiority of technical knowledge and his reduction of the humanities scholar of today to an obsolete relic of the past supported by the tax dollars of romantics fondly recalling the days of the G.I. Bill echoes arguments put forth by scholars and cultural commentators that call themselves "post-humanists" or "transhumanists." The idea is that current trends in the scientific understanding of human beings are calling the basic category of "the human" into question. Examples of these trends are assertions by cognitive scientists that the mind is simply a computing device, by geneticists that that human beings are no more than ephemeral husks used by self-propagating genes (or even memes, according to some postmodern linguists), or by bioengineers who claim that one day it may be both possible and desirable to create human-animal hybrids. Rather than engage with old-style humanist scholarship, transhumanists in particular tend to be more concerned with testing and altering the limits of our mental and phsyical capacities in fields such as cognitive science and bioengineering in order to transcend the essentially bodily limitations that have bounded humanity. Despite the criticism of humanities scholarship as obsolete, however, many of the most influential post-humanist works are profoundly engaged with film and literary criticism, history, and cultural studies as can be seen in the writings of Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles.
humanities in Arabic: إنسانيات
humanities in Asturian: Ciencies humanes
humanities in Bavarian: Geisteswissenschaft
humanities in Breton: Skiantoù an den
humanities in Catalan: Humanitats
humanities in Czech: Humanitní a společenské vědy
humanities in Danish: Humaniora
humanities in German: Geisteswissenschaften
humanities in Estonian: Humanitaarteadused
humanities in Spanish: Humanidades
humanities in Esperanto: Homa scienco
humanities in Persian: علوم انسانی
humanities in French: Lettres (culture)
humanities in Korean: 인문 과학
humanities in Indonesian: Humaniora
humanities in Hebrew: מדעי הרוח
humanities in Malay (macrolanguage): Kemanusiaan
humanities in Dutch: Geesteswetenschappen
humanities in Japanese: 人文科学
humanities in Polish: Nauki humanistyczne
humanities in Portuguese: Ciências humanas
humanities in Russian: Гуманитарные науки
humanities in Simple English: Humanities
humanities in Slovak: Duchovná veda
humanities in Swedish: Humaniora
humanities in Yiddish: גייסט וויסנשאפט
humanities in Chinese: 人文學

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

academic specialty, area, classical education, core curriculum, course, course of study, curriculum, discipline, elective, field, general education, general studies, liberal arts, major, minor, proseminar, quadrivium, refresher course, scientific education, seminar, specialty, study, subdiscipline, subject, technical education, trivium
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