What Are the Humanities?

Here are five good, short definitions of the humanities.

These definitions are a sample from a variety of sources and more than one nation–something like a starter kit on the humanities (and their overlapping relation with what different countries also call “the liberal arts,” “the arts,” “humanities and arts,” and sometimes also the humanistically-oriented “social sciences.”

“The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation 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.”

National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965, as amended (the U. S. Congressional Act that created the National Endowment for the Humanities)

“The humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, and the arts—are disciplines of memory and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going.”

The Heart of the Matter (Report of the American Academy of Arts & Science’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences to the U. S. Congress in June 2013)

“What are the humanities? It is like the notion of ‘time’ in St. Augustine: if you don’t ask, we know, but if you ask, we are left empty handed. Since the nineteenth century the humanities have generally been defined as the disciplines that investigate the expressions of the human mind. Such expressions include language, music, art, literature, theatre, and poetry. Thus, philology, linguistics, musicology, art history, literary studies, and theatre studies all belong to the realm of the humanities.”

–Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013)

“Research stemming from a detailed understanding of human behaviour, economies, cultures and societies can dramatically redefine the crucial decisions we need to make. These decisions may involve the future direction of our economy, ways of broadening and strengthening education provision at all levels, or how we deal with the effects of climate or constitutional change… The humanities and social sciences teach us how people have created their world, and how they in turn are created by it.”

–The British Academy for Humanities & Social Sciences, “Press Pack”.

“The humanities are academic disciplines that study human culture. The humanities use methods that are primarily critical, or speculative, and have a significant historical element—as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences. The humanities include ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts such as music and theatre. Areas that are sometimes regarded as social sciences and sometimes as humanities include history, archaeology, anthropology, area studies, communication studies, classical studies, law and linguistics…. The humanities and social sciences teach us how people have created their world, and how they in turn are created by it.”

–Wikipedia, “Humanities,” 2014.

10 thoughts on “What Are the Humanities?

  1. These definitions where very well put together and very helpful. Thank you for giving this great information on the humanities.

  2. I am currently a student in a Humanities class and these quotes are good perspective. I don’t say definition, because I feel that the truest defining element of Humanities is our internalization and expression of the arts, our creative self.

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