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.

16 thoughts on “What Are the Humanities?

  1. 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.

  2. The views of how this page broke down Humanities will be helpful for me to gain the understanding of just what Humanities consist of.


    Lisa Lockett

  3. Humanities are, The history’s theory’s of the modern and classical art;s I think David Wright was right about what he wrote, That it is up to us on how we interpret humanities.

  4. I do believe we all interpret Humanities different, and i think that is ok. For me, i think of Humanities more along the lines of art and thinking. What makes us up as humans.

  5. The study of humanities includes cultures and their academic disciplines all 5 definitions include the types of: ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, archaeology, religion

  6. Here’s how I would combine all of these:
    “The Humanities are a family of academic disciplines that study and interpret human society and culture, often from the perspective of history and heritage, in an effort to help us understand where we’ve come from and where we are headed. These disciplines include: language, literature, history, philosophy, ethics, religion, law, politics, anthropology. Some definitions also include the visual and performing arts, while others separate these off as a subset of the “Arts and Humanities”.

  7. The study of the collection of concepts that deal with human culture such history, music, art, literature and thinking. Basically, all things that define as humans.

  8. Humanities is the history of all topics. It is what we have gone through throughout history in regards to the interpretation on language, literature, philosophy, archaeology, ethics, and social science.

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