The humanities study the things humans make.
That definition is better—more accurate and more strategic—than the most commonly offered alternatives.
First, some define the humanities by gesturing toward the set of disciplines often included: classics, history, philosophy, religion, law, literature, linguistics and the visual and performing arts.
The National Endowment for the Humanities is even more ambitious in its scope: “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 the 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.” Yet this definition, from the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, as amended, lacks a conceptual core, meaning an explanation of what holds these concerns together.
Second, some define the humanities as the study of “the human condition” or “what it means to be human.” Gross. Unless your name is Hannah Arendt, it should be illegal to talk about the human condition. I’ve never studied what it means to be human. I wouldn’t know where to start. We can’t say that the humanities is simply the study of humans because disciplines that clearly fall outside the humanities, such as biology and chemistry, study humans all the time.
“What are the humanities?” Rens Bod asks in A New History of the Humanities (Oxford, 2013). “If you don’t ask, we know, but if you ask, we are left empty handed.” Neal Lester was even more pointed in 2012, when he was dean of the humanities at Arizona State University: “Folks don’t know how to define humanities, even those inside humanities disciplines.”
Third, there is a tendency to refer to “the arts and humanities”—in part because the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, while separate entities, were created by a single piece of legislation. Conceptually, there is a massive difference between human creativity and the interpretation of human creativity. Practically, the arts-and-humanities formulation leads people to believe that when they’ve funded the arts, they’ve funded the humanities.
I never thought I’d say this, but I stand against “the arts and humanities.”
Fourth, some scholars offer definitions of the humanities that are true but embarrassingly articulated. “The humanities study the meaning-making practices of human culture, past and present, focusing on interpretation and critical evaluation, primarily in terms of the individual response and with an ineliminable element of subjectivity,” writes Helen Small in The Value of the Humanities (Oxford, 2013). “Humanities are academic disciplines in which humans seek understanding of human self-understandings and self-expressions and of the ways in which people thereby construct and experience the world they live in,” says Willem B. Drees in What Are the Humanities For? (Cambridge, 2021).
Fifth, some define the humanities in contrast to the sciences. That is helpful and good but requires some history and some context. The Latin word scīre meant “to know,” and scientia was simply knowledge. That was the meaning of the English word “science” when it first appeared in the 14th century—knowledge derived from study as opposed to opinion or belief. In the 15th century, the phrase “natural science” emerged to distinguish the study of our material world from theology, the study of the supernatural. The scientific revolution of the 17th century formed the backdrop for the emergence of the phrase “human science” to differentiate this branch of study from the natural sciences.
“The humanities” first emerged as an English term in the 19th century, largely understood as the study of ancient Rome and Greece. The humanities only became a coherent branch of knowledge in the United States in the 1930s, in reaction to the increased popularity and prestige of the modern natural sciences.
The sciences often claim their disciplinarian identity not from what they study, but from how they study it, namely by using the scientific method, which is associated with empirical evidence and quantitative analysis. For the sake of differentiation, people in the late 20th century often associated the humanities with qualitative analysis.
The only problem: this distinction does not hold, not even a little bit. Scholars in the sciences do qualitative analysis all the time; humanities scholars happily embrace quantitative analysis. It is simply untrue to claim that the disciplines that happen to have fallen under “the sciences” and those generally understood as “the humanities” can cleanly be distinguished by their methods of interpretation. It makes more sense to define these disciplines by what they study, not how they study it.
The sciences study naturally occurring phenomena, the things that humans didn’t invent: rocks, stars, molecules, animals, gravity, chemical reactions, the circulation of blood and so forth, revealing to us the objective—that is, material—realities of the world we inhabit.
Directed toward subjective experience of the world, the humanities study the things humans make—our art, writings, thoughts, religions, governments, histories, technologies and societies—helping us understand who we are, what we do, how we do it, why and with what consequences.
The social sciences pull from both branches, but in different ways, using the scientific method (the mode of the sciences) to study the things humans make (the content of the humanities). Philosophy sometimes crosses over in the opposite direction. From Aristotle’s Metaphysics to Martha C. Nussbaum’s Justice for Animals (Simon & Schuster, 2023), philosophers frequently use the methods of the humanities to study things not made by humans.
Given these porous boundaries and potential challenges, what disciplines are included in this new definition of the humanities? What doesn’t make it in? Where do we draw the line and why?
Language, history, literature, classics, philosophy, the arts—yes, of course, these are humanities disciplines. Religious studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, disability studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, media studies—absolutely.
Disciplines variously described as “applied sciences,” “vocational training” and “technical crafts”—including engineering, medicine, business administration, communication, architecture and computer science—are borderline cases: interpretive analysis of the meaning and significance of past creations falls under the humanities, but how-to technical training does not.
Law, politics, economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, archaeology—by our definition, yes, these are humanities disciplines.
Therein lies the crux: some scholars in these disciplines may not self-identify as belonging to the humanities—for two reasons. First, the institutional history of academic disciplinarity, especially in the United States, has unfolded such that law, economics and government are located in college and university organizational charts separately from the disciplines commonly understood as the humanities. Second, some scholars in these disciplines might feel, with some justification, that the power and prestige of their work could be diminished if understood as belonging to the humanities, which have a tendency to be in permanent crisis.
The prestige disciplines in the humanities— law, economics, government—enjoy broad cultural understanding and appreciation of their social value. They could teach the more niche disciplines—literary studies, philosophy, the arts—how to be more publicly engaged. At the same time, the enterprise of the humanities in general benefits from a wide cultural understanding that these disciplines are on the same team.
Broadening the definition of the humanities to include fields such as law, economics and government could mean that already well-funded scholars gobble up humanities resources from less well-off disciplines, such as history, classics and cultural studies. But funding is a positive-sum game. Recognizing those prestige disciplines as part of the humanities could dramatically increase the overall funds allocated to the humanities from various agencies—a bigger pot for everyone.
What remains to be seen, then, is how closely the institutional organization of academia aligns—or doesn’t—with this new definition of the humanities.