What are the Humanities?

The term "humanities" is, of course, familiar enough to all of us. But just what do we mean by it?

portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

Even the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the independent Federal agency created in 1965 to support the humanities in the United States, does not answer the question directly in its official literature, choosing instead to provide us with a list of examples, rather than a definition of the thing itself. According to the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, the founding legislation that established the NEH, "The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study 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."

That is a useful beginning. But it tacitly assumes that we already understand the thing being defined. The list itself concedes that certain subjects or disciplines may or may not be "humanistic," depending upon how they are being approached. But how then are we to distinguish the one from the other, the "humanistic" from what is not? A long list merely defers the larger question, rather than answering it.

It is perhaps more helpful, if still somewhat abstract, to say that "the humanities" includes those branches of human knowledge that concern themselves with human beings and their culture, and that do so in ways that are conversant in the language of human values, and respectful of the dignity and expressive capacity of the human spirit.

In other words, it is the distinctive task of the humanities to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them into something else. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, free agent as well as acted-upon phenomenon. Such a manner of proceeding is not opposed to the methods of natural science, at least not entirely so. But it is distinctive. It begins with a willingness to ground itself in the world as we find it, the world as it appears to us, including the thoughts, emotions, imaginings, and memories that make up our picture of reality from the moment of birth onward.

Hence, the knowledge the humanities offer us is like none other, and cannot be replaced by scientific breakthroughs or superseded by advances in material knowledge. Science teaches us that the earth rotates upon its axis while revolving around the sun. But in the domain of the humanities, the sun still also rises and sets, and still establishes in that diurnal rhythm one of the deepest and most universal expressive symbols of all the things that rise and fall, or live and die. All of which is to say that there are different kinds of truth, and we need all of them in order to live.

As the above contrast implies, our modern conception of the humanities arose very much in tandem with, and in competition with, the comprehensive worldview offered by modern science. But what we mean by "the humanities" has roots in classical antiquity.

It began to arise first out of the Greek conception of paideia, a course of general education dating from the mid-5th century BCE which was designed to prepare young men for active citizenship. It is further developed in the Roman notion of humanitas (literally, "human nature"), set forward in Cicero's De Oratore (Of the Orator) in 55 BCE. Early Church fathers, notably St. Augustine, would adapt paideia and humanita—or the bonae ("good"), or liberales ("liberal"), arts, as they were also called—to a program of Christian education, built around the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. For classical and early Christian thinkers alike, these disciplines were thought to have value because they aided human beings in the fulfillment of their highest human nature, a nature that was assumed to be elevated above and distinct from that of mere animals.

By the Renaissance, though, this point of reference for "humanistic" studies would shift somewhat. Instead of being human as opposed to merely animal, the studia humanitatis, a term used by the 15th-century Italian Renaissance "humanists," were human as opposed to divine. In other words, they regarded the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy, and classical languages and literature as an undertaking rather more secular than religious in character, a recovery of classical knowledge that had been "lost" during the long reign of Christendom. Such logic carried the day, and perhaps even carried it too well—for the philosophes of the 18th-century Enlightenment rejected the studia humanitatis precisely for their heavy emphasis on Latin and Greek studies. Inspired by the success of burgeoning modern science, and bored by the dry and pedantic study of ancient classical texts, Denis Diderot and the other French Encyclopédistes thought it long past time to move on to new things.

By the 19th century, the domain of the humanities had further expanded, and they had undergone another subtle transformation. They now began to take their identity, not so much from their distance from the realm of the divine, but from their distance from the increasingly influential physical sciences, as epitomized by mathematical physics, which tended to picture the world and its phenomena "objectively" and mechanistically, without reference to human subjectivity and meaning. It was now the distinctive role of the humanities to counter this tendency, to picture the world differently from the sciences, and thereby to preserve the heart and spirit of the human race in what seemed increasingly to be a soulless and materialistic age. Indeed, as one finds put forward with particular eloquence in the works of British writer Matthew Arnold, the humanities were increasingly looked to as a substitute for religion in the formation, education, and refinement of humanity's sentiments and moral sensibilities.

One may well ask: Do any of these three understandings of the humanities--the human, as opposed to the animal, or to the divine, or to the mechanical--have any meaning in our times? No doubt all three still do, and will continue to. Each has derived its power from its willingness to assert, and insist upon, some crucial aspect of what it means to be "human," some aspect that the conditions of the day may have threatened to submerge. What we are as humans is, in some respects, best defined by what we are not: not gods, not angels, not devils, not machines, not merely animals. The humanities, too, have always defined themselves in opposition, and the tendencies they opposed have not ceased to exist. That is why great works of the past have shown the power to endure, and to speak to us today, once we develop the ability to hear them.

But the principal challenges have always shifted over time. Now, in our own age, the very category of "the human" itself is under attack, as the hierarchical distinction between humans and animals is called into question, and as philosophers proclaim the disappearance of the human "subject." We also are far less clear about what we mean by the word "culture," and about the standards by which it is judged. Matthew Arnold felt reasonably confident that we could agree on what constituted "the best" artifacts of humanistic expression. But we are not so certain. Indeed, our understanding of "culture" veers back and forth between the prescriptive and the descriptive, between aesthetics and anthropology—between "culture" as a word for an elevated standard of expressive sophistication and formal refinement, on the one hand, and "culture" as a word for a group's general "way of life," which is to say, for the very thing that "culture" in the older sense would propose to elevate and refine.

The problem is especially acute in the United States, with its strongly democratic and populist cultural strains. Public organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities face a nearly impossible political task in negotiating the tension between "elite" and "popular" culture, endeavoring to preserve and defend the grandeur and high seriousness of the one, while acknowledging and celebrating the democratic vitality of the other.

Still, if the past is any guide, what we call "the humanities" will survive and thrive, however we choose to define them. Indeed, it seems likely that they will experience yet another transformation in the years to come—one that will be, as all the transformations of previous eras have been, an assertion, or reassertion, of some essential element in the full complexity of human experience. What shape it will take, only time can tell. Perhaps it will take its bearings from the problems and prospects now opening before us in the realms of biotechnology and human engineering, which call into question precisely the inherent limitations that have always figured in what it means to be human. All we can know is that, when that transformation comes, it will arrive embodied in something very like the texture of our own experience, and will serve to introduce us, or reintroduce us, to ourselves, in our wholeness and complexity.

—Wilfred M. McClay