Defining “Humanities”

Defining “Humanities”

What are the humanities?

Given that even those of us whose professions are centered in the research and teaching of humanities-based subjects often don’t have a short, clear answer to this question, it’s worth thinking about how we define the humanities publicly.

We might think in terms of the structures of academic departments and funding; modes of inquiry — the methods, sources, kinds of questions, and theoretical frameworks that inform research in humanities disciplines; the genres of projects produced from this research; the kinds of engagement with the world that these methods encourage; or the skills that are honed by humanities study. We might also think about the answer in terms of what the humanities are not (not STEM, not primarily about economic bottoms lines, etc.), although there are powerful arguments for not starting here. We should also register that “the humanities” are not a monolith, and that variations amongst their disciplines and practitioners are part of what makes them valuable.

Definitions of the humanities tend to focus on what the disciplines have in common. I think, however, that trying to articulate some common content or methods without also highlighting the effects of studying these disciplines gives us only half of the equation. One vital thing that humanities study fosters is the ability to critically examine one’s own perspective and to take seriously what it is to exist in the world in ways that differ radically from one’s own life.

My own working definition of the humanities, then, is as follows: a set of disciplines that analyzes how people experience the world and how they express those experiences — in terms of both individual voices and the systems within/against which they operate — and that produces people who can synthesize diverse information in order to make decisions or develop solutions to problems based on considerations beyond their own experience.

I’ve gotten to that working definition by way of disciplines and their kinds of expertise.

“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.”

–National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965, as amended; quoted on National Endowment for the Humanities website (

As the NEH definition might suggest, in terms of college and university structures, humanities disciplines are those focusing on how cultures have thought about what it means to be human. They are typically assumed to include the departments of classics, English and other languages, history, philosophy, and religious studies. Interdisciplinary programs such as African American studies, women’s and gender studies, or legal studies, are housed in multiple departments, which may cross divisions including humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Humanities disciplines share an interest in how people experience the world and how they express those experiences. They have some overlap with social science fields like anthropology and sociology (whose modes of inquiry tend to focus more on cultural practices than on texts), as well was with fine arts and art history (whose objects of study tend to be productions of “studio arts” such as paintings, sculptures, or dance).

Humanities modes of inquiry, engagement, and output tend to be based in words and texts. In these disciplines, the study of human experience thus means the study of oral and print cultures — a broad expression that encompasses popular media, letters, treatises, legal documents, logbooks, literature, advice manuals, or any other word-based productions from a given moment in time. Methods might include archival research, focusing on questions of interpretation, and paying close attention to nuances of expression and the implications of language. Analyses consider the text itself (e.g. its logic or the craft of its composition), its potential impact, and the cultural conversations in which it participates.

The skills such work hones include: investigative researching; critical reading — identifying biases, underlying assumptions, implications, and consequences of ideas; synthesizing large amounts of written material to identify patterns of thought; asking probing questions; considering the human costs of institutional, structural, political, linguistic, or other systems; writing persuasively and marshaling compelling evidence; thinking flexibly; and solving problems creatively.

The consequences of learning to do these things are both the acquisition of particular knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge to real-world situations. What does that mean? It means, for example, being able to identify the legacies of historical systems of oppression, to analyze the impact of language, to consider the human consequences of policy decisions, and to imagine alternate preferable possibilities to a current system.

It means being able to consider life experiences outside your own and therefore being able to make decisions on a personal or systemic level that better reflect the diversity of needs of those who might be affected by those decisions, whatever the context — law, education policy, marketing, local governance, medicine, business solutions, environmental action, creative expression, and more.