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The humanities are a group of academic subjects united by a commitment to studying aspects of the human condition and a qualitative approach that generally prevents a single paradigm from coming to define any discipline.

In academia, the humanities are generally considered to be, along with the social sciences and the natural sciences, one of three major components of the liberal arts.

Scholars working in the humanities are sometimes described as humanists. But that term also describes the philosophical position of humanism, which some antihumanist scholars in the humanities reject.

Fields included

While the precise definition of the humanities can be contentious, the following disciplines are generally recognized to form their core:

History, although at times considered a social science, is one of the most prominent humanities in the United States as measured by foundation contributions, National Endowment for the Humanities projects, and National Humanities Centers fellowships.

Some people expand the definition to include other studies of human life using qualitative description and analysis, including large parts of the fields of cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, media and communications, archaeology, and some branches of economics.

The equivalent French term is sciences humaines, and in German there is Geisteswissenschaften. Neither of these is an exact fit to the usage common in English-speaking academia. One point at issue is the division to be drawn from the social sciences and anthropology. The connotations of "science" are also differently loaded.


In the West, the study of the humanities can be traced to ancient Greece, as the basis of a broad education for citizens. During Roman times, the concept of the seven liberal arts evolved, involving grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium), along with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (the quadrivium).[1] These subjects formed the bulk of medieval education, with the emphasis being on the humanities as skills or "ways of doing."

A major shift occurred during the Renaissance, when the humanities began to be regarded as subjects to be studied rather than practised, with a corresponding shift away from the traditional fields into areas such as literature and history. In the 20th century, this view was in turn challenged by the postmodernist movement, which sought to redefine the humanities in more egalitarian terms suitable for a democratic society.[2]

The humanities today

Humanities in the West

The 1980 United States Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities described the humanities in its report, The Humanities in American Life:

Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason.

Modernist versus postmodernist: an ongoing debate

In the United States, the late 20th century saw a challenge to the "elitism" of the humanities, which Edward Said has characterized as a "conservative philosophy of gentlemanly refinement, or sensibility." Such postmodernists argue that the humanities should go beyond the study of "dead white men" to include work by women and people of color, and without religious bias.[2] The French philosopher Michel Foucault has been a very influential part of this movement, stating in The Order of Things that "we can study only individuals, not human nature."

However some in the humanities believe that such changes may be detrimental, as they lead to moral relativism and the concept that one person's interpretation is as good as any other. The literary critic Denis Donoghue suggests that modern criticism reduces the rich symbolism of a play like Macbeth to a simplistic "find the villain", with Lady Macbeth regarded as the victim of bloody-minded, power-mad masculine society; the result is said to be what E. D. Hirsch Jr. refers to as declining cultural literacy.[3]


President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act in 1965 [4], creating the National Council on the Humanities and funded the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1969. NEH is an independent grant-making agency of the United States government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.

NEH facilitated the creation of State Humanities Councils in the 56 U.S. states and territories. Each council operates independently, defining the "humanities" in relationship to the disciplines, subjects, values, etc., ... valued in the regions they serve. Councils give grant funds to individuals, scholars, and nonprofit organizations dedicated to the humanities in their region. Councils also offer diverse progams and services that respond to the needs of their communities and according to their own definitions of the humanities.


  1. ^  Levi, Albert W.; The Humanities Today, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1970.
  2. ^  Walling, Donovan R.; Under Construction: The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Postmodern Schooling Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Bloomington, Indiana, 1997.
  3. ^  Kernan, Alvin, editor; What's Happened to the Humanities?, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997.

See also

External links

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