What are the Humanities?
This is a difficult question to answer in any real depth. While a superficial description of a collection of academic or artistic disciplines may satisfy the peripheral curiosity of the average internet search, this definition crumbles before our eyes if we put any real inquisitive pressure on the matter. Most searches of this sort might yield a string of disciplines like history, linguistics, visual arts (i.e., art and sculpture), performing arts (i.e., music and theater), and language arts (i.e., literature and poetry). But, what do these various subjects really have in common? They do not share a similar learning or research methodology (some lend themselves to quantitative thinking, others to qualitative research, and still others to some loose hybrid of these two approaches). They do not have any obvious particular aim in common (the study of history and music have very different objectives). And depending on the institution they may not all even be included in the same department or college. The list of problematic issues is endless, and the destruction of our simple definition based on disciplines is absolute.
A similar problem arises if we abandon our descriptive definition in favor of a subjective one. We hear far and wide, for instance, that the humanities are the academic disciplines that seek an understanding of human experience or culture. In essence, this approach suggests that the humanities are fundamentally rooted in philosophical existential questions, or ontology. This approach certainly bears greater weight but leaves the list of included disciplines decidedly open. Any subject or discipline, therefore, might warrant a place in the humanities if we package it properly. Are there not ontological elements in astrophysics and biomechanics? Certainly from a certain point of view medicine and IT design might fit this description and thus be classified as one of the humanities. Indeed, this approach leads us to understand the term "humanities" to be tantamount to terms like "education" or "learning." Using this definition, the term contributes very little to the answer we seek.
Although this is something of an unresolvable issue, some history of the origin of the term provides some clarity. What follows is a gross oversimplification of that history.
Long ago, the educational system of Ancient Greece and Rome required its free citizens to study the Liberal Arts, which were a collection of seven subjects (grammar, rhetoric, and logic—the preparatory trivium—and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—the more advanced quadruvium). These subjects constituted the minimum necessary education for a citizen to perform his or her civic duty in a democratic society. They provided the bedrock for logical thinking, the capacity to communicate clearly, and the theoretical study of wisdom (i.e., philosophy).
This educational approach continued through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, where it was adapted by scholars into the Artes Humanitatis. These scholars came to be known by later historians as "humanists" and the movement they began as "humanism." The Artes Humanitatis essentially consisted of an applied education based on the Liberal Arts. Humanists emphasized particular subjects or disciplines as part of the pursuit of wisdom, such as philology (the study of texts)—which is more or less applied grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Like other educational approaches at the time, humanism sought to discover the truth and distinguish it from error. Unlike other educational approaches at the time, humanism sought to do it by relying nearly exclusively on the rational mind. Rather than accept principles on faith or from tradition, they sought out experiential evidence to support or debunk proclamations of fact. In a very real way, humanism was a protoscience or at least prototypical scientific thinking. To be sure, humanists established the rigor of the scientific process of hypothesis and testing to provide observable evidence that continues today.
In the decades and centuries that followed, personal interests and passions led humanists to apply this focused approach to knowledge to different sets of questions, leading the way for the establishment of academic disciplines. Some began asking questions about the physical world (the physical and life sciences), others wanted to know more about language or cultures (the social sciences), still others began puzzling over ontological questions concerning the human experience (philosophy and the arts), and many more.
As these disciplines grew, scholars developed a taxonomy or a system of categorization for their various epistemological approaches that yielded the general academic departments and colleges in most Universities today. Tensions between these various taxonomical systems resulted in the creation of "the humanities," a catch-all for subjects or disciplines that individuals or institutions could not comfortably categorize. Champions of the new category defended its original epistemological goals and embraced its philosophical origins. They argued that the goal of the humanities rests in its self-reflexive study of being human—a claim that is broad enough to encompass the term's historical development.
Thinking about Thinking
This historical sketch suggests that nearly all formal "learning" derived from the European system has roots in or a connection to the humanities in some way. Drawing on these original footings, we will define the humanities as an ontological pursuit, a seeking to understand the human experience. Thus, our aim is to explore the complex reality of humanity. Rather than attempt to resolve any of the many conflicts that we, as humans, must negotiate in our lives, our goal is to explore them and embrace their presence. To accomplish this, each of the following sections outlines a dialectical tension that humans must regularly face. A dialectical tension results from the continuum produced by opposing and mutually exclusive principles. For example, "Good" and "Evil" are both subjective claims (what one person calls "good" may be what another calls "evil") that exist in opposition to one another, constantly pulling in opposite directions. However, neither one could exist without the other. They create a dialectical tension that we must navigate as part of our human experience. Rather than make any pronouncements or judgments about the course of action humans take as they navigate these tensions, our goal is merely to understand the process and appreciate its complexity.
In order successfully do so, we must develop an approach to thinking that embraces the rigorous and relentless quest for truth that began with the humanists. This approach includes three essential parts. The first is Deep Comprehension, the ability to understand and decode the meaning of an object, text, or image. This requires us to develop and master a selection of toolkits that enable us to comprehend the various parts of a work and the role they play in the overall success of that work. These toolkits will also provide us with the vocabulary to communicate this comprehension clearly. The second is Critical Analysis, an approach toward a work that enables us to put pressure on its claims to test its integrity. In so doing, like early modern humanists we enter into dialogue with a work and its author or maker in an effort to identify universal principles. The last component is Meaningful Contribution, an awareness that we are not merely observers but participants in the larger ontological discussions at play. As participants, we develop the capacity to make our own unique claim inside a pre-existing narrative that illuminates new avenues of thought and inquiry. In addition, we understand that how we make our claims is as important as what we claim. In other words, part of the success of our contribution is the art of effective communication.