Defining the Humanities

Thursday, July 10, 2008

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory

It’s not clear to me that there is a consensus definition of the humanities, especially among non-humanist colleagues, administrators, and citizens, but even among some humanities scholars themselves! According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the humanities are: “learning or literature concerned with human culture, esp. literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.” In our context, it is probably worth adding that the “learning or literature” we’re concerned with is comprised of academic disciplines that study human culture.

Does this question of definition matter? I believe it does. Together with many of you who responded to the discussion of the “crisis of the humanities,” I think that the humanities disciplines will be stronger when they work closely with non-humanities disciplines and remain open to the blurring of the bounds of knowledge that has been central to interdisciplinary cultural scholarship for decades. But I also think we cannot afford to sacrifice the specificity of our forms of knowledge—both for reasons of disciplinary self-interest and, more important, because those forms are essential to the future of our planet. This post arises from my sense (and I could cite evidence) that a fuzziness about the precise contours of the humanities (even if those contours are themselves fuzzy) characterizes a lot of important decision making about the future of the humanities both here at Illinois and, most likely, in other places, too. There may be opportunities to exploit in such fuzziness, but there are also significant dangers.

With that context in mind, here’s my own attempt to formulate a definition:

The humanities are academic disciplines that employ critical, historical, interpretive, and speculative methods to study the meanings, values, and effects of human endeavors.

*By critical, I mean the close analysis of texts, concepts, contexts, and events as well as the self-reflexive scrutiny of the investigator’s own methods of analysis.

*By historical, I mean an understanding of meanings, values, and effects as situated in complex—but at least partially understandable—contexts and as varying and changing according to time and place.

*By interpretive, I mean that meanings, values, and effects are not self-evident, fixed, or inherent in texts, events, or contexts, but rather must be disclosed in discrete acts of critical analysis that will produce varied results (i.e. diverse interpretations).

*By speculative, I mean that the meanings, values, and effects that humanities scholars study are non-obvious and not always empirically verifiable, although they sometimes are and although questions of evidence remain crucial.

I do not presuppose that all humanities disciplines and all humanities scholarship will make equal use of these four characteristics or will makes use of them equally in every work of scholarship. Nor do I presuppose that non-humanities disciplines do not make use of some or all of these characteristics. But I do think that a family resemblance characterizes the humanities and meaningfully distinguishes them from the non-humanities along the lines of the definition offered above.

Does this definition (and set of sub-definitions) describe the humanities for you? If not, what changes would you propose? Please keep in mind that an effective definition will have to be concise, even if its terms are open to further elaboration (as I’ve tried to demonstrate here). Perhaps most important, how can we use such a definition to return to our earlier question: how to defend the humanities at a moment when knowledge is increasingly being corporatized and instrumentalized? I think we can (and need to) use such a definition of the humanities and the value of the humanities in discussions with university administrators and others.


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Bruce Rosenstock said...

I think that Michael's definition is great, but I wonder if the verb "to study" is bit narrow, and the object of the verb, "meanings, values, and effects of human endeavors" is a bit too past-oriented. How about clearly dividing it into a temporal framework? How about "... to preserve and study the meanings, etc. of past human endeavor and to imagine and create new pathways for future endeavor." That's clumsy, but you get the point.

martha webber said...

First off I should say - I'm terribly late with my own post this week (an "endeavor" of mine that has been delayed both by my sleeping patterns and my upstairs neighbors, whom I would like to think were staging an impromptu, inebriated, nude performance of A Midsummer's Nights Dream outside of my window at 3:30am the other evening but I'm pretty sure they were just naked, drunk, loud people.)

I think moving towards an understanding/working definition of "the humanities" is helpful provided it's not created to exclude or typify, but rather to try to articulate what might be a shared understanding or expectations for the concept (which seems what your motivations are).

I agree with Bruce's desire to challenge the "past-orientedness" of the working definition (in large part because so many endeavors are seemingly "future-oriented"), but I'm also hung up on the limitations of the word "endeavor" - which seems to bring along with it both ideas of purposefulness/industriousness/efforts that may not always be there in the objects of inquiry that have passed under the banner of the humanities, but also that the word focuses on human action that may allow "the rest" fall away from notice or suggest a priority or precedence to human action.

The way I suppose I've conceived of it, but haven't always made explicit in my own work, is that I'm not focusing on human endeavors, but how - materially, ideologically, etc. - humans have related to (either constructing or entering into established relationships) or interfaced with their environment (in a rich sense of the word).

A perhaps too simplistic example of this might be the way many account for the creation of ancient myths today as pre-scientific accounts of natural phenomenon (seasonal change, death, etc). So noting the natural phenomenon of a really bright ball of warmth and light that seems to rise above your head isn't something one really "endeavors" to notice - I would think it's pretty inescapable (provided you're born with the relatively common set of sense receptors that most humans are endowed with) - but in that moment of "noting" or that forced relationship the object has pushed upon you - a variety of human responses and relationships may arise. This might be a silly example (in fact, it's the very same one that I never thought Frege handled particularly well), but I see that sense of responsiveness or relationality more integral to my understanding of the humanities.

Michael Rothberg said...

Thanks to Bruce and Martha for their comments--and sympathies to Martha for the nude performance art outside her window (one of the hazards of SCT, I fear!).

I never took the "meanings, values, effects" phrase to mean only past meanings, values, and effects--indeed it seems obvious to me that such things very much exist in the present--but I take the point that some reference to temporalities might be useful along the lines of what Bruce suggests.

Martha's comment also hits precisely something I had thought of, but wasn't sure how to incorporate. I originally ended the definition with "human endeavors and lifeworlds"--where "lifeworlds" was supposed to capture the more environmental or ecological sense that I think Martha is evoking. But the sentence didn't quite work with that inclusion and I wasn't sure what the best way to rephrase would be. I don't actually want to lose the sense of human-initiated action, because I do believe that's a major part of what we work on and because, like Marx, I believe we make our history, although not under conditions of our choosing. At the same time, I would like to supplement it with the more "responsive"/"relational"/environmental perspective Martha brings up (as well as the future-oriented one mentioned by Bruce).

I'd be happy to have suggestions for the actual wording--and other ideas/thoughts--before I post a new definition...

Laurie Johnson said...

"Responsive" and "relational" are good terms, although I also like "lifeworld" very much, for the reasons Michael mentions. And of course all of these terms don't necessarily belong in one conceptual bucket.

Reading Kevin Healey's post today made me think that something along the lines of his reference to Ellul's call for a "radical reorientation toward the world on the part of individuals" (and this implies response and relation) could be seen as an aspect of humanities work that expands and augments the best of what the life sciences try to do, while at the same time being its own, humanities-specific, job.

Michael, I think your definition accomplishes the very difficult task of putting an enormous amount of complex information together in an accessible way; I would think that all humanists will be able to recognize themselves there. As Martha and Bruce both indicate, it could use more of an emphasis on the dynamic present and the future, and on relationships/relationality/response. And Kevin's post reminds us that humanities scholarship is in a position to define and understand specific (although also broad) forces shaping all of us, such as: technique, technology.

But when I try to do what you have done--come up with an accessible and concise (!) definition myself--I end up back at a definition of thinking that takes hold in the late eighteenth century, exactly when the overspecialization and disciplinary divides that (seem to?) threaten the humanities today started to proliferate. So, my own desire (in agreement with Bruce) that our definition of the humanities should not be overly oriented toward the past comes from, well, the humanities' past.

At that time, the focus on apperception as one of the main tasks of philosophy intersects roughly with the discovery in faculty psychology (a psychology conducted in part by authors and philosophers) that observation of an object of study changes both the observer and the object (a kind of foreshadowing of quantum mechanics; Martha's comment made me think of this).

Thinkers trying to come up with broad definitions of humanistic endeavor in that era, and under arguably similar pressure to justify the work of an increasingly specialized philosophy in the face of accelerated advances in science and technology (and in some cases in the face of the diversion of resources to those fields) tried to make a case for philosophy's value as a tool for ever-improving self-awareness *and* simultaneously as a tool for literally shaping the world.