THE NATURE OF THE HUMANITIES
by 

A.S.P. Woodhouse

 

The classic essay by A.S.P. Woodhouse, 

as it appeared in the 1964 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

 

 

Humanities is a group of educational disciplines distinguished in content and method from the physical and biological sciences and, if less decisively, from the social sciences. The group includes language and literature in each of their principal examples (ancient and modern), the fine arts other than literature, philosophy, at least in its more traditional divisions, and, to a less clearly defined extent, history, where the boundary between the social sciences and the humanities is most debatable. These are the core of the humanities and are sometimes organized as a school or division in the modern university.

 

The humanities are studies which centre attention on the life of man. But this does not by itself serve to distinguish them from biology, a natural science, if it directs its attention to man; or from politics, a social science (for man, as Aristotle said, is a political animal); or even from religion (for man, as Edmund Burke added, is a religious animal). It is true, however, that as early as William Caxton (1422-91), humanity was distinguished from divinity, as the one dealt with man on the merely human level (or in the order of nature), and the other embraced the whole scheme of revealed religion (or the order of grace); and this distinction remains significant. Though the humanities stand committed to no particular philosophy or creed, they assume the possibility of distinguishing with some sharpness between man and the rest of nature, and between the human and the supernatural. These two facts, taken in conjunction, mean that at different times or by different schools the humanities may be brought into some relation with naturalism (as in the more pagan forms of Renaissance and subsequent humanism) or with religion (as in the Christian humanists of the same and succeeding periods).

 

Cicero's use of the term humanitas leads to the question of meaning in another way. In its most general sense humanitas signfied for him the qualities, feelings and inclinations proper to mankind and was from the first not descriptive only, but normative in function. From the general it developed two special senses. It came to connote humane feelings and the conduct toward others which they dictated: gentleness, consideration, good manners -- in a word, much that was to be incorporated in the ideal of the gentleman and to become, thereby, the second aim of a liberal education as formulated by John Henry Newman (q.v.) in Idea of a University (1852). Humanitas also came to connote intellectual cultivation and the training that produced it, or (in the language of Newman) the process and primary end of liberal education. Since, for Cicero, education reached its goal in the production of the orator, the principal acquisition and instrument of training was literature in a wide sense, and the instrument of training outcome of intellectual culture was weight, precision and effectiveness of utterance. Humanitas was coupled with literature or study or came to stand for them, in such phrases as literae humanitatis and in omni recto studio atque humanitate versari ("to be versed in all true study and humanity"). No wonder inhumnitas was for Cicero a synonym for barbaria. For the humanists of the Renaissance, humanity, partly through the direct influence of Cicero, retained these connotations; and since for them, as for him, Greek and Latin literature was the great source of knowledge, wisdom and eloquence, the humanities meant the languages and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome (literature including of course philosophy, history and oratory, as well as belles-lettres) -- the meaning preserved in such phrases as literae humaniores (Oxford) and professor of humanity (I>i.e., Latin) at Edinburgh. All the meanings discussed here have left their mark on the term humanities as applied to the group of disciplines listed at the outset. The extension and differentiation of studies and the emergence of new methods, since the 17th century, have also had their influence.

 

In European universities language has ceased to mean Greek, Latin and the ancient languages of the near east; it has come to include the modern languages, with (as is natural) special attention to the mother tongue of the student, and has extended its territory to take in theSlavic and the far-eastern language groups. The historical and comparative study of languages and general linguistics have approximated in their aims and methods natural science and, further, have discovered common ground with such social sciences as psychology, anthropology and sociology. Put in another department, the study of language continues to be treated not as science merely, but as the art of expression; and here the tradition of the humanities and the emphasis on a normative function clearly persist. The cumbersome framework of ancient rhetoric has been largely abandoned (to be replaced by new techniques), but something of the underlying belief survives that effective expression depends on a trained and cultivated intellect and sensibility and is their ultimate sign and seal.

Literature and Fine Arts

 

Literature, which is still, as all the more conservative definitions suggest, the core of the humanities, has kept pace with the extension of the field in language since added languages have given access to additional literatures of greater or less value; and here, too, new methods of study and new affinities with other disciplines have been discovered and applied. But is is remarkable how many of the essential methods of literary study were already foreshadowed in the De Ratione Studii of Erasmus in the 16th century. And indeed the traditional pattern set by the study of the classics has continued to exercise its pervasive influence: in the wide definition of literature centering on, but extending beyond, belle-lettres (as in Matthew Arnold's "Literature and Science:); in the concentration upon major authors and acknowledged masterpieces so that, in one view, what extension meant was to add Dante to Virgil, Milton to Homer, Racine to Sophocles, Gibbon to Thucydides, Bacon to Aristotle, Burke to Cicero; and in the connection, fairly steadily maintained, of literature and language -- sometimes reduced to the dry analysis of the grammarian but capable of being reinvigorated, as oftein in contemporary criticism. The training ground in literature as such has increasingly shifted from the classics to modern literature, and especially to whichever is for the student the literature of his mother tongue; with this last (which of course betokens some decline in linguistic studies, despite the extension of their range and methods) may be associated courses in ancient and modern foreign literature in translation. Such courses while sacrificing the connection with language do at least bear witness to the centrality of literature itself, as also does that other experiment of basing a liberal education, in whole or in part, on a systematic study of "great books" of literature in its widest extent, including the classics of philosophy, history, politics and even theology and science. Literature thus conceived (that is, as requiring only that it shall be addressed to the general reader and shall manifest a certain significance of content and distinction of expression) becomes a great meeting place of subject matters.

 

In its stricter definition as belles-lettres, literature long provided the principal or only reprepresentative of the aesthetic in liberal education. There has been added the academic (i.e., the critical and historical) study of the fine arts, and especially of painting and music. The latecomers have immensely strengthened the humanities on the aesthetic side, have supplemented and reinforced the study of literature and have been able in measure to apply some methods of which literature has been the proving ground.

Philosophy and History

 

The two remaining divisions of the humanities, philosophy and history, possess their own appropriate subject matters but are unique in also providing distinctive methods which can be applied to other subjects. For a century and a half, historical method has increasingly dominated all branches of humanistic study and research, though, especially in literary criticism, there is some reaction against it based on an avowed desire to contemplate the work in itself and therefore in isolation. One may question how effective and lasting this reaction can prove, since so many of the materials of humanistic study belong to the past and demand their historical settings and explanations. Historical method has, of course, been applied outside the humanities and especially in the social sciences where history, because its special subject matter has so often been political, holds also an important place. But history in other of its departments has close affinities with the humanities: historical biography may be regarded as a form of literature, historiography as part of the theory of literature and indeed of knowledge, and the philosophy of history, from Hegel to Arnold Toynbee, as a branch of philosophy.

 

In the subdivision of subjects and distinction of disciplines, philosophy has lost psychology to the social (or perhaps, rather, to the natural) sciences and has come to share the theory of government with political science and the history of ideas with literature; but a large and vastly important territory remains its undisputed possession, including metaphysics, ethics and the history of philosophy in general. Moreover, philosophy has manifold contracts with other disciplines. Like history it includes, as well as a subject matter, a method applicable to a wide range of subjects which it can thus, in a sense, appropriate. Commanding as it does the theory of knowledge in general, it deals on the theoretic level with aesthetics and the kind of knowledge involved in the arts and also with logic and the kind of knowledge involved in the sciences and social sciences.

 

Finally, philosophy, and it alone, is equipped to synthetize, still on the theoretic level, data supplied by all the other departments of the humanities and by the sciences and the social sciences as well. There is in the modern university a need, more often recognized than adequately met, for giving to the nonspecialist some insight into the philosophy and history of science, and such a course of instruction evidently requires the techniques of both philosophy and history or, in other words, the cooperation of the humanities, since its real subject would be the bearings of science on the life and thought of man.\

Science and Humanities

 

Well into the 19th century the humanities, still mainly represented by Greek and Latin, constituted with mathematics the staple of liberal education. The 19th century, which witnessed a great expansion of and within the humanistic disciplines, also witnessed the inevitable loss of their monopoly before the advance of the sciences and social sciences. These disciplines have indeed brough within the scheme of formal education knowledge essential to an understanding of the world we live in and useful for various practical ends; but (as Matthew Arnold observed in "Literature and Science") science is apt to content itself with the steady accumulation of knowledge, while the humanities have failed unless, in addition, they bring some accession of wisdom, some recognizable cultivation of intellect, imagination and sensibility, and some preparation for what the Greeks called the good life. This conception of the humanities and their role is true to the tradition from Cicero onward; but it sometimes invites misapprehension.

Humanities in the Twentieth Century

 

There has been a widespread feeling in the 20th century that the retreat of the humanities in education may have gone too far and fresh demands have been made upon them. Schemes of "general education" in some U.S. universities have apportioned time and effort between the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences as distinctive areas and forms of knowledge. In these schemes there has been perhaps a tacit assumption, little supported by the tradition of the humanities, that their concern is wholly with man as an individual and not at all with man as a social being. Nor do their varied subject matters easily lend themselves to an effort of united presentation, under what is in effect a new academic subject, designated "Humanities." Though not without its possible uses in general education, this effort is also a departure from the tradition of the humanities and carries some threat to the integrity of the separate subjects.

 

The gravest danger in the demands made upon the humanities and the opportunities opening before them, lies in the possible misapprehension regarding their role, hinted above, and what that role entails. This misapprehension, in a word, is to suppose that the humanities can reach their end by indoctrination concealed as intellectual discipline. If the humanities are indeed normative, if they mold the mind and sensibility of the student and bring an accession of wisdom, it is by virtue of their subject matter, of the ideas which they present or evoke and the experiences to which they give him entry; and these ideas and experiences achieve their full effect only as they are examined critically, evaluated, and by the student made his own.

 

A.S.P. Woodhouse in his office at the University of Toronto

A.S.P. Woodhouse in his office at the University of Toronto