The Idea of the Humanities

I begin teaching the humanities librarianship course for the UIUC library school again this week, and one of the goals of the course is to understand just what we mean by the humanities. There are rival definitions, ranging from “the best that has been thought and said” to “those courses taught in humanities departments.” Fifty years ago, Ronald Crane, then an eminent literary critic at the University of Chicago, gave one of the definitions I like best. In brief, the humanities involve the application of linguistics, philosophical analysis, literary and artistic criticism, and historiography to understand outstanding human achievements that are not reducible to natural or social laws. However, for a fuller exploration, see the excerpts below from his essay, “The Idea of the Humanities.”

Excerpted from: Crane, R.S. “The Idea of the Humanities.” The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. 3-15.

“We have now tried out two common ways of answering our question of what exactly are the humanities–first, by pointing to certain subjects that are officially or conventionally designated as humanistic, and, second, by specifying the large and noble purposes which humanistic study may be supposed to serve; and we have found neither of them entirely satisfactory. There is, however, a third, and more promising, way of approaching our question–a way which is suggested by one of the earliest documents in which the term “humanities” occurs (in its singular Latin form of humanitas,  or humanity). The document is the work of a minor Latin grammarian (or professor of language and literature) of the second century; and in it “humanity” is defined simply as “education and training in the good arts” or disciplines; and the goodness of these arts is made to reside in the fact that those who earnestly desire and seek after them come to be most highly humanized, in the sense of being endowed with the virtues and knowledge that separate men most sharply from the lower animals….

It is a view that identifies the humanities, not with certain subjects of study merely, or with the pursuit of certain abstract ends, but with the proper cultivation of certain arts or disciplines, that is, of certain means; and it makes the humanistic character of such arts or methods to consist in their peculiar capacity to deal with those aspects of human experience that differentiate man most completely from the animals, to the end that individual men may actualize as fully as possible their potentialities as men….

They consist, generally, in all those things which, because not all men or all groups of men can, or do, do them, are therefore not amenable to adequate explanation in terms of general laws of natural processes, physical or biological, or in terms of collective social conditions or forces. They are the things which we cannot predict, in any scientific way, that men individually or in groups will do, but which, when they are done, we recognize as signs, not of any natural or social necessities, but of possibilities inherent in man’s peculiar nature. They are, in short, what we commonly speak of as human achievements–whether in sciences, in institutions, or in the arts. And, more especially, they are those human achievements, like Newtonian or modern physics, the American Constitution, or Shakespearean tragedy, to which we agree in attributing that kind of unprecedented excellence that calls forth wonder as well as admiration. These, wherever we find them, are the distinctive objects of the humanities; and the aim of the humanities is precisely such an understanding, appreciation, and use of them as will most completely preserve their character as human achievements that cannot be completely resolved into either natural processes common to men and animals or into impersonal forces affecting all the members of a given society….
Linguistics, the analysis of ideas, literary and artistic criticism, and historiography–these are the four constituent elements of the humanities when the humanities are defined in terms of the “good arts” which their successful cultivation presupposes….
We are doing a merely partial job in the teaching of literature, for example, when we are content to let our students see only those aspects of the great works we teach that can be brought out by asking questions concerning the language in which they are written or the historical circumstances that affected their writing, without also bringing to bear upon them, in a systematic way, the resources of the analysis of ideas and of the criticism of literary forms; or, conversely, when we approach literary works merely in terms of critical or philosophical analysis without adequate reference to problems of language and history….
The four arts are the arts of the humanities, in short, because they are pertinent in varying degrees to all the subject matters with which humanists commonly deal; they thus cut across the boundaries dividing the subject matters from one another; and it is precisely the convergence of all of them upon any subject matter that makes it, in the completest degree, humanistic….
Everything that men do has a natural and social basis or context, which humanists can forget only at the peril of making their studies of human achievements unreal and abstract. Every writer, every artist, every scientist, every statesman, every moral agent knows well that there are limits to what he can do, fixed not by himself but by the natural conditions in which he lives, the state of his culture or language, the logic of inquiry or artistic creation, the uniformities of popular psychology. These causes operate, however, more or less regularly, upon everybody; and they are not sufficient to account for those attributes of human achievements with which the humanist is distinctively concerned….
The sciences are most successful when they seek to move from the diversity and particularity of their observations toward as high a degree of unity, uniformity, simplicity, and necessity as their materials permit. The humanities, on the other hand, are most alive when they reverse this process, and look for devices of explanation and appreciation that will enable them to preserve as much as possible of the variety, the uniqueness, the unexpectedness, the complexity, the originality, that distinguish what men are capable of doing at their best from what they must do, or tend generally to do, as biological organisms or members of a community….
… the internal enemies of the humanities are mainly two in number. One of these is the spirit of dogmatism, or rather of sectarianism: the spirit that gives us so many rival schools of linguists, critics, historians, and philosophers, who frequently seem more intent on exposing each other’s errors than on getting ahead with their own studies; the spirit, also, that inspires the many futile quarrels and jealousies, in departments and divisions of the humanities, among specialists in the various disciplines. … The other enemy is perhaps more amenable, at least to a policy of containment. It is what I may call the spirit of reduction; the spirit that denies the essence of the humanities by seeking always to direct our attention away from the multiplicity and diversity of human achievements, in their rich concrete actuality, to some lower or lowest common denominator: the spirit that is ever intent on resolving the complex into the simple, the conscious into the unconscious, the human into the natural; the spirit for which great philosophic systems are nothing but the expression of personal opinions or class prejudices, the forms of art nothing but their materials’ or their sources in the unconscious mind, the acts of statesmen nothing but the reflections of economic forces, the moral virtues nothing but the mores or the functioning of the glands….”

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