CIRCA:Brief History of the Humanities


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Humanities: the Term ‘Humanities’ and the History of the Humanities

According to Dr. Mike Lippman, University of Arizona, Department of Classics, the Humanities originate in 5th century BC, Greece, where we find the first concentrated development of tragedy or drama, comedy, philosophy, and history, all the major disciplines included in the Humanities today.

The online dictionary defines the Humanities as one part of what is commonly referred to as the Liberal Arts. Also included under the umbrella of Liberal Arts are the natural sciences, arts, and social sciences. The Liberal Arts include those topics that are not professional or technical subjects. The term 'liberal arts' originates from the mid-eighteenth century, translated from the Latin artēs līberālēs, meaning 'works befitting a freeman'.

Referring to the core skills employed in the civic life and public debate of classical antiquity, the later termed 'liberal arts' were skills that were thought to foster virtue, knowledge, and articulation. Such skills included grammar, rhetoric, and logic, known in medieval times as the Trivium, three of the foundations that would form the basis for the Humanities. During the era of the medieval church, the Trivium was expanded to include the natural sciences, incorporating arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. This new synthesis of the disciplines was referred to as the Quadrivium.

The term Humanities comes from the Latin humanus, meaning human, cultured and refined, and originates with the Renaissance ‘humanists’ who redefined the traditional subjects of the Trivium as the Studia Humanitatis, removing logic and then adding to their newly defined corpus such disciplines as Greek studies, (to complement the Latin grammar), history, poetry, and ethics. As such, the Humanities were born.

Two Cultures? - The Split Between the Humanities and the Sciences

The Yale Report of 1828 rallied against a gradual depart in universities from the classical liberal arts education of the core subjects contained in the trivium and quadrivium towards the ever encroaching elective based curriculum. The report was significant in two ways, first, that it was seen by many as a decades long setback in the advancement of education options, and second, that is stands as a historical landmark in the conversation surrounding the dissolution of the classical liberal arts education.

One of the original and often quoted discourses pertaining to the split in education is Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. Newman wrote and lectured extensively in the 1850’s on the nature of the university, focusing on the value of the liberal education. His belief was that knowledge was universal and that truth was anything but relative. Newman claimed that truth was specific and attainable through reason and intellect. He is often cited as the original proponent of a generalist education as opposed to a vocational education.

C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture and subsequent book entitled Two Cultures stands as the quintessential expression of the split between the Humanities and the Sciences, and is often quoted as the first modern critique of the split between the disciplines, positing the divide as a regrettable loss to humanity and knowledge. Snow’s work became a major catalyst towards the ‘Science Wars’ of the 1990’s, an epistemological debate between postmodernist thinking and science that polarized knowledge into objectivist and subjectivist corners, extolling the values of one epistemological view over the other. The debate has resurfaced in recent years as a struggle to unite the so-called 'two cultures', though differing views on the value of such an endeavour surface in both the academy and society in general.

Disciplines Included in the Humanities

As defined by the Ohio Humanities Council, the disciplines of the Humanities include Archaeology, Comparative Religion, Ethics, History, Languages & Linguistics, Literature, Jurisprudence, Philosophy, History, Theory, Criticism of the Arts, and the Social Sciences. The humanities also include music, theatre and other visual and performing arts. Though there is generally a division between the disciplines of the Humanities and Social Sciences, included in the Humanities are social sciences such as Anthropology, Area Studies, Communication Studies, Cultural Studies, and Law. The disciplines of Humanities are differentiated from those of the Social Sciences by focus. While the Humanities focus on the traditional and historical aspects of humanity, the Social Sciences focus on living society and culture. Social Sciences include disciplines that deal with the social, economic, cultural and political aspects of society, and use scientific methodologies in their approach. There is however often a cross over between the disciplines of the Humanities and those of the Social Sciences.


Mike Lippman. Where the Humanities Come From, University of Arizona Humanities Seminars Program, 2010. Website, accessed Oct 29, 2012. - Liberal Arts, Website, accessed Oct 27, 2012.

The Yale Report, Excerpts. Yale College, 1828. Website, accessed Nov, 13, 2012

Wikipedia - Liberal Arts Education. Website, accessed Oct 28, 2012.

What are the Humanities: as defined by the Ohio Humanities Council. Website, accessed October 17, 2012

Gregg Henriques. Revisiting the Science Wars: Toward a Scientific Humanistic Worldview, in 'Theory of Knowledge: A Unified Approach to Psychology and Philosophy'; Psychology Today. Website, accessed November 1, 2012

Paul Grobstein. The Humanities and the Sciences: Learning from Each Other? Serendip Studio: A Digital Ecosystem, 2008. Website, accessed Nov 6, 2012

John Henry Newman. The Idea of a University, 1854. From Modern History Sourcebook. Website, accessed Nov 2, 2012

Alex MacDonald (Ed.), Ideas of the University, and of Education, In the Nineteenth Century: Selected Readings. DRAFT: MARCH 2011 Campion College, University of Regina.

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