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.

Disciplines Typically 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.

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

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.

  • Where the term came from
  • What disciplines are typically in the humanities
  • The social sciences and arts - and why they are also sometimes in the humanities - "interpretative social sciences"
  • How is it different in French "sciences humaines"
  • split with sciences -
  • split with professional programmes
  • the liberal arts- Yale report, Cardinal Newman has a book "The Idea of the Univesity"


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.

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

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