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The philosopher Plato

The humanities are academic disciplines which study the human condition, using methods that are largely analytic, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural and social sciences.

Examples of the disciplines related to humanities are ancient and modern languages, literature, history, philosophy, religion, visual and performing arts (including music). Additional subjects sometimes included in the humanities are anthropology, area studies, communications and cultural studies, although these are often regarded as social sciences. Scholars working in the humanities are sometimes described as "humanists". However, that term also describes the philosophical position of humanism, which some " antihumanist" scholars in the humanities reject.

Humanities fields


Bust of Homer, a Greek poet

The classics, in the Western academic tradition, refer to cultures of classical antiquity, namely the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Classical study was formerly considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities, but the classics declined in importance during the 20th century. Nevertheless, the influence of classical ideas in humanities such as philosophy and literature remain strong.

More broadly speaking, the "classics" are the foundational writings of the earliest major cultures of the world. In other major traditions, classics would refer to the Vedas and Upanishads in India, the writings attributed to Confucius, Lao-tse and Chuang-tzu in China, and writings such as the Hammurabi Code and the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia, as well as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.


History is systematically collected information about the past. When used as the name of a field of study, history refers to the study and interpretation of the record of humans, families, and societies. Knowledge of history is often said to encompass both knowledge of past events and historical thinking skills.

Traditionally, the study of history has been considered a part of the humanities. However, in modern academia, history is increasingly classified as a social science, especially when chronology is the focus.


The study of individual modern and classical languages form the backbone of modern study of the humanities, while the scientific study of language is known as linguistics and is a social science. Since many areas of the humanities such as literature, history and philosophy are based on language, changes in language can have a profound effect on the other humanities. Literature, covering a variety of uses of language including prose forms (such as the novel), poetry and drama, also lies at the heart of the modern humanities curriculum. College-level programs in a foreign language usually include study of important works of the literature in that language, as well as the language itself (grammar, vocabulary, etc.).


A trial at a criminal court, the Old Bailey in London

Law in common parlance, means a rule which (unlike a rule of ethics) is capable of enforcement through institutions. The study of law crosses the boundaries between the social sciences and humanities, depending on one's view of research into its objectives and effects. Law is not always enforceable, especially in the international relations context. It has been defined as a "system of rules", as an "interpretive concept" to achieve justice, as an "authority" to mediate people's interests, and even as "the command of a sovereign, backed by the threat of a sanction". However one likes to think of law, it is a completely central social institution. Legal policy incorporates the practical manifestation of thinking from almost every social science and humanity. Laws are politics, because politicians create them. Law is philosophy, because moral and ethical persuasions shape their ideas. Law tells many of history's stories, because statutes, case law and codifications build up over time. And law is economics, because any rule about contract, tort, property law, labour law, company law and many more can have long lasting effects on the distribution of wealth. The noun law derives from the late Old English lagu, meaning something laid down or fixed and the adjective legal comes from the Latin word lex.


Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest works in English literature

One can equate a literature with a collection of stories, poems, and plays that revolve around a particular topic. In this case, the stories, poems and plays may or may not have nationalistic implications. The Western Canon forms one such literature. The term "literature" has different meanings depending on who is using it and in what context. It could be applied broadly to mean any symbolic record, encompassing everything from images and sculptures to letters. People may perceive a difference between "literature" and some popular forms of written work. The terms " literary fiction" and " literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works.

Performing arts

The performing arts differ from the plastic arts insofar as the former uses the artist's own body, face, presence as a medium, and the latter uses materials such as clay, metal or paint which can be molded or transformed to create some art object. Performing arts include acrobatics, busking, comedy, dance, magic, music, opera, film, juggling, marching arts, such as brass bands, and theatre.

Artists who participate in these arts in front of an audience are called performers, including actors, comedians, dancers, musicians, and singers. Performing arts are also supported by workers in related fields, such as songwriting and stagecraft. Performers often adapt their appearance, such as with costumes and stage makeup, etc. There is also a specialized form of fine art in which the artists perform their work live to an audience. This is called Performance art. Most performance art also involves some form of plastic art, perhaps in the creation of props. Dance was often referred to as a plastic art during the Modern dance era.

Concert in the Mozarteum, Salzburg

Music as an academic discipline mainly focuses on two career paths, music performance (focused on the orchestra and the concert hall) and music education (training music teachers). Students learn to play instruments, but also study music theory, musicology, history of music and composition. In the liberal arts tradition, music is also used to broaden skills of non-musicians by teaching skills such as concentration and listening.


Theatre (or theatre) (Greek "theatron", θέατρον) is the branch of the performing arts concerned with acting out stories in front of an audience using combinations of speech, gesture, music, dance, sound and spectacle — indeed any one or more elements of the other performing arts. In addition to the standard narrative dialogue style, theatre takes such forms as opera, ballet, mime, kabuki, classical Indian dance, Chinese opera, mummers' plays, and pantomime.


Dance (from Old French dancier, perhaps from Frankish) generally refers to human movement either used as a form of expression or presented in a social, spiritual or performance setting. Dance is also used to describe methods of non-verbal communication (see body language) between humans or animals ( bee dance, mating dance), motion in inanimate objects (the leaves danced in the wind), and certain musical forms or genres. Choreography is the art of making dances, and the person who does this is called a choreographer.

Definitions of what constitutes dance are dependent on social, cultural, aesthetic artistic and moral constraints and range from functional movement (such as Folk dance) to codified, virtuoso techniques such as ballet. In sports, gymnastics, figure skating and synchronized swimming are dance disciplines while Martial arts ' kata' are often compared to dances.


Philosophy is ancient Greek for the love of wisdom. It questions life, existence and human reasoning. Philosophy is one of the world's oldest subjects of study, branching and evolving into separate disciplines of physics in the sixteenth century and psychology in the nineteenth century.

According to Immanuel Kant, in the first line of his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, ( Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals), "Ancient Greek philosophy was divided into three sciences: physics, ethics, and logic."

In present society, areas such as Cognitive Science have emerged where experts attempt to unravel the nature of intelligent systems and understand thought, speech and reasoning.


The compass in this 13th Century manuscript is a symbol of God's act of creation.

Most historians trace the beginnings of religious belief to the Neolithic Period. Most religious belief during this time period consisted of worship of a Mother Goddess, a Sky Father, and also worship of the Sun and the Moon as deities. (see also Sun worship)

New philosophies and religions arose in both east and west, particularly around the 6th century BC. Over time, a great variety of religions developed around the world, with Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia being some of the earliest major faiths. In the east, three schools of thought were to dominate Chinese thinking until the modern day. These were Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. The Confucian tradition, which would attain predominance, looked not to the force of law, but to the power and example of tradition for political morality. In the west, the Greek philosophical tradition, represented by the works of Plato and Aristotle, was diffused throughout Europe and the Middle East by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon in the 4th century BC.

Abrahamic religions are those religions deriving from a common ancient Semitic tradition and traced by their adherents to Abraham (circa 1900 BCE), a patriarch whose life is narrated in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and as a prophet in the Quran and also called a prophet in Genesis 20:7. This forms a large group of related largely monotheistic religions, generally held to include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam comprises about half of the world's religious adherents.

Visual arts

Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain by Emperor Gaozong (1107–1187) of Song Dynasty; fan mounted as album leaf on silk, four columns in cursive script.

The great traditions in art have a foundation in the art of one of the ancient civilizations, such as Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, China, India, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica.

Ancient Greek art saw a veneration of the human physical form and the development of equivalent skills to show musculature, poise, beauty and anatomically correct proportions. Ancient Roman art depicted gods as idealized humans, shown with characteristic distinguishing features (i.e. Zeus' thunderbolt).

In Byzantine and Gothic art of the Middle Ages, the dominance of the church insisted on the expression of biblical and not material truths. The Renaissance saw the return to valuation of the material world, and this shift is reflected in art forms, which show the corporeality of the human body, and the three-dimensional reality of landscape.

Eastern art has generally worked in a style akin to Western medieval art, namely a concentration on surface patterning and local colour (meaning the plain colour of an object, such as basic red for a red robe, rather than the modulations of that colour brought about by light, shade and reflection). A characteristic of this style is that the local colour is often defined by an outline (a contemporary equivalent is the cartoon). This is evident in, for example, the art of India, Tibet and Japan.

An artist's palette

Religious Islamic art forbids iconography, and expresses religious ideas through geometry instead. The physical and rational certainties depicted by the 19th-century Enlightenment were shattered not only by new discoveries of relativity by Einstein and of unseen psychology by Freud, but also by unprecedented technological development. Increasing global interaction during this time saw an equivalent influence of other cultures into Western art.

Media types

Drawing is a means of making an image, using any of a wide variety of tools and techniques. It generally involves making marks on a surface by applying pressure from a tool, or moving a tool across a surface. Common tools are graphite pencils, pen and ink, inked brushes, wax colour pencils, crayons, charcoals, pastels, and markers. Digital tools which simulate the effects of these are also used. The main techniques used in drawing are: line drawing, hatching, crosshatching, random hatching, scribbling, stippling, and blending. An artist who excels in drawing is referred to as a draftsman or draughtsman.

The Mona Lisa is one of the most recognizable artistic paintings in the Western world.

Painting taken literally is the practice of applying pigment suspended in a carrier (or medium) and a binding agent (a glue) to a surface (support) such as paper, canvas or a wall. However, when used in an artistic sense it means the use of this activity in combination with drawing, composition and other aesthetic considerations in order to manifest the expressive and conceptual intention of the practitioner. Painting is also used to express spiritual motifs and ideas; sites of this kind of painting range from artwork depicting mythological figures on pottery to The Sistine Chapel to the human body itself.

Colour is the essence of painting as sound is of music. Colour is highly subjective, but has observable psychological effects, although these can differ from one culture to the next. Black is associated with mourning in the West, but elsewhere white may be. Some painters, theoreticians, writers and scientists, including Goethe, Kandinsky, Isaac Newton, have written their own colour theory. Moreover the use of language is only a generalisation for a colour equivalent. The word " red", for example, can cover a wide range of variations on the pure red of the spectrum. There is not a formalised register of different colours in the way that there is agreement on different notes in music, such as C or C# in music, although the Pantone system is widely used in the printing and design industry for this purpose.

Modern artists have extended the practice of painting considerably to include, for example, collage. This began with cubism and is not painting in strict sense. Some modern painters incorporate different materials such as sand, cement, straw or wood for their texture. Examples of this are the works of Jean Dubuffet or Anselm Kiefer. Modern and contemporary art has moved away from the historic value of craft in favour of concept; this has led some to say that painting, as a serious art form, is dead, although this has not deterred the majority of artists from continuing to practise it either as whole or part of their work.

History of the humanities

In the West, the study of the humanities can be traced to ancient Greece, as the basis of a broad education for citizens. During Roman times, the concept of the seven liberal arts evolved, involving grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium), along with arithmetic, geometry, astronomia and music (the quadrivium). These subjects formed the bulk of medieval education, with the emphasis being on the humanities as skills or "ways of doing."

A major shift occurred during the Renaissance, when the humanities began to be regarded as subjects to be studied rather than practised, with a corresponding shift away from the traditional fields into areas such as literature and history. In the 20th century, this view was in turn challenged by the postmodernist movement, which sought to redefine the humanities in more egalitarian terms suitable for a democratic society.

Humanities today

Humanities in the United States

Many American colleges and universities believe in the notion of a broad "liberal arts education", which requires all college students to study the humanities in addition to their specific area of study. Prominent proponents of liberal arts in the United States have included Mortimer J. Adler and E.D. Hirsch.

The 1980 United States Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities described the humanities in its report, The Humanities in American Life:

Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason.

Criticism of the traditional humanities/liberal arts degree program has been leveled by many that see them as both expensive and relatively "useless" in the modern American job market, where several years of specialized study is required in many/most job fields. This is in direct contrast to the early 20th century when approximately 3% to 6% of the public at large had a university degree, and having one was a direct path to a professional life.

After World War II, many millions of veterans took advantage of the GI Bill. Further expansion of federal education grants and loans have expanded the number of adults in the United States that have attended a college. In 2003, roughly 53% of the population had some college education with 27.2% having graduated with a Bachelor's degree or higher, including 8% who graduated with a graduate degree.

The digital age

Language and literature are considered to be the central topics in humanities, so the impact of electronic communication is of great concern to those in the field. The immediacy of modern technology and the internet speeds up communication, but may threaten "deferred" forms of communication such as literature and "dumb down" language. The library is also changing rapidly as bookshelves are replaced by computer terminals. Despite the fact that humanities will have to adapt rapidly to these changes, it is unlikely that the traditional forms of literature will be completely abandoned.

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