What are the Humanities?

Direct Knowlege Contributor Taylor Bauer
  • By Taylor Bauer, Technical Writer & Digital Marketing Expert
  • Taylor is a writer and SEO manager with a B.S. in Political Communication from Illinois State University. He also received his M.S. in Communications from Illinois State. His background comes from journalism, working at an NPR member station for three years before transitioning to blogging and search engine marketing. He lives in Illinois with his wife and two Toy Australian Sheppards.

The humanities are subjects that, to give a simple definition, study the intricacies of humans. You and I know that certain parts of the human species, like society and culture, are relatively unique among animals. Analyzing ideas, examples, and definitions in the humanities can help you understand how civilization reached this status today and where it is going.

The humanities look at how people move, how they think, how they communicate, and how they develop culture. The main subjects covered here include history, languages, law, literature, performing arts, philosophy, theology, and the visual arts. Unlike empirical sciences, the humanities do not rely on testing and evidence. Instead, I will show you how they take a critical and speculative approach. 

If you ever find yourself wondering about these parts of humanity, then read on. I will outline the fundamentals of the humanities and provide sources for further reading and discovery.

Science vs. Humanities

Rather than the scientific method of empirical testing and observation to gather evidence, the humanities often rely on critical and speculative processes.

I don’t mean to say that the field can’t involve scientific methods and practices. But, I will say that many of the topics do not need it. By that, I mean they often aren’t trying to prove theories or solve concrete problems. For example, you can’t do much experimenting with ancient literature. You can only read it and observe how it affected human culture or vice versa. Thus, the topics I cover here usually focus on exploring human nature and skills.

What Subjects Do the Humanities Include?

Some examples of popular fields in humanities include history, literature, law and politics, religion, performing arts, philosophy, and visual arts. I believe they provide a strong foundation of critical thinking skills, creativity, and general knowledge.

Philosophy, for example, encompasses thought on a vast range of subjects that once, long ago, even included physics. The visual arts encourage more expression of emotions and aesthetics, as they have done for centuries. Below, I will go over the definitions and give an overview of the scope of these and other humanities subjects.

Why Do We Need to Study Humanities?

The humanities help us both in modern life as well as in our journey to understand the past. If I study humanities, I can gain skills and values by exploring the unique experiences of humans.

Learning about the arts can help you bring out your creativity. Learning about past events can expose your empathy. And connecting the relationships of people and events requires you to use logic. This diversity of skills has many uses in practically any field of study or career. It also helps you grow on a personal level into someone who can combine pure knowledge with accompanying values, priorities, and insights.

Other fields outside of the humanities often do not have such diverse definitions, topics, or applications. Many areas have a very narrow focus, which I will admit makes sense considering the benefits of optimization in modern society. If I can focus on a single task or body of knowledge, then I get a lot more done. And I’m sure the same goes for you. However, we can’t lose sight of how those tasks and bodies of knowledge connect.

The Search For Knowledge and Efficiency

As an example of optimization, the original assembly lines of Ford car factories demonstrated this rise of efficiency. It’s also why master’s degrees and PhDs are in more demand these days. There’s so much knowledge out there today. The way grow it is by people focusing all their time and energy on specific pieces of the puzzle.

But in this ever-growing search for knowledge, I know it’s easy to get lost in how it all connects. And that’s where the humanities still hold firm. That’s probably a factor behind the fact that almost 60 percent of CEOs in the U.S. studied humanities. But then you might think it counterproductive that only a tiny portion of federal research money goes to the humanities. I think this may be due to stereotypes in the media or obsessions with career paths that lead to financial success. But it’s undeniable that the humanities also hold their own unique merits deserving of attention and study.

What Does a Degree in the Humanities Entail?

In a humanities degree, you will look at examples of common issues and topics from both modern and past civilizations. This examination aims to improve your critical reasoning abilities and communication effectiveness that are critical for many fields. You should be prepared to put effort into improving both oral and written communication skills and do a great deal of reading. And discuss work at length with peers and professors. I also want to emphasize that you will need an open mind to approach the various topics from different perspectives.

Why Is a Degree in the Humanities Useful?

I frequently hear people suggest that humanities degrees aren’t as useful or worthwhile as others. But, I believe this simply is not true. While math and science are essential in the modern world, I hardly think they are the only vital fields. Furthermore, they often don’t always teach you soft critical skills like communication, teamwork, empathy, and real-world critical thinking.

But I don’t want you to just take my word for it. Data show that these skills can set you up for life in many well-paid and in-demand careers. For example, jobs in humanities areas like management, law, teaching, sales, marketing, event planning, advertising, and public relations all come to mind. And I can assure you these aren’t unimportant tasks in society. They are some of the fastest-growing fields out there.

Humanities With a Multidisciplinary Approach

As a field of knowledge, the humanities include several areas of scholarship, including language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, art, politics, and law. Within these frameworks are fields in which academic and professional careers are attainable. Ultimately, the interests revolving around society and culture land in these studies.

Interestingly, this field utilizes a multidisciplinary approach, meaning humanities subjects have a broad range. Moreover, I think you will find that the topics rely on each other to develop research and theories further. Coursework that you might participate in at universities in this field includes overlapping theoretical bases as well as requirements across multiple departments to provide a holistic approach to studying humans and their societies throughout history.

history old style airplanes at sunset aerial battle first world war

History With a Humanities Perspective

The definition of history in the humanities is the study and analysis of information and events from the past. However, the main component is a focus on change. I suggest keeping in mind that this definition involves not only reading about past events but also determining how they connect to other humanities subjects. There are complex interactions between all entities throughout time, making the timeline less linear than you may expect.

Rather than a single straight line of string, I think a timeline of events is more like a twisted, tangled cord. This cord consists of hundreds of strands that happen to be going in the same direction. The historian’s job is to use clues from the past to identify the twists and turns that form the larger cord of history.

Methods

If you focus on studying history in the humanities, you should remember that the subject is an intellectual discipline rather than a living, thinking thing. It is not something that “repeats itself,” nor has it “always been the same,” as I am sure you have probably heard some people say. Instead, history is a sequence of events and changes in the past. And these changes may sometimes have similarities and relationships to one another. If you study this humanities subject, your goal will be to analyze and determine how these complex relations work. And how they led to the events of the past.

This study requires quality, primary sources from the time of past events. These may include newspapers, books, or letters from the period of study. However, you also need to consider the limitations even of these primary sources. When books were harder to print, they could often only focus on the most important people and subjects due to limited space. Newspapers and broadcasts also may have been controlled by governments or other powers.

Over time, the study of history has become more thorough and scientific in an attempt to consider these limitations. Objectivity and critical rigor in the examination of historical information are crucial to proper investigation.

Relation to Other Humanities Subjects

Studying history also involves the application of other humanities. For example, humanities such as linguistics are necessary for studying material from other places that speak and write in other languages. Even within a single dialect, there can be significant changes over time.

For instance, a phrase that we take word-for-word today might have been a figure of speech in the past. Imagine historians of the future reading “it cost an arm and a leg” and taking it literally. I recommend keeping this in mind when reading ancient or foreign texts. Understanding how definitions in language evolve and how people implement it colloquially is vital for understanding written records in the humanities.

Philosophy is also essential for understanding the meaning behind the words and thoughts of people from the past. A blunt statement about religion or an authoritative figure may seem simple to you today. But, perhaps at the time, it held substantial implications or went against social conventions, making it highly controversial. I suggest you always keep these ideas in your mind and dig into every crevice of information available to see the whole picture.

languages English to Japanese translator dictionary scientific study of language

Languages in the Humanities

Many people consider speech to be one of the abilities that set us apart from other animals. While other animals do have some forms of primitive communication, none seem to be as complex and unique as those of humans. They’re also not nearly as prolific. While whales might have a few dialects of clicks, humans have over 6900 distinct languages across the planet. Which means you probably only speak less than .004 percent of them! 

Of course, you surely know that a smaller number of languages are much more prolific with a higher number of speakers than others. Chinese, English, Arabic, Spanish, and Hindi are the tops ones that you are most likely to speak. But whatever languages you speak, they almost entirely determine how you communicate with others and see the world. Even in this age of information and readily available translation, there are still limitations based on language. These limitations can also affect the power that certain groups have other others, and their ability to change the course of history.

Thus, I am sure you will see that language and linguistics play various roles in the humanities. Other humanities subjects can use language to further their progress, as I discussed above in the history example. But linguistics is also a fascinating field with modern applications.

Branches of Study

Modern research into linguistics involves two main approaches. The first focuses on understanding how languages work as a mental process and creating models that accurately describe them. In this area of study, you will find research on topics such as language theory, language description, and language as a mental activity.

Then, the second approach is that of applied research, which looks at how language influences society. This approach includes influence in areas such as economics, social issues, political dialogue, cultural identification, and education.

Scope of Applied Linguistics

In economics, the study of language provides an example of how the humanities improve the well-being of people via insights into fields such as computer science. After all, the definition of language isn’t limited to speech from animals. Computers have a spot in this area of the humanities, as well. Computer languages owe their existence to the field, which then led to other areas like machine learning and artificial intelligence that you and I use more frequently than we realize. Even this article I am writing uses them in the form of search engine optimization!

Recognition, Humanities Examples

Concerning social issues, the subject of linguistics in humanities has a direct effect on peoples’ daily lives. Only recently did sign language gain the full linguistic recognition it deserves. This recognition led to better treatment and respect for the people who use it. Similarly, you will find that the study of language has a massive impact on exploring and respecting the various cultures around the world. It helps us understand one another in social settings as well as in more technical scientific or political contexts.

Then, when it comes to education, this subject in the humanities provides a fundamental base of knowledge from which people learn about all aspects of the world around them. And further research into the field allows teachers to optimize their methods for their students. Due to this field, we know that the methods used for students learning their second language at an older age should differ from methods used for other students.

law and justice in the humanities example represented by balance using scales

Law and its Relationship With Humanities

The definition of law in the humanities concerns the question of what law is. I want to emphasize that it doesn’t just look at what the law is regarding a particular subject. Instead, this area of humanities takes a philosophical look at the nature and definition of law as a social-political phenomenon.

In addition to culture, religion, and other social conventions, I think the law is a fascinating practice in that it guides human actions by providing reasons other than the pure necessity of survival. It’s an example of what seems to set us apart from other animals.

When studying this humanities subject, you may look into definitions, examples, philosophy, and changes of law. You also may look into the characteristics of the issue that are universal versus those which differ between different countries or groups of people. Through this kind of investigation, I think you might find it interesting to see how the nature of law changes.

A Central Social Institution

Law is an excellent humanities example of a field that connects to almost every other social institution and science due to its position in civilization. From the smallest villages to the most sizeable countries, there are generally several rules that people follow to maintain order. However, laws differ widely due to moral and ethical differences between groups of people. This variation brings the issue of philosophy into play as we try to decide what the law should be.

Law also ties into history, as specific laws build upon one another over the decades to create the many laws that you and I accept today. Economics also feels a substantial effect from the law due to rules about property, contracts, taxes, and organizations.

The Nature of Law

In the contemporary study, there exist two main interests regarding the nature of law. The first involves understanding what makes a generally accepted norm into a legally binding one. Sometimes this consists of the method of enacting the standard. For example, if a particular political institution creates a rule based on the norm, then it may automatically classify as law due to the entity which enacted it. In other instances, it may depend more on the content of the norm.

The other interest regarding the nature of law regards the philosophical account of it. Such an account includes both an explanation and justification. The former involves describing how legal norms lead to reasons for actions. Then the latter looks at whether or not people should comply with the law. The latter takes into consideration the moral legitimacy and consequences of following the law.

Law as a Career

Some people going into law do it for money or power. But I want to challenge you, if you are considering this career path, to do so in the most powerful way possible. That is, don’t just approach the field as a way to enforce rules or make a profit. Take a step back and evaluate the law itself. Learn as much as you can about it and how it relates to our lives. Through this knowledge, you can find ways to change the law for the better or enforce the parts that make a difference.

Literature old book on table with pages flying open closeup of the pages of an open old book while they are turning

The Importance of Literature in Humanities

Classic literature from centuries past has a lot to teach us about humanity and even the modern world. It carries many values and analyses throughout time due to its introspection of the human mind and soul. Rather than just telling stories relevant to the current time, it tends to explore human thoughts, emotions, and relationships that we all experience. And I think doing so helps us to improve our individual as well as collective well-being.

Definitions of Literature

Perhaps surprisingly, this topic doesn’t have a universal definition in the humanities. A general definition from researchers in the humanities is that literature is a body of written works. However, sometimes the definition only includes certain unique writings that hold intellectual or artistic value. Some descriptions out there focus on a list of criteria that a work of literature needs to meet.

But other definitions, especially modern ones, tend to work off of prototype characteristics, which not all works need to meet. In this case, most humanities experts agree that a group of works meet a specific group of example prototype characteristics. And any pieces in line to join the group will undergo a comparison to these prototypes. If they have other features that are not in the list of the prototype, so be it. As long as they have the prototype characteristics of the group, then that’s enough to join.

Why Study Literature in the Humanities?

In any level of schooling, there can be some animosity towards literature. I think that’s understandable due to it often involving pretty heavy reading with abstract stories and thought. It also might seem like literature has little to do with real life. However, reading it in school is much like lifting weights as a football player. The football player doesn’t lift weights in the middle of a game, but working out with the weights helps their muscles grow strong for other tasks.

Literature does the same thing. It helps you improve your ability to think in more complex ways, which you can then apply to other parts of your life. It can help you explore emotions like empathy and give a greater understanding of the breadth of life’s experiences through the perspective of people you would never connect with otherwise.

Studying at higher levels expands on this train of thought. Through a degree or career in literature, you can help unveil secrets of writing that others haven’t discovered. You can help share this information with the world and apply it in scenarios such as international relations or education.

For example, some of the humanities careers I recommend looking into that involve literature include teaching, diplomacy, hospitality, legal services, and even business and healthcare. Many of these fields need both critical and creative thinking skills to help you make connections between diverse topics.

performing arts in the humanities represented by abstract woman dancing

Performing Arts in the Humanities

This area of the humanities includes a range of activities with various definitions, methods, characteristics, and purpose. The performing arts can consist of performance for pure fun and entertainment or displays of political commentary and cultural engagement. If you go to a circus or concert, the dancers and acrobats are examples of performing artists in the humanities. So are the actors in plays and magic shows. Comedians, musicians, and even marching band members are all examples of people working in this humanities subject.

Through these various methods, performing artists express their internal creative impulses with which I believe most of us can connect. They tell stories in ways that have been around for millennia, as well as new and modern styles.

Value of Performing Arts

Being a part of the performing arts has tangible benefits for individuals, but also leads to improvements on the larger scale of society. For the individual, performing arts can lead to more creativity, which helps with critical thinking and problem-solving in other areas of life. In part, this comes from the study of creative as well as historical subject matter applicable to the arts. Plays might portray past periods, and comedians may use the interplay of culture and politics to make commentary.

And because performing arts can be both group and individual activities, they foster collaborative work with others as well as personal improvement in the independent areas. This interplay of various perspectives and modes of thinking leads to people who can understand others more broadly. An example of such interaction is that performing artists can apply the skills they gain from these subjects in the humanities to other parts of their life and even other professions.

Modern Performing Arts

Because the performing arts are affected by culture, the definition of this area of humanities changes over the years. An example of one change that you can see right now is the effect of technology on this humanities field. Technology alters how performing arts manifests itself, as well as the content it creates.

For instance, I frequently see new tools such as light shows, CGI, computer imaging, and digital filming today. But I know that they didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Similarly, the content of the art changes over time. To demonstrate both of these points, I suggest taking a look at songs.

Many modern songs use digital audio sounds such as synth or electric instruments. These songs also get recorded and stored in digital form on computers where people can easily share and listen to them. Then, the content of the songs might focus on digital topics such as computers, social media, and the internet. Songs from a century ago only existed on analog technology with acoustic instruments. Their lyrics never contained words about surfing the web or cracking code like Daft Punk’s Technologic

Some consider these changes in humanities subjects from technology somewhat sacrilegious in that they go against the classic definitions in the field. But this breaking of the mold happens in all areas of knowledge, and I believe it can lead to further exciting developments over time.

Humanities multiethnic group of thinking people with question mark looking up

Philosophy as the Original Humanities

One of the oldest areas of large-scale thinking and formal education, philosophy, studies the grandest questions of life. Philosophers aim to resolve these fundamental questions on knowledge, existence, reasoning, and value. However, many philosophers look to study an issue of interest and compare the resolutions of multiple other philosophers to seek understanding. Rather than find a single answer. For reference, I provide a brief list of the types of questions philosophers contemplate, discuss, and study.

What is it to exist? Do humans have free will, and what is that free will? Is there truth, or what is truth? If one can escape punishment, is it better to be just or unjust?

You may have wondered about these topics at some point in your life. I think many of us ponder these ideas at some point or another. And I suppose that’s what draws so many people to philosophy throughout time, no matter how society changes.

Some other questions scholars in this field delve into religious understandings and contemplation. The ability to look at numerous frameworks of knowledge and ethics makes philosophy one of the largest areas of study within the humanities. Moreover, it is also a foundation for many other academic focuses as scholars approach resolving these grand questions from different perspectives. What they share, however, is the use of philosophical methods.

Discussing Logic and Answering Questions

In discussing philosophy, it is crucial to focus on the approach to answering questions. Thus, I focus on critical discussions, rational arguments, the continuation of questioning, and systematic presentations. These all embody the methods taken to prove perspectives. As such, many other branches of scholarship and thought derive from philosophical principles as well.

You can’t adequately explore many of the subjects in philosophy through other methods like science. Instead, they involve deep thought and the use of logic and reason. Some additional popular topics include epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics. The words might be a bit intimidating, but they are just the study of ideas such as knowledge, right and wrong, reasoning, art, and reality in general, respectively. Now is an exciting time in the field, so I urge you to get involved.

Theology in humanities represented by belief that the sun will rise everyday

Theology and the Study of Religion

A large part of human history revolves around the concept of religion and gods, and that’s where theology comes in. The definition of this humanities subject is the reasoning and discussion concerning a deity. Such analysis includes three main areas of discourse, usually focusing on a certain god or group of gods from a particular religion.

The first part of the discussion looks at what the god teaches—the second digs into what materials and experiences educate of the god. And finally, the third looks at what leads one to the god. Through these three branches of theology, one attempts to study a god itself as well as the religion surrounding it.

Studying Theology

You will want to explore this field of the humanities in more depth. I recommend doing so in universities and seminaries. Seminaries are schools of theology that focus on educating students in theology and scripture. They typically aim to prepare you for serving as clergy, in academics, or ministry. Some churches and religious institutions even offer seminary for regular members in high school and up, so you can start attending it from an early age to get a head start. However, the term usually refers to graduate-level institutions in the U.S.

In higher education on theology, you will look into the nature of the divine, spiritual paths, and religious belief. It often involves a detailed study of history and philosophy. The theological research also doesn’t limit itself to a single religion. While you can focus on one religion, you may also want to study the more general ideas of religiosity and faith. Some of the more common religious areas of focus are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Topics and Classes

Regardless of the focus, there are several issues that you will likely study in theology. These include religious languages, religious texts, religious history, philosophy of religion, religion’s relationship to science, and the intersection of religion with politics.

The field of theology has become a secular field that integrates many aspects of knowledge to make unbiased observations and analysis of concepts in religion. This analysis provides a way for the religious and non-religious alike to understand complicated topics like life, love, and worship.

Careers

After studying this humanities subject in school, there are many paths you can take as a professional. You may continue in the academic arena as a professor or teacher, but you may also branch into other areas.

A background in theology is perfect for jobs that require empathy and introspection like counselors, social workers, writers, or historians. You could also work directly in a church or other religious institution as a minister or even a bible translator. It primarily depends on your skills and interests and how they interact with the diverse field of theology.

Humanities Topic Visual Arts - Colorful brain doodle illustration with textures

The Various Visual Arts

Painting, drawing, sketching, sculpting, photography, film-making, architecture—these are a few of the big-name visual arts. This area of the humanities encompasses both the fine arts and the applied arts with their respective definitions, practices, and examples. People often base the distinction between these two on functionality. Fine arts do not hold functional value in the traditional sense. Whereas applied arts incorporate decorative elements in designs intended for use. 

However, I should emphasize that the visual arts do not only study types of art. Scholars in the field often seek meaning from artists in addition to studying the methods of production of the piece. In this search for purpose and the emergence of interpretation, the field gains a large body of scholarship. The resulting meaning can relate to personal feelings and experience, or make comments on political and other events of the time. Sometimes I venture to say that it is obvious; other times, you will find it is quite subtle. Studies in the field will often argue over intent in a piece or interpretation of the message from the artist.

For those who participate in the creation of visual arts, studying the world around them is critical. Regardless of the medium, artists who study visual arts and actively create them often draw from a specific source of inspiration. That source then represents an era, a culture, a place, etc. In the act of recording people and their worlds, the visual arts take root in the humanities.

Humanities Frequently Asked Questions

I have included some quick notes here to help you get straight to the point of the essential questions you might have. You will find more details above, but the gist is below.

What subjects do the humanities include?

The humanities include topics about how people move, how they think, how they communicate, and how they develop culture. The main subjects are history, languages, law, literature, performing arts, philosophy, theology, and the visual arts. Many of the topics overlap and interact to build upon one another.

What does a degree in the humanities entail?

Like any university program, a degree in the humanities will include a set of core classes in a variety of subjects. Then, students have the opportunity to select courses of their interest in specific humanities fields. Towards the end of the program, students of the humanities may do final artistic projects, performances, or research theses. The primary skills gained by inhumanities programs include critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and analysis.

What is the difference between the sciences and the humanities?

The sciences use empirical methods of testing ideas by using evidence. The humanities focus more on observation, speculation, and history. However, some areas of the humanities can and do use empirical approaches. This combination allows more room for creativity and abstract thinking relating to the intricacies of human behavior and thought.

What jobs can you do with a degree in the humanities?

There is a range of jobs in the humanities, including scientific jobs that can apply the skills gained through studying areas of the field. For example, the humanities help enhance critical thinking and observational skills that are critical in engineering. Other popular humanities jobs include teacher, technical writer, artist, counselor, journalist, public relations manager, and therapist.

Big group or crowd of various professionals

Conclusion

Once you start to study the humanities more in-depth, from definitions and research to applications and career choices, I think you will realize just how valuable they are. The humanities are a critical part of the work, study, and life of any human. For example, studying humanities subjects can broaden your perspective on past events or the cultures of other people. A broader perspective then helps you interact with others more peacefully and with a greater understanding of your differences.

Even if we don’t realize it, aspects of communication, information, and critical thought are all part of our lives and personalities. Studying these areas in the humanities can give you a leg up in many areas of life, from school, to work, to personal relationships.

Through university courses, you will dive deep into the various examples and definitions of valuable humanities subjects. After all, history is more than just a string of events. And the law is more than a book of rules. Each field is wildly complex and interconnected with other areas of study, life, and science. You will understand these relationships between knowledge more deeply, thus forming more complex connections in your brain at the same time.

Through the humanities, I am confident that anyone can engage their curiosity and open up their minds to new ways of thinking

Which topic in the humanities most affects your life, and how? Do you think there is enough focus on the humanities in higher education?