Defining the Humanities

This is my first post on the Institutions of the Humanities ARC Discovery Project, which I’m currently working on with Emeritus Professor Lesley Johnson at the University of Technology Sydney, looking at the history of the humanities in Australia since 1945. The post outlines early work towards one of the project’s avenues of investigation, into shifts in the conceptualisation of ‘the humanities’ over the latter half of the twentieth century.


In her 2013 study, The Value of the Humanities, Helen Small gives the following definition of ‘the humanities’: ‘The humanities study the meaning-making practices of human culture, past and present, focusing on interpretation and critical evaluation, primarily in terms of the individual response and with an ineliminable element of subjectivity.’[1] This, I think, is a generally sound description of contemporary humanities practice, one that is likely to be familiar to and generally accepted by most humanities scholars today.


Here’s another definition, one grounded in the character of the activity of the humanist: ‘the humanist makes a persistent attempt to come to a fuller understanding of the major achievements of the creative human spirit through a study of the masterpieces it has created’. With this definition we are a very long way from the one given by Small. The term ‘masterpiece’ is not incidental; the authors of the piece from which this quotation comes use the term repeatedly, and defend a vision of the humanities in which a conception of canonicity is underpinned by philosophical reflection on the nature of value: ‘the humanist is trying to change, or sometimes to conserve the valuations he finds around him. For if the humanist studies masterpieces, he must also determine which are the masterpieces, he must distinguish the shoddy and the meretricious from what is of sterling quality’. This leads to the following summation: ‘The humanities at their best … are a systematic attempt, first, to bring us to a fuller understanding of masterpieces by removing those historical and linguistic obstacles which stand in the way of our understanding, and secondly, to help us in distinguishing, with as much clarity as the matter permits, between the genuine masterpiece and the pretentious oddity’.[2]


This second set of definitions comes from a chapter by A.G. Mitchell and J.A. Passmore in The Humanities in Australia, published in 1959 under the auspices of the Australian Humanities Research Council, the forerunner of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Far from an eccentric vision, Mitchell and Passmore’s chapter is the closest thing one might find to a definitive description of the humanities in postwar Australia, the central statement in the flagship publication of the then newly formed Council. The book carries a foreword by prime minister Robert Menzies.


One of the things I’m seeking to do in my component of the Institutions of the Humanities project, which looks at the history of the humanities in Australian universities since 1945, is to trace an intellectual history of understandings of ‘the humanities’ over that period. In short, how did we get from the definition given by Mitchell and Passmore to that given by Small? [3]


There are a number of things that might be said about the differences between these two understandings. Perhaps the most obvious is the broadening out of the humanities that has taken place since the 1950s; what most clearly dates Mitchell and Passmore’s account is its insistence upon a canon and upon practices of critical valuation. Institutionally, this change reflects the mass expansion of higher education over the latter half of the twentieth century, changes in staff and student demographics, and the increasing interconnection of globalised economies and practices of knowledge-production.


In addition, what I’d like to suggest here—and this is very much a first report on ideas and on research in progress—is that, in describing the shifts that have taken place in understandings of the humanities over the past half century or so, one fruitful approach is to focus on how articulations of their cohesion have shifted from their content to their method. The key dimension in Small's definition thus becomes the idea of the humanities as the study of ‘meaning-making practices’—the interpretive investigation of textual meaning, broadly understood. Thus the broadening out from the old canon, because if what the humanities does is not to reassess and make visible a body of ‘masterpieces’ of the ‘human spirit’, but to interpret how meaning is constructed and reconstructed, this method can be applied to non-canonical texts as readily as to canonical ones. Indeed, once the humanities are re-envisioned in these terms, the very concept of the canon breaks down. So too the ‘ineliminable element of subjectivity’: if the humanities are principally about textual interpretation, that interpretation necessarily bears the mark of the subjective orientation of the interpreter. This means that we should not expect humanities ways of knowing to adhere to natural science conceptions of objectivity; subjectivity is inherent to their basic logic.


This account, by and large, is not how the humanities were talked about in postwar Australia. Generally, the humanities were instead described as the study of ‘man’, of ‘culture’, or of ‘civilisation’. The Martin report into tertiary education (1964–65) defined the humanities ‘in dictionary terms as language and literature concerned with human culture; as grammar, rhetoric, poetry and especially the study of Latin and Greek; or more broadly as “knowledge of conscious man and his acts”’. [4] Elsewhere the report described the humanities as ‘the study of man in society’.[5] Opening the Monash University humanities building bearing his name in 1963, Menzies, a great advocate of humanities education, described ‘civilisation’ as ‘in the heart and mind of people’, and teaching it as the ‘task of the humanist’.[6] Leaving aside the important issue of how the connotations of the key terms have shifted, the point of note is that this was a discourse of content rather than of method: the humanist focused on ‘man’ rather than worked by means of textual interpretation. Mitchell and Passmore make one attempt—which they concede is ‘unsatisfactory and superficial’—to distinguish the humanities from the natural and social sciences in terms of their ‘techniques’, but this is not really a methodological so much as a spatial distinction: the site of the humanist’s work is the library, whereas natural science is centred on the laboratory, and the social scientist ‘engages in field-work’.[7] The methodological language of ‘meaning-making’ was not generally available in the immediate postwar decades.


So how did we get here? No doubt much has to do with the structural shifts of globalisation and demographic change, of the expansion and then massification of higher education. But another important dimension is the impact within the humanities since the 1960s of a body of theories of language, which have brought to the fore ideas about textuality, and (very broadly speaking) made the deconstructive register of ‘critique’ the humanities’ core mode of analysis. The narrative I am suggesting here is therefore broadly congruent with that given by Ian Hunter in his ‘History of Theory’ project—though I should make clear that I am only beginning to explore the contours of both. [8] Whereas Hunter examines core texts of ‘theory’ in pursuit of commonalities which might form the basis of a history of their effect upon the humanities, I am approaching the same problem from an external rather than an internal disciplinary perspective, as it were, examining administrative, bureaucratic and policy documents for evidence of discourse about the humanities. ‘The humanities’ is an abstraction of a disparate variety of knowledge-making practices—in fact, in its clustering together of multiple disciplines, arguably an abstraction from a set of abstractions—but what scholars and others have historically considered their commonalities and unifying logic is, as Mitchell and Passmore note, ‘a study in itself, and one which could throw considerable light upon changing patterns in educational practice and in the beliefs which sustain that practice’.[9] This study is also one which can benefit from fruitful dialogue with more ‘internalist’ disciplinary histories. How and when those two dimensions—‘internal’, disciplinary knowledge-production and ‘external’ institutional and administrative conceptualisation of those disciplinary knowledges in aggregate—affected and influenced one another is something I’m still working out—but watch this space.

[1] Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 23.

[2] A.G. Mitchell and J. A. Passmore, ‘The Nature of the Humanities’, in A. Grenfell Price, ed., The Humanities in Australia: A Survey with Special Reference to the Universities (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1959), 2, 4, 7.

[3] Small’s context is the humanities in the contemporary UK, but her definition probably holds for the disciplinary organisation of the Anglophone world generally speaking; the French human sciences and the German Geisteswissenschaften may require separate definition.

[4] L.M. Martin (chairman), Tertiary Education in Australia: Report of the Committee on the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia to the Australian Universities Commission (Commonwealth of Australia), vol. 3., 1965, 1. The embedded quote is from J. Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment (London: Secker and Warburg, 1964), 24.

[5] Martin (chairman), Tertiary Education in Australia, vol. 1, 1964, 3.

[7] Mitchell and Passmore, ‘Nature of the Humanities’, 2.

[8] Ian Hunter, ‘The History of Theory’, Critical Inquiry 33, no. 1 (2006), 78–112. For a list of relevant related articles, see Rex Butler and Peter Holbrook, ‘Preface’, History of European Ideas 40, no. 1 (2014), 2.

[9] Mitchell and Passmore, ‘Nature of the Humanities’, 1.