We explain what the humanities are and what their object of study is. In addition, we tell you how they differ from the social sciences.

A humanities specialist explains the hieroglyphs at the Kom Ombo temple in Egypt.
The humanities offer interpretations regarding the way of being of humanity.

What are the humanities?

The humanities are one of the two great traditional fields of knowledge, different from that of the sciences. It is a set of academic disciplines related in one way or another to culture and thoughtwhose approach does not aspire to find universal laws, but rather interpretations and considerations of importance regarding the way of being of humanity.

The term “humanities” (from the Latin humanitas) emerged during the Renaissance to give a name to the new knowledge that was available to human beings, thus differentiating it from divine knowledge, imparted by God. With the arrival of Modernity and rationalist thought, this distinction lost its validity, but the name continued to be used to distinguish those disciplines that were not part of the natural sciences.

In certain academic contexts, however, the German-derived term “human sciences” is preferred (Geisteswissenschaften, in German), considering it more precise in its meaning. While the Anglo-Saxon academy prefers to retain the traditional term (Humanities, in English). There is no universal consensus regarding the use of this terminology, nor regarding which disciplines make up the field of the humanities and which, on the other hand, belong to the social sciences.

In general, the humanities are associated with the so-called classical knowledge, based on the Greco-Roman tradition. This tradition begins with what in Ancient Greece was known as paideia, a kind of initiation into society carried out by the sophist philosophers of the 5th century BC. C., and with the humanitas proposed by the Roman Cicero around 55 BC. C. Both experiences were inherited by medieval Christian education and transmitted in this way to the Renaissance philosophers.

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However, the humanities have not lost their relevance in the contemporary world. Rather, they are considered a source of imperishable knowledge, of great importance for critical thinking, moral formation and artistic sensibilities. Even in hyper-technological environments, such as industrial and technological environments, the humanities continually demonstrate their usefulness in interpreting the world from different perspectives, values ​​and perspectives.

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Object of study of the humanities

The humanities focus their study on purely human activities, expressions of their creative intellect. In general, intellect and self-awareness are considered their great point of interestexpressed in very different ways, such as language and writing, representation and symbolic production, or reflection on the essence of the world and things.

Difference between humanities and social sciences

The humanities and social sciences have a great point in common that distinguishes them from the natural sciences: both are interested in human beings and society. However, they do so in fundamentally different ways: while the humanities focus on the interpretation of culture and representations, The social sciences aspire to the scientific study of societyThat is, they use conceptual and methodological tools typical of the study of nature, as is the case of mathematical language.

For example, a humanistic approach can study the political discourses of a society based on its texts and images, to unravel and interpret the ideas nested in them, compare them with other historical discourses and explain their functioning at the level of language. On the other hand, a social science approach could study these same discourses through surveys and opinion polls to try to measure and statistically capture their functioning and the way in which they act in the minds of citizens.

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Traditionally, many of the disciplines that today are considered social sciences belonged to the field of the humanities. Given that the social sciences are a fairly young field of knowledge in comparison, there is still a lot of debate regarding which disciplines make up the humanistic field and which are really social sciences.

More in: Social Sciences

Humanistic disciplines

Yes ok There is no absolute consensus regarding which disciplines make up the field of the is possible to consider the following as humanistic disciplines:

  • Philosophy. Understood as the study of thought itself, that is, the study of fundamental categories such as truth, being, knowledge, morality, among others.
  • Letters. Understood not only as the literary arts themselves, but also as the set of knowledge that has been produced around them: literary criticism, literary theory, the history of literature. In some academies it is called “philology”.
  • Arts. Understood as the study of the numerous and diverse forms of artistic representation that human beings have developed throughout history, as well as the different theoretical and critical approaches to the artistic fact.
  • History. Understood as the study of the past of the human being, based on the written texts that he has left behind, and those that have been written by those who studied them.
  • Languages. Understood as the linguistic study of current and past languages, understood in turn as an important reflection of diverse cultures.
  • Geography. Understood as the study of the representations of the earth’s crust and the world in general that human beings have made throughout history.
  • library science. Understood as the study of information and the mechanisms for its storage and preservation, especially in books. In some academies it is preferred to speak of “information sciences”.
  • Political science. Understood as the study of politics and the exercise of power throughout the history of humanity, as well as the forms of representation and reflection of human beings on the State and the social pact.
  • Communication. Understood as the study of human communication in its different facets, including journalism and social communication.
  • Right. Understood as the study of laws and systems of administration of justice, whether currently or in past societies. In some academies it is considered an entirely separate area or part of the social sciences.
  • Theology. Understood as the study of religion and the sacred texts of humanity.
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  • “Humanities: concept and identity” by Alberto Saladino García in Beehive. Magazine of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (No. 3, 1994), pp. 40-44.
  • “What is studied in the Humanities?” at the Francisco Vitoria University (Spain).
  • “What are Humanities?” at The University of Rhode Island.
  • “Humanities” in The Encyclopaedia Britannica.