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  Roger Smith, Lecture 2, ‘The humanities’
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Roger Smith, Lecture 2, ‘The humanities’

Roger Smith, Some Key Philosophical Words in English

Lecture 2, ‘The humanities’ (also ‘human’, ‘humane’, ‘humanity’, ‘humanist’, ‘humanitarian’)

A. Introduction. 20th-century and contemporary reference to ‘the humanities’, as opposed to ‘the sciences’, e.g. ‘the humanities are under threat’.


B. Roots. ‘Humanitas’/‘humanity’ - contrast with ‘animality’ and ‘divinity’; linguistic (symbolic) culture (not biology) as differential criterion. The study of this criterion is now ‘the humanities’.

‘Human’/‘humanity’ as ethical terms, e.g. ‘in common humanity’. ‘Human’, till early 18th century, spelt ‘humane’; a normative word (denoting both facts and ideals of human qualities); reference to ideals continues in modern usage of ‘humane’ and ‘inhumane’, e.g. The Royal Humane Society (founded 1774).

Difference of ‘humanitarian’ (= ‘humane’), e.g. ‘a humanitarian catastrophe’ = гуманный, and ‘humanities’ = гуманитарные науки.


C. Medieval-Renaissance history.

Medieval teaching of trivium and quadrivium, and sometimes informal reference to Greek and Roman literature, poetry and rhetoric as ‘literae humaniores’. Transformed from early 15th century with new scholarship, recovering, editing and publishing original (especially Greek) texts. Scholars called (later), ‘the humanists’. (‘Renaissance’ is a 19th-century historians’ term.)

Revival of Aristotle from late 12th century, publishing of definitive texts 1495-8 (establishing ‘The Organon’).

Publication of Plato by Marsilio Ficino and Florentine Academy (Cosimo de’ Medici). Example of importance of court culture.

Legal scholarship, commentaries on Laws of Justinian and foundation of history, especially François Baudoin, 1561.

Significance of original and later texts; direct and indirect evidence; primary and secondary sources.

Recognition of ‘studia humanitatis’ (grammatica, rhetorica, poetica, historia, philosophia moralisethica, oeconomia, politica).

The Protestant Bible and the foundations of hermeneutics.

G. Vico, history of language as the human science – La scienza nuova (1725/1744).


D. Teaching. Roots in separation of ‘civilisation’ (with ‘the dignity of man’) from ‘barbarism’. Importance of Cicero; Classics as education of rulers; comparison of ‘ancients and moderns’ as criterion of progress. Ideals persist after decline of Classics teaching, in teaching of literature. English debates about comparative value of ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ in education.

Formation of modern ethical notion of ‘humanism’; e.g. the British Humanist Association, founded 1896 (not same as Renaissance humanism).

The late 18th-century and 19th-century transformation of the German universities, expanding the Fourth (Philosophical) Faculty – philology (e.g. Franz Bopp) and history (e.g. B. G. Niebuhr) as models of disciplined sciences, linked to cultural idcal of Bildung. University of Berlin (founded 1809-10) and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Late 19th-debates on relations of natural and human sciences. 20th-century English separation of ‘the humanities’.


E. Characteristics of ‘the humanities’:


Qualitative not quantitative.

Problematic standing of general laws; cf. W. Windelband’s (1894) distinction, nomothetic/idiographic.

Teaching status – ‘civilisation’; training the mind; virtues of character.