Subfields within Humanities
The classics, in the Western academic tradition, refer to cultures of classical antiquity, namely the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The study of the classics is considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities; however, its popularity declined during the 20th century. Nevertheless, the influence of classical ideas in many humanities disciplines, such as philosophy and literature, remains strong; for example, the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Vedas and Upanishads in India and various writings attributed to Confucius, Lao-tse and Chuang-tzu in China.
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, societies, institutions, and any topic that has changed over time. 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. In modern academia, history is occasionally classified as a social science.
The study of individual modern and classical languages forms the backbone of modern study of the humanities. While the scientific study of language is known as linguistics and is a social science, the study of languages is still central to the humanities. A good deal of twentieth-century and twenty-first-century philosophy has been devoted to the analysis of language and to the question of whether, as Wittgenstein claimed, many of our philosophical confusions derive from the vocabulary we use; literary theory has explored the rhetorical, associative, and ordering features of language; and historians have studied the development of languages across time. 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. What would we do if we couldnt talk?
In common parlance, law 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 discipline of the humanities. 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. 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.
The performing arts differ from the plastic arts insofar as the former uses the artist’s own body, face, and 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.
Music as an academic discipline can take a number of different paths, including music performance, music education (training music teachers), musicology, music theory and composition. Undergraduate music majors generally take courses in all of these areas, while graduate students focus on a particular path. 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 theater) (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), and motion in inanimate objects (the leaves danced in the wind). 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 — etymologically, the “love of wisdom” — is generally the study of problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, justification, truth, justice, right and wrong, beauty, validity, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing these issues by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on reasoned argument, rather than experiments (Experimental philosophy being an exception). Philosophy used to be a very comprehensive term, including what have subsequently become separate disciplines, such as physics. (As Immanuel Kant noted, “Ancient Greek philosophy was divided into three sciences: physics, ethics, and logic.”) Today, the main fields of philosophy are logic, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. Still, there continues to be plenty of overlap with other disciplines; the field of semantics, for example, brings philosophy into contact with linguistics. Since the early twentieth century, the philosophy done in universities (especially in the English-speaking parts of the world) has become much more analytic. Analytic philosophy is marked by a clear, rigorous method of inquiry that emphasizes the use of logic and more formal methods of reasoning. This method of inquiry is largely indebted to the work of philosophers such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
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, Jainism, 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, where he is described as a prophet (Genesis 20:7), and in the Quran, where he also appears as a prophet. This forms a large group of related largely monotheistic religions, generally held to include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and comprises over half of the world’s religious adherents.
The great traditions in art have a foundation in the art of one of the ancient civilizations, such as Ancient Japan, 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 (e.g., 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.