The idea of the humanities


Simon During over at

Why is it just now that a need is felt for courses on the humanities as such, and why, too, are histories and defences of the humanities pouring from the presses? As we all know, a good part of the answer is that the humanities are currently under financial and ideological pressure. This has had the effect of flattening them—by which I mean that the humanities are often no longer so much regarded as a suite of specialized disciplines but rather as a distinct formation on their own account. When, for instance, politicians, business people and university administrators worry that the humanities are insufficiently geared toward training students for the workplace they usually don’t distinguish between history, philosophy, archaeology and so on—it is simply the humanities that are in their sights, and, from that perspective, we—students and teachers— are “in the humanities” rather than in a particular discipline. We might say, in sum, that the humanities are becoming a “meta-discipline.” For all that, a concept of the humanities that transcends or,at any rate, overflows the established disciplines is a beast that has been vaguely denoted rather than concretely apprehended.

We should also note that this flattening of disciplinarity is congruent with organizational shifts inside the university system. In many parts of the Anglophone world,the administrative structure that was established around the time of the first world war in which distinct disciplines were housed in distinct departments is being replaced by a structure in which schools or faculties house a number of disciplines or sub-disciplines or“studies,” and in which, as well, there exist centres and institutes based on particular, usuallyi nterdisciplinary, research programs. Such centres are also common in Europe and Asia whose academic and disciplinary structures don’t strictly speaking have the categories“departments” and “humanities” at all. At this institutional level, then, the disciplines that we have inherited from the past, some indeed from antiquity—philosophy, history, the classics and literature—and which in their heyday in Anglophone countries were placed in departments, are becoming dispersed and etiolated. To understand the humanities now is to understand a postdisciplinary humanities in such an institutional setting.
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