Experiencing the Humanities
A Web Textbook
Spoonbridge and Cherry, Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden*
Chapter Sixteen of
by Richard Jewell
What parts of or connections to the humanities can you identify in the picture above? Look not just at the sculpture but also at the people, buildings, and other objects. Here are just some of the many elements of the humanities depicted above:
social symbols of eating (the sculpture)
the symbols themselves (mythology)
several cultural groups of people (society)
nature (early history of humans)
an old-style building (a basilica)
religion (basilicas are houses of worship)
newer buildings/skyscrapers (architecture, society)
more history (the basilica was the first in the U.S.)
trees (by which earlier humans often lived)
other elements? (There are more.)
Having finished this book, how would you now define the humanities? What
are they? Who are they? What do they represent?
This book has tried to represent some of the widest, deepest, and best elements in life and in history that make us "human." We are surrounded by the humanities. Now that you have read about some of the humanities disciplines, you understand many more of the basic questions and arguments that are part of the world's greatest thinking, feeling, and being human.
This conclusion offers several ideas for you to reflect upon as you end
your humanities studies. What have you learned? Do you think the humanities are
in some way useful? How do the various disciplines link with each other? And
even more important, how do the humanities link to--and within--you?
How Are the Humanities Useful?
Thinking about the humanities sometimes leads to some very practical results--as in important political and religious systems, or in societal and historical change, and especially in the arts. Most of the people in any one humanities discipline feel comfortable talking about the other humanities disciplines. After all, they all go together. History, philosophy, the study of society and culture, religion, the arts--all depend on each other and interweave their understandings of themselves with their understandings of each other.
Be careful, though, if you discover a critic, teacher, or artist in any of the disciplines who tries to tell you that the other branches of the humanities disciplines are less important than his or her own. Those of us who write books like this one, who teach the humanities, or who actually practice them sometimes become too critical, too intellectual, too impractical about the humanities. The humanities are not dead theories. Rather, they are alive. They are parts of the soul of our human life. Just as all parts of one's own soul are important, so are the all the parts of the soul of our entire human species. No one discipline or field of the humanities is of greater or more powerful importance than any other to our human species.
In actual time, in an actual human life, one humanities discipline or another will of course have more weight in that person's experience than will others. To an artist, art may be all. To a priest or minister, a particular religion may take up all his or her days. And for some of us, the humanities may seem to have no great importance in our lives at all, at least not in our day to day living.
Either way, though--whether we are deeply involved in
just one discipline of the humanities or ignore them
altogether in day-to-day life, still all of them are
important to the background, the context, the thread and
coloration of our lives. The humanities have shaped the
way we live and come together in society, and who we are as
individuals in society. They are a part of us.
Linking All the Humanities--Mythology
In ending this book, it may be interesting and challenging to consider several ways in which some theorists have tried to unite or link the humanities. These unities or linkings are called "field theories"-- theories in which a whole field such as the humanities is brought together in one unified pattern.
One such field theory is that of mythology as a world unifier. This theory, discussed earlier in the "Mythology" chapter, is a mixture of history, religion, psychology, culture, and arts. As earlier mentioned, one of the great proponents of this concept of mythology as world unifier is Joseph Campbell. Campbell states, after decades of careful research all over the world, that all the myths of the world have common themes-- and all of them may, in fact, spring from one central culture or society in ancient times, before the beginning of recorded history. This would mean that all of our diverse cultures, histories, societies, earliest arts, and even our earliest philosophical and religious yearnings have come from one common, ancient culture.
In addition, other twentieth-century proponents of mythology as world unifier--people such as psychologists Emma and Karl Jung and Anna Freud, mythologist Esther Harding, and philosopher Suzanne Langer--suggest that in the common themes of the mythologies of all cultures we can find common psychological and cultural feelings and experiences, common artistic ideas and beliefs, and even common philosophies and religious attitudes toward life.
In short, myths are symbolic of the basic human
yearnings and thinking in all cultures of all times,
including the present. Venus, for example, is the goddess
of love found in most major mythologies of different
cultures. She stands for love as typified in the arts, as
discussed in philosophy, and as discussed and dealt with in
various religions. Zeus is a type of domineering power god
found in most major mythologies; Quetzalcoatl is a type of
messenger god found in most mythologies. All of these gods
are symbolic of important themes of thought and feeling
discussed in the humanities.
Evolution of Consciousness
Another linking field theory is of the evolution of consciousness. This theory is a mixture of religions and philosophy. Evolution is the scientific theory that life started as simple one-celled organisms and gradually evolved with increasing complexity into plants, animals, and humans. The philosophical and religious side of this scientific theory is the proposal that evolution is not just material but also spiritual or psychic--that consciousness has been evolving into higher and more complex forms, too.
Several of the best-known proponents of this kind of view are the Roman Catholic theologian and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin, the Hindu philosopher and mystic Sri Aurobindo, and the United States psychic and healer Edgar Cayce. The New Age Movement of the late 20th century also has adopted similar ideas.
In this viewpoint, all of the movements and disciplines of human beings are an expression of consciousness--awareness--gradually unfolding itself in higher, wider, and more complete ways. In this view, all of evolution--matter, plants and animals, and humans-- has a consciousness. In matter it is a barely flickering awareness; in plants it is stronger; in animals consciousness becomes a stronger factor; and in humans it has flowered into its highest achievements yet. In this view, the humanities are forms of study to make us even more conscious--to heighten, deepen, and broaden our awareness of ourselves and others.
A more practical and immediate application of this field theory--one might call it a branch of the theory--is phenomenology. Phenomenology was first developed by early-twentieth century German philosopher Edmund Husserl, and what arguably constitutes a religious version of it was developed by Martin Buber in his book I and Thou. Phenomenology suggests that the most basic experience common to human beings is composed of three basic parts: our own consciousness or awareness, the contents of our consciousness--everything that is "out there" for us to sense; and our memories, thoughts, and reflections about what we have seen and done. A fourth and equally important basic element is that we discover, early in life as children, that there are other "consciousnesses"--other beings--outside of ourselves who seem to be just like us. They have a consciousness like we do, and they have experiences and memories like we do.
According to phenomenology, the most important attitude we can have for viewing these basics of life is to start by being "without prejudice." "Without prejudice" means that in our most basic views or understandings--the part of ourselves we consider the most central to our self identity--we set aside a part of our time each day or week and simply watch the flux of life--observe what we see and hear, observe what we think and feel, and even observe our observing--without yet making decisions about it. After we have made a number of unprejudiced observations about life--what Husserl calls a "scientific" method of viewing life--we can then begin to fit its parts together with fewer prejudgments and more accuracy. Nonreligious phenomenologists such as Husserl claim that by using this process of pure observation, we will have a much clearer and stronger understanding of our and other lives. Religious phenomenologists such as Buber say that this process of pure observation will lead us back to essentially the same religious foundation we have developed, but with a much clearer sense of what our belief means and what it can do.
It is just such a phenomenological attitude--one of pure
"scientific" observation--that can help us unite the disciplines of
the humanities. One of the most important themes common to the humanities
disciplines is that of oserving and understanding human life and meaning.
A purer phenomenological stance regarding human experience can help us see how
and what the humanities mean to so many different types of people.
A third field theory that has gained some followers is that of process philosophy and psychology. This theory is a mixture of principles from philosophy, society and culture, history, and methods used in the arts. They state that the world and human beings always are processing life.
Some of the proponents of process types of theories include philosophers such as British-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, American pragmatists John Dewey and William James, French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and the French philosopher of time, Henri Bergson, South American educational theorist Paolo Freire, theologians Martin Buber (Jewish) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Protestant), psychologists such as Jewish German Victor Frankl and Briton R.D. Laing, and many others.
The theory of process states, in its many forms, that everything is in a state of flux and movement. This includes human institutions--all thinking, belief, and action. Whole parts of history, movements of philosophy, social and cultural events, and schools and styles in art all are a constantly intertwining, intermixing series of actions, reactions, and more reactions.
And within this intermixing flux, there is movement. Some of the movement is backward, some forward; but in general we move forward in the very process of trying out more things, reacting to old things, and synthesizing new things.
Any two things that seem opposite will help us discover a better way of dealing with both things, both issues, as we try to choose which one is best. Then, once we have chosen, other opposites come along, and we must rethink our way through these new opposites--learning something from both sides of the coin, both issues, both sides--as we try to reach a new conclusion or choice.
For example, in schools, for hundreds of years, students had very formal lessons in which everyone does the same thing together. In the 20th century, new opposite methods were tried, methods of letting go, of "hanging loose" and letting students study whatever they wanted to when they wanted to. The result of this educational experience was that we discovered that some students work better when allowed more freedom and some work better with more organized classroom activities. Then we took this new discovery and tried to let some people follow classroom activity and others work on their own as individuals. But teachers did not have time for both, so a new experiment was underway: small-group education, in which students break into small groups and study with each other, getting some guidance from the teachers and some from the teacher. This is, in the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, where a part of educational teaching methods now stands.
Thus it is that process means flux and movement, change and rearrangement, discovery and new discovery. This is, say the proponents of this kind of theory, what humanity and the humanities disciplines are all about--a sometimes confusing but often fascinating mixture of recipes with all kinds of cooks trying out all kinds of new dishes. Some of these new dishes will be successful, some not, but most of them good or bad will lead to trying even newer recipes for how we should be human and think and feel.
Thus it is that these systems think of the world and of the humanities in particular.
How do we think of the humanities? Hopefully, this book has given you the feeling that the humanities are worth exploring. By exploring them, we are no longer like the four blind men in the parable at the beginning of the history chapter--unable to see the elephant for the wall, the rope, the snake, and the tree. We see the whole elephant; we look for all the parts.
By exploring the humanities, we prepare ourselves
outwardly for understanding the deeper yearnings and
meanings of humankind. And we prepare ourselves inwardly
for facing those yearnings and meanings within ourselves--
and helping them to make sense in our own lives.
Linking Them Within You
How do the humanities link within you and those around you? Which humanities disciplines or areas--and which of the parts of them, such as a philosophy or a particular type of art--really gel with what and whom you are? And which humanities disciplines and subjects seem to reflect what others around you are, and the worlds in which they operate?
These are easier to answer if you start with yourself. Whether you are a person who normally doesn't read a lot, or a person who does read quite a bit, you very likely are a consumer of many of the arts--music, movies, and pictures meant to be interesting, attractive, even startling. Which chapters in this handbook have been the most interesting to you? In which chapters have you found yourself, so to speak--a part of your mind, your heart, your soul, or your guts? And which chapters have challenged you, have been difficult to understand. Just knowing the answers to these questions can help you understand more about your own personality, your likes and dislikes, and what might appeal to you more in the future.
And having answered those questions, you can ask similar questions about your family, friends, and others around you. What chapters might others around you like or dislike, best or least understand, find themselves in the chapters or have no idea what the chapters mean?
Each of us not only has our own personality that accords with parts of the humanities (and doesn't accord with other parts of the humanities), but each of our social circles, each of our immediate cultures around us, and each of our larger regional or national cultures fit in to parts of the humanities (and do not fit into others). You can more easily understand not just yourself or your friends, but also your immediate and your larger surrounding cultures by what parts of the humanities they seem to echo, and what parts they either avoid or just simply can't access.
To end, we--all of us--are the humanities. And the humanities are us. They are our collective history, personality, and culture that we can and do experience. They are not just dead, abstract issues but very alive and current as immediate needs and trends that all of us are living and breathing right now. They are strands of human life that continue in us, now, and everyone around us, strands that started as threads thousands of years ago. What is it that creates the humanities? It is simply being human--the daily, weekly, and yearly creativity, practices, and rituals that make up our social and cultural selves. How can we better understand the humanities? All we need to do is to know them--to experience them--right here, right now.
Make a list of the main humanities disciplines (the arts, philosophy, etc.) covered in this book. After each discipline, write the most important thing you liked or learned about this discipline.
Make a list of the main humanities disciplines covered in this book. After each discipline, write a sentence or two about how knowing about the discipline might help you in future situations.
How can the study of mythology link the humanities? How can the theory of evolution of consciousness link them? How can the theory of process link the humanities? Write a paragraph discussing each.
Write five questions that are important questions about the humanities. Then write one or two answers for each.
Taking about an hour of time, summarize briefly in outline form some of the most important labels, parts, issues, or elements of each of the humanities as discussed in the chapters of this book.
*Image in Chapter Title: Spoonbridge and Cherry, 1985-88, and . Aluminum, stainless steel, and paint. Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden. Photo: "Img_3122" by M.E. McCarron, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0. Retrieved 29 Mar. 2020.
Most recent revision of text: 29 Mar. 2020