We could say the humanities are a set of disciplines focused on interpretation and communication. Some of these disciplines, such as philosophy, literature, and history, are broadly encompassing; others take more specific approaches to textual analysis, such as visual studies, specific languages, or gender and sexuality studies. More important to our approach in Core is our treatment of the humanities as a debate rather than a description of content. As a whole, the humanities present crucial questions: What should we study and how should we study it in order to gain a better understanding of ourselves, our society, and the world? What does an educated person need to know in contemporary society? Are there certain pieces of writing, music, and art that should be included in a curriculum, and if so, which ones? What tools of interpretation should we use to read those or other works?
These questions become urgent when we consider that the issue is no less than how humans make sense of the world. The type of research we do into the ways people have interpreted and recorded their experiences can have a bearing on our decisions as individuals or as part of a community. In recent decades, the humanities have been at the center of the so-called “culture wars,” heated arguments about whether academic inquiry should focus on the perceived greatest works ever produced or on materials by those who were marginalized or overlooked in their societies. Of course, many opt for a combination of different types of textual production, even as they enter a debate about what to emphasize in the interpretive process: should thought itself be at the center of the process, as in philosophy, or should we pay attention to questions of artistic manipulation? Should artistic works be understood as independent expressions or as artifacts engaging with the specific cultures in which they were produced? These and many other questions make the humanities an opportunity for discussion rather than an established set of materials for study. In asking and attempting to answer these questions, we produce new forms of humanistic knowledge and are reminded that the humanities are always evolving.
by Rodrigo Lazo, Director, Humanities Core
We investigate the past to construct our present, and we explore other cultures to define our own. The final goal is nothing less than discovering ourselves.
Interpretation is the primary method of the humanities because the meaning that humanities scholars search for is not a constant one. Rather, standards of meaning change when one moves in time and space from one cultural context to another. Negotiating this movement is the primary task in humanities inquiry. In looking at a philosophical text, an event, or a work of art, we first want to make sense of it. But we can only make sense of it to the extent that we can set up a relationship between ourselves and our object of study.
In one sense, this relationship poses a severe limitation on our interpretation. We can only understand something to the extent that we are already familiar with it. But this limitation also means that, to the extent that we can understand them, the objects of study in the humanities speak to us personally–to the way we understand ourselves and the world. When we come to an understanding and are able to establish this relationship to our object of study, we are coming to a new understanding of ourselves.
–excerpted from David Pan, “What Are the Humanities?”
The Humanities at UCI
Read more about the Humanities at UCI.