Definition of the Humanities

My definition of the humanities is inspired by a lecture given by Professor Randy Ingram on August 23, 2018 titled “The Humanities, Revolution, and the Example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’” According to Dr. Ingram, the humanities are “the studies of the products of the human imagination.” This inspired me to define the humanities as: the products of the human imagination which have been shaped and informed by human experience.

The presence of the term “imagination” in this definition does not limit the humanities to the arts. The sciences, both physical and social, can also involve the humanities. I would consider scientific theories part of the humanities, as theories are the product of novel thinking and are informed by human experience. For example, it was through Copernicus’s experience and discovery of mathematical inconsistencies in the geocentric model of the universe that he came to propose a novel heliocentric model of the universe.

Dr. Ingram also stated during his lecture that there are three common tendencies of the humanities. First, “the humanities tend to be referential,” second, “the humanities offer opportunities to practice empathy,” and third, “the humanities tend to offer opportunities for self-reflection.” In order to practice empathy and reflect on ourselves, we must engage with the humanities. We engage with the humanities through the field of study we call the Humanities.

The Humanities, therefore, are the studies of the products of human imagination. All of the writings we read in this course, including Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Paul Celan’s poetry, and more were the products of human imagination and creativity, and each writing was informed by its author’s experiences. Additionally, the paintings and portraits we studied during Unit 5 are also products of human imagination and creativity, shaped by the experiences of the artists. Our study of these products of the humanities accomplished the common tendencies of the humanities expressed by Dr. Ingram. Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, for example, is referential—Sontag refers to various well-known images which capture human pain and suffering, for example, Tyler Hicks’ gruesome image of a Taliban soldier published in the New York Times in 2011. Through reading Sontag’s work, I was given the opportunity to practice empathy for the victims of suffering whose pain is captured and circulated through media and images. Additionally, I reflected on how I have reduced the pain of others to images on my screen and how I have become desensitized to violence through constant exposure to images of suffering.


My notes from Dr. Ingram’s lecture on 8/23/18