Defining The Humanities

The Definition: The humanities studies different artifacts and how they relate to the human experience. 

What are artifacts and what are some examples?

An object, usually with historical or cultural significance, that is created by humans.1

Different artifacts with historical and cultural significance include… 2

  1. In Literature: A novel, a poem, a letter 3
  2. In Art: A painting, a drawing, a statue 4
  3. In Society: A monument, a plaque, a memorial 5
  4. In music: A score, a song, an album
  5. In religion: The Bible, The Koran, The Torah

How can artifacts be “studied?”  Here are a few ways to get started…

  1. Historical Context: Determining when an artifact was created, how it is similar and different to objects created from the same period, whether trends about its historical significance can be concluded.
  2. Sociocultural Context: How the artifact compares to different human customs, beliefs, and traditions? Does the artifact affirm one tradition and put down another? How were people introduced to the artifact when it was first created? 6
  3. Analysis of Content: What does the artifact add to society? What is its broad significance to the human experience? 7
  4. Analytical Discussion: How does the viewer/reader/believer change the original message/interpretation of the artifact? Does the artifact allow for different viewpoints/conclusions?

What is the human experience? How does it enhance the study of artifacts?

The human experience  is a combination of ALL voices in society. The tasks humanists take on when studying artifacts can be overwhelming in scope, but The Humanities is ultimately rewarding to study. Humanists have to be exposed to a wide range of different viewpoints on the person or movement being studied. For example, to understand the Civil Rights Movement, humanists analyze the works of Civil Rights leaders, white liberals, KKK members, black elites, women, children, and even people from abroad to understand the complexities behind how people decided to coordinate their lives, and how different artifacts affect the understanding of a particular era.  Each group will provide their own perspective on how they lived through the period. Ignoring any side’s conclusions is leads to an incomplete understanding. The human experience details how individuals and groups form and develop their ideals, and how they come together to “fight” for their causes. 

Speaking of “fight,” that one word reminds me of revolution. But revolution is far more complex than that. See my definition (Here).  

Why is the work of humanists never fully complete? 8

Any issue can take years, decades or even centuries to understand completely, and some periods may never be completely understood due to oppressed groups throughout history not receiving a complete voice. For example, slaves and Native Americans may not have the proper representation due to a lack of first-person artifacts discussing their personal experiences. Humanists have to take what artifacts they do have, study them thoroughly, and try to evaluate the collective human experience based on them. 9 However, there is always the possibility for new ideas to arise, or old viewpoints to be reevaluated. Thus, the work of humanists is never complete, because there are always the possibilities for new artifacts that can change conclusions made previously. 


  1. Humans do not create nature, however, humans create artifacts using natural materials found on Earth. Can nature be considered an artifact in itself?
  2.  Who decides what has historical or cultural significance? Did the Nazis decide that Jewish art was not an artifact because its creators were not human in their eyes? Is any other cultural purge the denial of artifacts from certain “non-human” peoples?
  3. Martin Luther King Jr wrote an imaginary letter that modeled the apostle Paul talking directly to American Christians, decrying segregation. His letter would be another example of an artifact. Text available for download (here) 
  4. Prof. Amanda Ewington focuses on the Bronze Horseman in her plenary lecture in our unit concerning Russia and the West. The Bronze Horseman would be an example of an artifact in The Humanities. Her slides are  available to download (here). See slide 60 for a picture of The Bronze Horseman.
  5. In Prof. Burkhard Henke’s Nazi culture unit, we discussed book burning memorials. We had an assignment to create our own interpretation of a book burning memorial, which can be found (here). Would that hypothetical memorial be an artifact?
  6.  Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst and Zahra M. S. Ayubi address the important of shifting contexts when studying Islam in the humanities: “The study of Islam in the humanities is undoubtedly affected by the shifting boundaries of what scholars do, where scholars work, how scholars publish, and what topics, geographies, and histories contour the study of Islam. It is simultaneously a purposeful location of scholarship about Islam and Muslims within broader categorizations of such scholarship into the field of Islamic studies within the broader study of religion.” (pg 461). The Koran fits right in with the study of artifacts. Text available for download (here) 
  7. President Carol Quillen analyzes the work of Bruni’s Dialogues within the context of Florentine humanism. This scholarly work would fit within the analysis of content category. Text available for download (here) 
  8. At this point I’ll pose an existential question: Are we as a society always at an incomplete understanding since it is impossible to compile everyone’s experience if they did not document their thoughts?
  9. Prof. Chad Wellmon evaluates the transformation nature of reading in The Humanities, focusing on the work of Augustine opening his Bible. Does Augustine through his act of opening the holy book attempt to evaluate human experience?