Term Paper: Humanities in Western Civilization

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Humanities in Western Civilization

The human condition is a complex field - one that in fact requires many different fields of knowledge. The different fields of knowledge that take for their object of study what it means to be human are collectively referred to as "the humanities." The humanities are nothing new - they form an integral part of civilization as it has developed in the western world. The humanities are distinguished from other, more scientific fields of knowledge, in that they do not make use of empirical means of investigation. Rather, they tend to employ methods that are analytical, speculative, and/or critical. In what follows, we will explore the many facets of the humanities and show how the humanities have been integral to western civilization from the outset.

The Humanities - Types

Some of the numerous disciplines that comprise the humanities include foreign languages, literature, philosophy, history, the visual and performing arts, religion, and more. There are also a myriad of fields that the humanities often take as their object of study; these include anthropology, cultural studies, communications, and area studies - although, it must be said, most of these fields are relegated normally to the social sciences.

While scholars working in the humanities are sometimes referred to as "humanists," this term is usually rejected in that it easily becomes confused with the term "humanism," which is a philosophical school of thought. There is such thing as an "antihumanist" position, as well - and this is a position that a number of scholars working in the humanities often adhere to.

At the cornerstone of humanistic thought lie the classics. The classics form the basis of all inquiry into the nature and evolution of what we now regard as western civilization. The classics take as their object of study the culture, language, and literature of classical antiquity - particularly that of Ancient Rome and Greece. Throughout the 20th century, the classics have been relegated to the background of the humanities, although they are still widely studied. In fact, the classics have had a tremendous impact on the literature and philosophy that continue to be produced today. It is thus vital for anyone working in these disciplines to have a thorough knowledge of the classics in order to draw conclusions that will have relevance for present day modes of inquiry. What is more, classical works of literature and philosophy serve as the foundation upon which more current modes of thought are built. Of course, the classics exist in other cultures outside the West, as well - in China, for instance, there are the writings of Lao-tse, Confucius, and Chuang-tzu, while in Egypt, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is considered to be highly relevant. In fact, all countries have their classics - but in the western tradition, it is the classics of Rome and Greece that form the backbone of our culture.

Another vital component of the humanities is the study of history. History can be thought of as a systematic means of collection information about the past. For this reason, history is often thought of as a social science - especially those instances when the information is collected and distributed in a chronological fashion. At the same time, in terms of subject matter, history takes as its object of study the evolution of humans and their civilizations over time. This lodges it firmly within the domain of the humanities. In order to use history to their advantage, scholars must have not merely a knowledge of history, but be able to think critically in historical terms. History is based largely on interpretation of events and facts - for this reason, history is a vital part of the humanities, where such modes of speculative thinking are highly valued.

Today, when most people hear the term "humanities," they automatically think that it refers to the study of ancient and modern languages, literatures, and cultures. To a certain extent, they are right. The humanities have always focused on writing. But occasionally the study of ancient languages and literatures falls into the domain of social science - particularly in the field of linguistics, which is the scientific study of language. The reason why language is so important to the evolution of the humanities is because minute changes in language over time can have profound effects on the way the humanities are conducted, researched, and conceived.

At the heart of humanities curriculums in the West today, one finds the study of literature. This can be the study of prose forms such as short stories, essays, and the novel, but also other literary forms, such as poetry and drama. When one studies foreign languages on the university level, then the study of literatures in that language is typically included on the curriculum. While a literature is typically a collection of prose, poems, and dramas that are centered on a particular topic, the literature need not necessarily have nationalistic implications. The Western Canon of literature consists of literature from many different nations. Today, the term "literature" has come to signify many different things, depending on the context in which it is employed and on who is using it at a given time. The term is often employed to refer to specific symbolic records of subjects, which may include everything from sculptures to letters. At the same time, the term literature is often employed to separate certain types of writing from others; for example, certain novels may be considered "literature," while genre fiction - for example, horror or romance novels - is not. For this reason, the term "literary fiction" is often employed. To simplify matters, people also talk in terms of a particular working possessing "literary merit," while another might not.

Another important part of contemporary humanities is law. The basic definition of law refers to rules that one can enforce through institutions (Robertson 2006, p. 90). By its very fluid nature, the study of law often blurs the boundaries between the humanities and the social sciences, being situated at a crossroads between the two. Other common definitions of law include "a system of rules," "an interpretive concept" that is employed for the attainment of justice, as an "authority" to mediate the interests of the people involved, and as "the command of a sovereign, backed by the threat of a sanction" (Hart; Dworkin; Raz; Austin). As a discipline in the humanities, law is unique in that it is simultaneously one of the most vital institutions that form the crux of our society. Nearly every aspect of the humanities and social sciences comes to the foray in the cementation of legal policies. At the same time, law extends to other fields - both within and without the humanities. For example, law is situated in the field of political science, as it is politicians who ultimately create and sign off on laws. Law is also a pertinent aspect of philosophy, since precepts rooted in morality and ethics ultimately shape the ideas behind laws. Law is also rooted in history, in that laws tend to build up over time in reaction to specific historical events. Law is also rooted in economics, as laws related to money can have lasting effects on the way that wealth is distributed in a given country.

The performing arts are a key component of the humanities. The term "performing arts" is meant to separate these art forms from the visual arts or the plastic arts, in that the performing arts require the use of the artist's body in some way. In this respect, the performing arts refers to theater, opera, film, music, marching, juggling, busking, dance, comedy, magic, opera, and beyond. The artists working in any of these mediums are referred to as performers. Performers may include singers, actors, comedians, dancers, and musicians. There are also a number of people who work "behind the scenes" in the performing arts, such as playwrights, songwriters, and stage workers. Performers often alter their physical appearance during their performances via the use of stage make-up, costumes, and lighting. The performing arts are often confused with "performance art," a field that describes visual artists who perform their work in front of a live audience. A lot of performance art, however, is more properly rooted in the plastic arts or the visual arts.

People in the humanities who study music typically wish to become either music performers or music teachers. In addition to learning how to play instruments, the discipline of music involves music theory, musicology, history music, and the composition of music. Listening and concentration skills can also be gleaned from the study of music, which is why it is often used in classrooms in the west.

Theater has been a popular means of acting out stories since the beginning of western civilization. Actors in theater use a diverse array of elements, include gesture, speech, music, spectacle, sound, and dance. There are a number of different forms of theater, including pantomime, ballet, opera, mime, and mummers' plays.

Dance is human movement… [END OF PREVIEW]

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