What Are the Different Branches of the Humanities?

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If you’ve ever heard someone say that they are studying humanities, you may have found yourself wondering exactly what that means. Humanities cover a broad range of different studies, but in essence, they are all aimed at studying the human experience.

Specific branches of humanities tend to look into things like consciousness, ideas, ideals, and values as reflected through different mediums. We’ll take a closer look at some of the major branches of humanities to help give you a better idea of what type of studies humanities encompasses overall.

What Are the Humanities?

Broadly put, humanities is the study of human beings throughout history and the various ways the human spirit has manifested over time. As one report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences put it, “The humanities — including the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, and the arts — are disciplines of memory and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going.”

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While humanities include the study of history, they tend to go a bit deeper than the mere facts and major events that are often used to popularly define a culture. While history may tell us about the wars a society engages in or who their popular artists were, humanities delve further into the question of why

  • Were there certain world views that people were willing to fight to further at the time? 
  • What was it about an artist’s work that so many people found impactful or moving?

Humanities can also be used to consciously examine our own culture and where it’s going. Some modern questions that humanities might seek to answer include whether social media is creating a digitally dependent culture or how technology has affected the human experience.

What Are the Branches of the Humanities?

What branches does the term “humanities” encompass, exactly? While that answer can vary depending on who you ask, most branches of humanities studies often include the following:

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  • Literature: Literature can refer to anything from novels and short stories to plays and poems. Studying the literature of both past and present civilizations can give us a unique look into common aspects of society and culture that helped shape collective perspectives at the time. Literature often delves deeper and more precisely into certain values and ideas than the average history book. Reading the words of a writer from long ago is the closest we can get to having an actual conversation with them and allowing them to tell us about the world through their eyes.
  • Arts: The arts consist of things like theater, film, visual art, and dance. As any student of humanities can tell you, it’s possible to learn a great deal about a society of people by studying the things they found beautiful or inspiring. Given that art goes back to self-expression, identifying the inspiration for various pieces of popular art can say a lot about how people viewed the world, as well as their hopes, struggles, and ideas of perfection.

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  • Language: This particular branch of humanities consists of studying the way people communicated (or communicate) in various countries and time periods. Language can reveal the ways in which people take in the world, process information, and convey it to others. It’s also, of course, necessary to understand a culture’s language in order to fully appreciate their written art, oral stories, and overall history.  
  • Music: Similar to the study of visual and performing arts, music can give unique insights into the forms of self-expression that were popularly embraced during a given time. Even before the written word, music was used as a way to pass along traditions, stories, and the history of a particular society.  
  • Philosophy: The study of a culture’s popular philosophy can likewise reveal a great deal about how people saw the world during a particular age. Much of a culture’s collective morality tends to stem from the philosophies it chooses to embrace, not to mention its popular perspectives on life and its meaning.
  • History: History is among the most fact-based methods for gleaning a glimpse into a society or culture. Written records, art and oral stories that have been passed down can all tell the stories of wars, politics, and the triumphs and struggles of a group of people at any given point in time. However, it’s important to consider who is telling the story of history; often, those in power may leave out essential elements that don’t fit their particular narrative. 

Why Are the Humanities Important?

The question remains: why is it important to study the humanities? Whole books and essays have been written in an attempt to answer this question. Perhaps such questions are particularly relevant in our modern society, which tends to be more concerned with furthering STEM-related pursuits. The short answer? Without the humanities, it would be impossible to fully understand any society — even our own.

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Most individuals would freely admit that their current values and choices were highly influenced by the successes and failures of their own past. In a similar way, the humanities seek to apply the collective lessons of the human condition to decisions we now make on a daily basis. By better understanding the history of people in general, we can make informed decisions on how to best shape the future. 

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