(notes for part of the 9/13 lecture)
In taking "human nature" as its inaugural theme, the Penn Humanities Forum is returning the humanities to their roots.
In Latin, studia humanitatis means literally "studies of human nature."
From Roman times onward, studia humanitatis were the core of the liberal (literally "free") arts. A liberal education, of course, was not "free" in the sense of "free lunch", but rather "free" in the sense of "not a slave:" the education of a free man.
Since, as Wittgenstein famously said, "etymology is destiny," let's look briefly into the history of these words.
Lewis and Short entry for studium:
studium, ii, n. [studeo], a busying one's self about or application to a thing; assiduity, zeal, eagerness, fondness, inclination, desire, exertion, endeavor, study: studium est animi assidua et vehemens ad aliquam rem applicata magnā cum voluntate occupatio, ut philosophiae, poėticae, geometriae, litterarum, Cic. Inv. 1, 25, 36. . . .
II. In partic.
A. Zeal for any one; good-will, affection, attachment, devotion, favor, kindness, etc . . .
B. Application to learning or studying, study; in the plur., studies . . .
Lewis and Short entry for humanitas:
hūmānitas, ātis, f. [humanus], human nature, humanity, in a good sense; the qualities, feelings, and inclinations of mankind. . . .
B. Transf., concr., i. q. humanum genus, the human race, mankind (very rare; mostly post-class.) . . .
II. In partic.
A. Humane or gentle conduct towards others, humanity, philanthropy, gentleness, kindness, politeness . . .
B. Mental cultivation befitting a man, liberal education, good breeding, elegance of manners or language, refinement . . .
Lewis and Short entry for liberalis:
līberālis, e, adj. [1. liber], of or belonging to freedom, relating to the freeborn condition of a man. . . .
II. Transf., befitting a freeman, gentlemanly, noble, noble-minded, honorable, ingenuous, gracious, kind . . .
A. In gen.: . . . artes liberales, befitting a freeman, Cic. Inv. 1, 25, 35
B. In partic.
1. Bountiful, generous, munificent, liberal . . .
b. Of things, plentiful, copious, abundant . . .
2. Noble, engaging, beautiful (ante-class.) . . . Hence, adv.: līberāliter, in a manner befitting a freeman, nobly, ingenuously, kindly, courteously, graciously. . . .
By late Mediaeval times, these studies had been codified as the seven liberal arts, divided into a group of three known as the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and a group of four known as the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, music, astronomy).
After the advent of Christianity, these studies came to be seen as humanities in a new sense: they were what concerned man as opposed to God, humane studies as opposed to divine studies; humanities as opposed to theology.
The Renaissance thinkers known as humanists were so called because they put special emphasis on the human realm and therefore on studia humanitatis. In this they can be seen both as looking backwards to classical times and also forwards to modern secularism.
During the nineteenth century, the physical sciences matured to the point of having their own curriculum and their own social structures, and the humanities came to be distinguished not from studies of divinity but rather from studies of the material world. As the success and prestige of scientific methods increased still further, scientific ways of investigating human beings -- singly or in groups -- became established as psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology and so on.
Attempts to define the humanities have focused sometimes on content -- say, those subjects dealing crucially with human meaning and purpose -- and sometimes on methods -- investigations that value the particular without necessarily seeking general laws. Though such definitions provide some insight, none of them gives a adequate account of the various activities that go by the name of "humanities."
In fact, the definition of the humanities has became in effect a negative one -- what is left of academic scholarship after various scientific fields have been split off. In some areas, the splits have been incomplete and there have also been partial mergers. Many areas of philosophy have close ties with mathematics, with the natural sciences, and even with engineering. Linguistics includes researchers who properly regard themselves as natural or social scientists, and also sometimes as engineers. Classics and History overlap in part with Archeology and Economics.
The connections between the humanities and the social sciences have been especially close. As a result, although the humanities are etymologically the study of human nature, many -- maybe most -- humanists now doubt that there is any such thing as human nature. At least, they doubt that "human nature" is a concept with any intellectual content specific enough to be worth studying. In this, they follow the development of the social sciences in the 20th century, which has led to what is now sometimes called "the standard social science model" (SSSM).
"A set of assumptions and inferences about humans, their minds, and their collective interaction ... that has provided the conceptual foundations of the social sciences for nearly a century..."
In fact, these assumptions and inferences have been largely shared with the humanities and the arts, at least in the academic world.
...one would be strangely mistaken about our thought if ... he drew the conclusion that sociology, according to us, must, or even can, make an abstraction of man and his faculties. It is clear. . . that the general characteristics of human nature participate in the work of elaboration from which social life results. But they are not the cause of it, nor do they give it its special form; they only make it possible. Collective representations, emotions, and tendencies are caused not by certain states of the consciousness of individuals but by the conditions in which the social group, in its totality, is placed. Such actions can, of course, materialize only if the individual natures are not resistant to them; but these individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms. Their contribution consists exclusively in very general attitudes, in vague and consequently plastic predispositions which, by themselves, if other agents did not intervene, could not take on the definite and complex forms which characterize social phenomena.
(Emil Durkheim, 1895).
Sketch of the arguments behind the SSSM, taken from Cosmides and Tooby, "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," in Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, The Adapted Mind (1992):
From this perspective, the choice of "human nature" as the inaugural theme for the Humanities Forum is surprising and even shocking.