Arts & Humanities in general

Our conception of "arts and humanities" as a group of disciplines is in particular connected to administrative divisions at universities. This division has shifted over time and from one university to another. About 1850 the natural science became "independent", later followed by "the social sciences", why there is a tendency that "arts and humanities" is just a group of disciplines left, without any strong kind of internal relatedness. (This view is strongly formulated by the former national librarian Morten Laursen Vig:

"The subject of the report is the information needs of the humanities. This is why the point of departure is the traditional grouping of disciplines, which are based in the main groupings of the university subjects, and which is also reflected in, among other things, the structure of the Danish Research Councils. This structure is not necessarily relevant in relation to information services (or at all). 

In general it is difficult to draw precise demarcations between the main groupings of disciplines. The humanities form a group that it is especially difficult to delimit from the surrounding world. The term designates disciplines that are very different from each other. Many of those disciplines are more related to disciplines from other main groupings compared to other parts of the humanities: History is more related to the social sciences than it is related to linguistics; philosophy is more related to mathematics and physics on one side and to theology on the other side compared to archaeology. Psychology is more related to both social sciences and science/medicine than it is related to philology. Archaeology is more related to both science and technology than it is to music, and so on." (Laursen Vig, 1992, p.11, my translation).

An alternative view has been expressed by a working group in the Danish Ministry of Education. In the introductory essay of the report "The concept of cultural formation and view of human nature” [translated] the humanities is claimed to be in a crisis because they

"have lost or rejected the fundamental condition of all humanistic activities: a view of human nature and a corresponding concept of cultural formation. In stead the humanities have become disciplines with separate specialties. These specialties provide opportunities for the study of all sorts of interesting things. However, the view that provides the meaning and argument is gone." (Undervisningsministeriet, 1985, p. 15, translated).

The above quotation expresses the attitude that there exist a common stamp: behind the surface of the single disciplines is hidden a common core, a common basic view. 


A third view is:


Reference to `the human sciences' is loose and variable. With few exceptions, there is no correspondence between the term and existing disciplines. Indeed, the term has different connotations for different academics. For some, it refers to what they hope will be a field constituted by debate about what sort of systematic knowledge of human beings is possible, not by a particular body of knowledge.

    By contrast, others think the field is simply the biology of human beings. Most commonly, the term is one of convenience: `the human sciences' covers the past and current pursuit of knowledge of human activity, without specifying precisely what is included. The term may cover psychology, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, economics, human geography, and political science, and also parts of the organizational sciences, history, biomedicine, cognitive science, neuroscience, and other areas as well. Nevertheless, it is increasingly common, and significant, for the term to signify a cluster of debates about knowledge and the achievements –or limitations–of existing disciplines.” (Smith, 2001, p. 7027)



Collin & Køppe (1995, p. 10-15) discuss the classification of the humanities. They speak about the human "sciences" (Danish: "Videnskaber"). It this context should "sciences" not be understood as "natural sciences" as this word is mainly understood in English, but be understood as "scientific, social scientific or scholarly disciplines". On the basis of the objects of study in the humanities, Collin & Køppe (1995) propose the following classification:


1.1. The disciplines which examine "man" as a thinking, wanting and acting subject as well as the mechanisms behind his thoughts, wants and acts. To this group belong psychology and social anthropology. 


2.2. Disciplines, which examine the products of human acts: A) Linguistic products  (texts in a narrow sense), B) works of art and C) articles for everyday use (the classification in A, B, and C is, however given up after it has been suggested because all three classes of products have a language-like nature!).


3.3. Disciplines, which seek to establish the chronological order in a number of data. History, special histories (like economic history, social history, political history etc.) and archaeology belong to this third group. 


(4). Philosophy is discussed separately. "Philosophy is strictly regarded not a science - if science is understood as an explanatory and interpretative activity based on empirical data collection.” . . . ”Classical philosophical questions . . . cannot be decided by scientific methods. For this reason we shall not consider philosophy as belonging to the human sciences in this book”. (For a discussion, see the entry philosophy).



About the first group which "examine man as a thinking, wanting and acting subject" we may ask: on what basis is man considered "a thinking, wanting and acting subject"?  There has been a strong tendency within psychology to search for that basis in the human brain and thus in biological (and natural science). But is this then a field, which should be regarded as a part of the humanities? If not: What specific perspective can be used to establish these first group of disciplines? If we accept the view of man as a historical-cultural being, then the cultural-historical disciplines in the other groups may be impossible to leave out, why this part of the classification break down. (Seven years after his book was written at the University of Copenhagen moved psychology to the Social Sciences at the same university. Would the authors still classify the humanities the same way?).


About the second group: Yes, the study of languages, texts, music, works of art, customs, religious practices, buildings and articles for everyday life are important objects for the humanities. There is no "given" or a priory way to determine which objects are most important or how the objects should be classified, and consequently how the disciplines studying those objects should be classified.

    Different cultures may regard different kinds of practices and artifacts as more important than others, and different theories of cultural development may provide frame-works for classifying the study of cultural products and activities. Different perspectives, such as structuralism, materialism, cognitivism and so on provides different perspectives. No discussion of the classification of the humanities can avoid such discussions, and there is no neutral platform or point of view from which to establish such a classification. 


About the third group:

There have been a tendency within the social sciences to apply a nomothetical view that is opposed to the ideographical view dominating in history (see Wallerstein, 1996). However, the conflict between historical and non-historical views are inherent in any discipline (e.g. linguistics, psychology, sociology).  In other words: The tendency to leave a historical view to a special discipline and to concentrate on non-historical views (such a "structuralism" or psychoanalysis) is only feasible as long as the other disciplines feel that they can do without the historical perspective. (This is also a question for natural science, see Ereshefsky, 2000). If all the human sciences should be considered historical disciplines, the question is of course what special tasks should be solved by historians? Again, there is no a priory answer to that question. We can study why the organizational structure have developed the way it has, and we can provide theoretical arguments for what kind of structure and division of labor and qualifications may be considered worth aiming at. Such an argument have to consider the nature of the fields very carefully from perspectives of philosophy of (human) science. 



About the relation between philosophy and the humanities, see the entry philosophy.








Collin, F. & Køppe, S. (1995). Indledning. IN: Humanistisk videnskabsteori. By Finn Colin et al. Copenhagen: Danmarks Radio.


Ereshefsky, M. (2000). The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy : A Philosophical Study of Biological Taxonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Garfield, E. (1980). Is Information Retrieval in the Arts and Humanities Inherently Different from that in Science. Library Quarterly, 50(1), 40-57. Available at:


Hjørland, B. (2007). Humaniora. Præsentation 4 semester.  Domæneanalyse 4 semester BA


Kjørup, S. (1996). Menneskevidenskaberne. Problemer og traditioner i humanioras videnskabsteori. Frederiksberg. Roskilde Universitetsforlag.


Laursen Vig, M. (1992). Information og dokumentation inden for humaniora. Rapport fra en høring den 13. maj 1992 i København. [Information and documentation in the humanities. Report from a hearing]. København: DANDOK [Statens udvalg for videnskabelig og teknisk information og dokumentation]. (DANDOK-notater 16).


Lundtoft, L. (2000).  Indexering av humanistisk litteratur och humanistiska databaser - exemplet MLA International Bibliography. MAGISTERUPPSATS I BIBLIOTEKS- OCH INFORMATIONSVETENSKAP VID BIBLIOTEKSHÖGSKOLAN/BIBLIOTEKS- OCH INFORMATIONSVETENSKAP. 2000:17.


Nederhof, A. J., & Zwaan, R. A. (1991). Quality judgments of journals as indicators of research performance in the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42,332-340.


Schreibman, S.; Siemans, R. & Unsworth, J. (Eds.). (2004). A Companion to Digital Humanities.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture, number 26).


Smith, R. (2001), The Human Sciences: History and sociology. IN: International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 10, pp.7027-7031.


Undervisningsministeriet (1985). De humanistiske fag i gymnasiet. Rapport fra en arbejdsgruppe. København: Undervisningsministeriet. [Report from a working group in the Danish Ministry of Education: The humanities in upper secondary school]


Wallerstein, I. (1996). Open the Social Sciences, report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 



European Science Foundation: Reference Index for the Humanities




See also: Arts & Humanities (Epistemological Lifeboat)


See also specific disciplines/domains:














Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 26-03-2007