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Whither the Humanities?

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  1. I’m a Ph.D student in the medical humanities, as well as a research prof in health law and policy, so I obviously have a vested interest in law and the humanities. While I’m not sure I have a good answer for your question, one thing I do find remarkable is the paucity of awareness of what the humanities actually are. To the majority of academics I’ve encountered, and I do tend to think this is representative, the humanities are more or less an administrative designation that is rooted in classical learning.

    Indeed, the term “humanism” itself is most familiar to the postmodern world in the context of modern secular humanism.

    What I find meaningful in my own study and writing is an historically informed conception of the humanities, of the studia humanitatis. Learning more about what the humanities actually were, both in antiquity and in the crucial synthesis and interpretation of the medieval and Renaissance humanists, and what study in the humanist educational program was supposed to engender, is, IMO, significant for assessing what contributions humanities practice has for legal discourse.

    What’s interesting is when you look into this history, how quickly it becomes apparent that medieval and Renaissance humanists would find postmodern secular humanism bizarre for a variety of different reasons. Thus, my circuitous answer to your fascinating question is that I think very few people have an historically nuanced conception of the roots of the humanities, the purposes to which humanist study was originally put, and the expansive possibilities of such work. And, sadly, I tend to think this includes many academics working in fields of study designated as humanities.

    Robert Proctor’s book, in spite of several historiographical and interpretive flaws, IMO, is quite good in articulating some of these points. JMO.

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