Introduction: Why Study the Humanities?

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The Humanities: Exploring What It Means to Be Human

The humanities can be described as the study of human experience and the way in which people define and document their experience through philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history, politics, and language. Viewing the human experience through a humanities lens provides insights that extend beyond statistical data and field reports. Humanities facilitate our understanding of things we may never experience directly, by viewing people and events in the context of their surrounding circumstances. Incorporating context allows us to appreciate the extensive breadth and depth of human experiences from different cultures, locations, and time periods.

This reader explores the humanities by documenting and processing people’s interpretations of what it means to be human. These human experiences are divided into four themes: Diversity & Difference, Human Rights & Genocide, Reform & Revolution, and Happiness & Spirituality. For each theme, selected humanities artifacts are presented in the context of their historical, social, political, personal, cultural, economic, and other settings.

Reverse Teaching

This humanities reader utilizes a teaching and learning method called reverse teaching. It means we will approach the humanities a little-back-to-front in comparison to traditional textbooks. Instead of presenting humanities artifacts as a collection of conceptual or theoretical categories, we will actively explore each humanities artifact in the context(s) that helped create it. This in-context analysis facilitates a fuller, more meaningful understanding of how humanities artifacts represent human experience.

Cogito, Ergo Sum—Proof of Human Existence

Cogito, ergo sum is a Latin phrase by the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes that translates into, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes proposed that human self-awareness was evidence of human existence. Other facts or ideas can be disproved, but our ability to question whether we exist proves that we do. In other words, “[W]e cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.”

The following excerpt from A Discourse on Method (1637) further refines Descartes’ argument:

[English] “Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us. And because some men err in reasoning and fall into Paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of Geometry, I am convinced that I was as open to error as any other; rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for Demonstrations. And finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations), which we experience when awake, may also be experienced when we are asleep. While there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this, I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be something. And as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the Sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.”

[French] “Ainsi, à cause que nos sens nous trompent quelquefois, je voulus supposer qu’il n’y avait aucune chose qui fût telle qu’ils nous la font imaginer; Et parce qu’il y a des hommes qui se méprennent en raisonnant, même touchant les plus simples matières de Géométrie, et y font des Paralogismes, jugeant que j’étais sujet à faillir autant qu’aucun autre, je rejetai comme fausses toutes les raisons que j’avais prises auparavant pour Démonstrations; Et enfin, considérant que toutes les mêmes pensées que nous avons étant éveillés nous peuvent aussi venir quand nous dormons, sans qu’il y en ait aucune raison pour lors qui soit vraie, je me résolus de feindre que toutes les choses qui m’étaient jamais entrées en l’esprit n’étaient non plus vraies que les illusions de mes songes. Mais aussitôt après je pris garde que, pendant que je voulais ainsi penser que tout était faux, il fallait nécessairement que moi qui le pensais fusse quelque chose; Et remarquant que cette vérité, je pense, donc je suis, était si ferme et si assurée, que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions des Sceptiques n’étaient pas capables de l’ébranler, je jugeai que je pouvais la recevoir sans scrupule pour le premier principe de la Philosophie que je cherchais.”

Meta-Cognition: Thinking About Thinking

Given this fantastic capacity to think and to question, we could argue that thinking is what sets us apart from other living things. This process of thinking about thinking is called metacognition. Metacognition is invaluable for humanities studies, or any critical analysis, because it forces us to challenge our preset values and principles.

We humans look at the world through a lens, one shaped by personal interests, family and peers, religion (or lack thereof), and other factors. We gravitate towards people and opinions that align with our own. We resist data that could change our minds. Being aware of our tendency to stick with what is familiar and affirming will help us recognize that what we perceive as truth is highly dependent on our personal knowledge and experiences.

How Do We Humans See the World?

An optical illusion takes advantage of how the human brain organizes and prioritizes visual information. These images trick the human brain into perceiving something that is not present or choosing one image over another.

The following illustration merges two images into the same picture. The brain interprets the visual information and chooses which image it wants to see. Because of the way the illustration is drawn, most people readily see a young woman. It takes a bit more concentration to discern an old crone. Notice it is difficult to perceive both women simultaneously because the brain chooses to see one image or the other but not both.


This picture looks like a pretty young woman or ugly old crone.
Credit: W. E. Hill, “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law.” Puck. Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Rubin’s Vase is a famous optical illusion created by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin to show how the brain prioritizes visual information. His theory explains that when two images share a common border, the brain automatically assigns one image to the foreground (positive space) and the second to the background (negative space). The yellow color draws the brain’s attention, making the vase the primary image.


Can you see the secondary image in Rubin’s Vase?
Credit: John Smithson. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

British puzzle master Henry Dudeney created a puzzle that exploits the human brain’s inability to envision negative spaces. The illustration shows playing cards laid out into a square. The goal is to create a swastika inside the square using only four cards. Try to figure out the solution using playing cards, or click on the image to reveal the solution.


Create a swastika inside the square using only four cards.
Credit: sabakuINK. CC BY-SA 4.0.

These examples highlight how easily our brains automatically lead us into seeing what we want to see. In the next chapter, Creative & Critical Thinking, we will look at methods to overcome these mental obstacles.