The humanities form part of a sweeping arc of human learning - literature, philosophy, history, languages, music, art history, the classics, religious studies. We must not assume, however, that these disciplines belong to a single scholarly tradition or share similar methods of analysis. Each discipline develops its distinctive account of an evolving history, based in part on prevailing cultural and institutional circumstances, and in part on the evolution of norms and genres that best express its vision and values.
What the humanities have in common is a peculiar relationship to the world: They are in the world, but not entirely of it. And humanists often occupy a similar liminal position, working across a shadow line that, at once, divides and joins the "real" world with the imagination, one disciplinary realm with another. Interdisciplinarity is not merely a scholarly method. It represents an ethical commitment to promoting a diversity of perspectives - to engaging in productive, if properly contentious, conversations between disciplines.
Humanists are as concerned with reshaping the means with which we interpret human realities as they are with reflecting these realities. Philosophers provide us with concepts that may seem distant and abstract, but they enable us to grasp underlying structures of thought that are not always apparent to the naked eye: How do words and things relate to each other? How do we connect immanent causes with singular cases? Poets illuminate the world with images and metaphors that are distant from daily discourse, but nevertheless uncover the imaginative and verbal intensity that lies concealed in everyday things - perhaps a jar in Tennessee, or a rambling rose, or even blue suede shoes.
Scholarly knowledge is most often produced "at one remove" from everyday experience. Through a process of conceptualization the empirical world comes to be represented in linguistic signs, scientific formulae, resonant symbols, or digital images. Humanists reflect as much on these processes of mediation as on the outcomes of knowledge. They draw attention to the frames, maps, or tables with which we construct our access to reality at one remove. They reflect on ways in which social reality is translated into metaphor (literature), image (art), abstract reasoning (philosophy), narrative and memory (history). Literature is, in some profound sense, about the shape of language and words, but it is also about character, action, social and political consciousness, unconscious fantasy. Art is about light, color, paint, stone, and figurative technique, but it is also about religious passion, aesthetic interest, the intimation of pain, and the perception of beauty and virtue.
Humanists may not primarily be seen as hunters of facts or gatherers of data, but they have deep interests in the empirical world of archives, documentary research, and the institutional histories and genealogies of their disciplines. The humanist's skill or craftsmanship lies in endowing both the archive and the experience of everyday life with a "fourth" dimension that becomes visible in the art of narrative: the telling of a story, the process of an argument, or the making of a picture. Humanists are embedded in this world of poesies and mimesis Ñ in "making" and "representing" - as forms of human communication through which a historical world comes to be, and to belong, to those who inhabit its ambit of ideas, images, and values. The communal (and communicative) world of the humanities encourages a diversity of intellectual approaches in order to ensure that our scholarly culture preserves traditions of democratic participation and protects freedom of interpretation.
This is why the humanities build communities rather than "models," and this is why the public always feels that it has a stake in humanistic debates. The humanities make a unique contribution to establishing - through dialogue and interpretation - communities of interest and climates of opinion.
Like the weather, humanistic knowledge can be changeable, turbulent, and elusive. But does anybody seriously argue that we can do without air? We need the humanities, as we do the atmosphere, for they allow us to draw the breath of human life and art, and in that process to aspire to the best in ourselves and others.
Homi K. Bhabha