Why Humanities?

(c) Linda Maria Koldau

The Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier – an important example how regional history, technology, environmental concern, and coastal management interact
(© Linda Maria Koldau)

For the humanities, ocean research is an incredibly rich field of investigation and exploration. However, are the humanities of any use to ocean research?

At first sight, you may be tempted to say no. Groundbreaking ocean research is done by the natural sciences. Necessary measures and policies regarding the regions where man and ocean exist side by side and interact are worked out and communicated by people trained in geography and the social sciences. Questions of maritime law and economic policy are discussed and solved by experts from the respective disciplines – and not by humanists.

At first sight, the humanities seem to offer very little to ocean research: the little bonus of a historical perspective, and – a sort of cherry on the cake – pretty pictures of dramatic sea shores or analyses of gripping novels such as Frank Schätzing’s ocean thriller The Swarm (Der Schwarm, 2004).

However, the contribution of the humanities to ocean research can be so much greater – if only the potential of the humanities is used to the fullest. This can and must happen: in a well-conceived, transdisciplinary approach combining the expertise and the research efforts of the various disciplines.

Where exactly is it that the humanities make a difference within inter- and transdisciplinary ocean research?


Accumulation of knowledge and experience

Growth rings on an oak tree (c) Hgrobe

Humanities are like a tree:
Experience and stability grow with the years
(photo: Hgrobe)

While gifted scientists can turn out to be a mathematical genius already at child age, excellence in the humanities grows with age and experience. The humanities aim at understanding human thought and behaviour in past and present times. The more you have immersed in various fields of such research, the greater will your experience be. As with a tree growing strong with new rings year for year, every new research topic provides you with greater scope and stability in your competence to perceive, analyze and interpret actions and processes. If you build on a sound fundament of knowledge and experience, you will quickly be able to relate present-day events and processes to patterns of human behavior we know from the past.

Of course, a sound fundament of specialized knowledge is essential in any discipline. In the humanities, though, specialization goes hand in hand with a continual accumulation of interdisciplinary knowledge and experience. Thus, the challenge of the humanities is

  1. to be highly specialized in one or more research fields of your discipline,
  2. to be able to link your discipline with many other academic disciplines, and
  3. to combine your expert knowledge with an alert sense for present events and processes – a sense that adds up with your academic experience and competence, enabling you to a wholistic analysis and interpretation of sources and events.

It is the breadth of our humanist perspective and our ability to integrate any topic of research or general interest into our experience that distinguishes us from other fields of research – other fields where specialization and long-term focus on one single, clearly defined research field are vital. If humanists are open for inter- and transdisciplinary work, they can function as “jokers” in any research team, combining the team’s special research interest with broad and integrative perspectives that link past and present.


Focus on language and communication

Alphabet des enfants sages

Well-trained humanists are experts in language and communication
(© Pellerin et Cie)

In many cultures, philosophers identify the use of spoken and written language to be the distinctive characteristic of being “human”. In the age of communication, we are aware of the all-decisive significance of language – as means of communication, as bearer of culture and identity, as artistic medium.

The humanities are the branch of the sciences where a focus on language is indispensable – which implies a scientific culture that is essentially different from the natural or also, in certain aspects, the social sciences. This is a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating or comparing the quality and achievement in scientific work. Yet it is an advantage in tackling the countless nuances and shades in human behavior – such as understanding and handling conflicts, analyzing the source of misunderstandings, or detecting strategies of propaganda and persuasion.

Any well-trained humanist is experienced in language and communication: this is a field we have, often unintentionally, trained in years of reading, analyzing, and interpreting sources that build on language (including music or the “language” of the visual arts) and communication. This competence is vital in transferring academic knowledge to a non-academic audience. It is vital in cooperating with colleagues from other disciplines and representatives from business life or the public service. It is vital in making knowledge available to the public.

Anyone working in interdisciplinary contexts will soon realize that the problem of finding a common language is essential. Since more and more projects demand a well-founded and well-integrated cooperation of several disciplines, the sensitivity of humanists for language and their capacity to find and develop new ways of expression and communication will be vital in any interdisciplinary research team.


Interdisciplinarity, transdisplinarity and knowledge transfer

Photo: C.Urban, Uni Kiel

Inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation is vital (photo: C.Urban, Uni Kiel)

Interdisciplinarity and, more recently, transdisciplinarity have become buzz words, not only in academia, but also in business and public life. As buzz words, though, they are open to misunderstanding and abuse. What does interdisciplinarity demand? When is it correct to speak of transdisciplinarity? These questions have, in fact, become part of a research field of its own. Daily experience, though, offers simple examples and models how to proceed – and what to avoid.

First of all, interdisciplinarity (and transdisciplinarity) confronts us with one vital requirement: interdisplinary research and cooperation only make sense if every individual researcher involved works on a sound fundament of knowledge in their own discipline. Otherwise, interdisciplinarity will turn into a superficial game of “finding parallels” – without any insights and results of value.

The second demand is that the individual researcher must be willing and able to immerse into the other disciplines. This demands hard work and the willingness to open up to other fields of research, other methods, other scientific approaches. True interdisciplinarity demands double, triple or quadruple work – depending on how many other disciplines you involve. Of course, if you are a literary scholar, you will not be able to gain the expertise of an Old Testament expert by means of a few months’ study of theology. It is here, where interdisciplinary cooperation is asked for. Yet you will never get anywhere if you do not acquire basic knowledge and methodological competence in the other discipline – otherwise, your work will be multidisciplinary and thus not of greater use than the superficial “finding of parallels” named above.

The third demand is that the researchers involved are able to transfer their insights to the other fields involved and, ideally, to develop new, unexpected results in interdisciplinary cooperation – thus transforming interdisciplinary into transdisciplinary cooperation. Transdisciplinarity means that the process and results transgress the possibilities of the individual disciplines involved: Something new comes into being that the individual discipline would not have been able to create. This process demands a high degree of openness and readiness to assume a risk on part of the individual researcher. After all, there is no guarantee that a meaningful result will be achieved. If so, however, it offers something that is “innovative” and “progressive” in the best sense of these hackneyed words.

Well-trained and open-minded humanists have a natural talent for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work and the concomitant demands to networking. Since every human action involves an incredible number of motivations and contexts (social, cultural, political, historical…), humanists continually meet the challenge to widen their exploration of a certain research subject, to involve other perspectives, to make use of methods and approaches developed in the neighbouring disciplines. Thus, humanists usually achieve a high competence in building bridges between various disciplines, developing new, unexpected approaches, and uniting the best insights and results of a great variety of research fields.

In a research team that builds a bridge between humanities, natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and other fields, this competence is of greatest value. In such a team, humanists not only may function as “joker”, that is, a person that fits into all contexts, but also as driving force for unexpected ideas, approaches, and methods – including the development of a common, understandable and yet highly competent language for the team.


Humanities hands-on

(c) Romania Alegri

More than formulas and theories: Humanities need to be anchored in real life (photo: Romania Alegri)

Humanists have the reputation of being “those that just talk”. Well, this reputation is not undeserved – after all, language, written sources, their analysis, and their interpretation are central in humanist fields of research. And, admittedly, there is a certain tendency among humanists to talk a lot  – with a rather thin relation to reality and present-day issues. “Are the humanities of any use at all?” was a headline I recently found in a Danish university journal. In the light of the more recent development, this question is indeed justified. In the past 25 years, postmodernism and a growing predilection for all kinds of theories have greatly increased the tendency in many humanist disciplines to “just talk” – a development that has not been to the benefit of the humanities and their reputation in society. If the humanities want to survive in a time of growing competition for research funds and of decreasing possibilities for their kind on the job market, they need to go back to the roots: focus on issues that immediately concern humankind and our society. Less theory and more realism might be the slogan of the future humanities.

In the humanities, theory has got quite another significance and status than in the natural sciences. The humanities do not build on natural laws. Humanists do continually have to live with the challenge that things in human life are not straight and clear, that they cannot be explained with clear-cut mathematical equations. Humanists do continually have to live with the problem that their subjects are “human” and thus offer an unending variety of motivations, intentions, and interpretations. Just as theologians, humanists have to live with the problem that many things in our world are and remain inexplicable.
Of course, humanists cannot work without theories. Yet theories must be the result, an attempt at finding patterns on a broad basis of sources and their expert analysis. If theories, in turn, are set as precondition – “the investigation of this subject is based on the theory of So-and-So” – they are useless, because as precondition they will determine the result and thus lead to circular reasoning. Theories in the humanities never work like laws – they are just a tool, a preliminary attempt to explain certain processes in human action and thought. If theories are regarded like laws they turn into dogma – and thus stifle everything human. History has many examples for this, just think of marxist theory being turned into a political and social system, or economic theories trying to extinguish the “human factor” in market processes. History teaches us that attempts to press theoretical systems on human society inevitably fail – with devastating results for the societies and individual human beings involved.

Accordingly, the increasing focus on theories in humanist research will lead to a dead end. Humanities cannot build on theories. They need to build on as broad and as strong a fundament of knowledge about human action, thought and behaviour as possible. Only then, on the fundament of solid knowledge and experience, will a humanist researcher be able to relate to society. Only then will a humanist be a person that does more than just talk.

The inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation with natural sciences, social sciences, technology, and economy offers wonderful occasions to become a “hands-on humanist”. Use the various theories as tools to achieve greater understanding – but do not exalt them to dogmas. Use the insights and knowledge from other disciplines to expand your fundament of experience. And use your own expertise as humanist to make this knowledge and expertise available to a greater public. This is, after all, our job as researchers.

And there is nothing more gratifying than a well-established cooperation with academic and non-academic colleagues, resulting in work that is of use to society. It is here where the humanities with their rich kit of competences really can make a difference.


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