The best books about the history of the humanities

Herman Paul Author Of Writing the History of the Humanities
By Herman Paul

Who am I?

I started my career as a historian of historiography and now hold a chair in the history of the humanities at Leiden University. What I like about this field is its comparative agenda. How does art history relate to media studies, and what do Arabists have in common with musicologists? Even more intriguing, as far as I’m concerned, is the question of what holds the humanities together. I think that history can help us understand how the humanities have developed as they have, differently in different parts of the world. As the field called history of the humanities has only recently emerged, there is plenty of work to do!


I wrote...

Writing the History of the Humanities

By Herman Paul,

Book cover of Writing the History of the Humanities

What is my book about?

What are the humanities? As the cluster of disciplines historically grouped together as “humanities” has grown and diversified to include media studies and digital studies alongside philosophy, art history, and musicology, the need to clearly define the field is pertinent. I have been able to bring together a remarkable group of esteemed and early-career scholars to provide an overview of the themes, questions, and methods central to current research on the history of the modern humanities. The volume draws from a wide range of case studies from diverse fields to provide a state-of-the-art overview of the field. In doing so, it challenges the rigid distinctions between disciplines and shows the variety of prisms through which historians of the humanities study the past.

The books I picked & why

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A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present

By Rens Bod, Lynn Richards (translator),

Book cover of A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present

Why this book?

If anyone has helped establish the history of the humanities as a field of study, it is Rens Bod. His New History of the Humanities is a monument of erudition, covering the study of human meaning-making across disciplines, centuries, and cultures. It is admittedly a difficult pill to swallow for someone who believes that all understanding starts with in-depth listening and careful contextualization. Nonetheless, I admire the book for two reasons. Against the prevalent view that the humanities are a product of the nineteenth or twentieth century, Bod argues that we are late heirs to “a centuries-old humanistic tradition.” Also, Bod encourages his readers to step outside of their professional comfort zones. Historians of the humanities need to be comparativists, unafraid of tracing ideas or practices across time and space.

A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present

By Rens Bod, Lynn Richards (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A New History of the Humanities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Many histories of science have been written, but A New History of the Humanities offers the first overarching history of the humanities from Antiquity to the present. There are already historical studies of musicology, logic, art history, linguistics, and historiography, but this volume gathers these, and many other humanities disciplines, into a single coherent account.

Its central theme is the way in which scholars throughout the ages and in virtually all civilizations have sought to identify patterns in texts, art, music, languages, literature, and the past. What rules can we apply if we wish to determine whether a tale about…


The Italian Renaissance and the Origins of the Modern Humanities: An Intellectual History, 1400-1800

By Christopher S. Celenza,

Book cover of The Italian Renaissance and the Origins of the Modern Humanities: An Intellectual History, 1400-1800

Why this book?

Whether or not one wants to make a case for the modern humanities deriving from the studia humanitatis in Renaissance Italy, it is undeniable that Renaissance humanism has been a source of endless fascination for humanities scholars. I enjoyed this book partly because it shows how this fascination led seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scholars to “recapitulate practices and mentalities that Italian Renaissance humanists pioneered.” It is such borrowing and reapplying that explains how a “humanistic tradition” could take shape. Another intriguing point is Celenza’s argument that this tradition has historically revolved as much around wisdom as about knowledge. While we modern academics know very well how to produce knowledge, what has happened to the wisdom part? Can the humanities survive, Celenza asks, without “reflection on the self and on life”?

The Italian Renaissance and the Origins of the Modern Humanities: An Intellectual History, 1400-1800

By Christopher S. Celenza,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Italian Renaissance and the Origins of the Modern Humanities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Christopher Celenza is one of the foremost contemporary scholars of the Renaissance. His ambitious new book focuses on the body of knowledge which we now call the humanities, charting its roots in the Italian Renaissance and exploring its development up to the Enlightenment. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the author shows how thinkers like Lorenzo Valla and Angelo Poliziano developed innovative ways to read texts closely, paying attention to historical context, developing methods to determine a text's authenticity, and taking the humanities seriously as a means of bettering human life. Alongside such novel reading practices, technology - the invention of…


Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

By Paul Reitter, Chad Wellmon,

Book cover of Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

Why this book?

In a sense, Reitter and Wellmon’s book is an extended answer to Celenza’s question. It convincingly shows that there is nothing new about our perception of the humanities having reached a point of “crisis.” Ever since the nineteenth century, humanities scholars have been taking on defense postures. Moreover, in these defenses, they have often presented humanities education as a remedy to various other crises – be it a crisis of morality in a technological age or a crisis of democracy in a neoliberal era. But should we continue to play this card? Reitter and Wellmon don’t believe that the humanities should teach moral values. Rightly, I think, they prefer to see the humanities as a space for second-order reflection on “possible meaningful forms of life for this world.”

Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

By Paul Reitter, Chad Wellmon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Permanent Crisis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Leads scholars and anyone who cares about the humanities into more effectively analyzing the fate of the humanities and digging into the very idea of the humanities as a way to find meaning and coherence in the world.

The humanities, considered by many as irrelevant for modern careers and hopelessly devoid of funding, seem to be in a perpetual state of crisis, at the mercy of modernizing and technological forces that are driving universities towards academic pursuits that pull in grant money and direct students to lucrative careers. But as Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon show, this crisis isn't new-in…


Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities

By Siraj Ahmed,

Book cover of Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities

Why this book?

How can the humanities offer a space for moral reflection if they are heirs of a tradition that has often been discriminatory, oppressive, and blatantly Eurocentric? Archaeology of Babel offers a much-needed corrective to books like Celenza’s by drawing attention to colonial abuses of philological scholarship (with grammars, dictionaries, and translations serving as instruments of colonial rule). The book’s subtitle is, of course, exaggerated: the humanities are better conceived of as a multi-layered heritage than as an edifice built on a single foundation. But the exaggeration serves a purpose: Ahmed invites us to “see ourselves as inheritors of a colonial legacy.” Apparently, the humanist tradition to which we are heirs is a mixed bag. Continuing it requires careful stock-taking: what do we want to take with us into the future?

Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities

By Siraj Ahmed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Archaeology of Babel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For more than three decades, preeminent scholars in comparative literature and postcolonial studies have called for a return to philology as the indispensable basis of critical method in the humanities. Against such calls, this book argues that the privilege philology has always enjoyed within the modern humanities silently reinforces a colonial hierarchy. In fact, each of philology's foundational innovations originally served British rule in India.

Tracing an unacknowledged history that extends from British Orientalist Sir William Jones to Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said and beyond, Archaeology of Babel excavates the epistemic transformation that was engendered on a global scale by…


The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II

By David A. Hollinger (editor),

Book cover of The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II

Why this book?

Fortunately, we are not the first generation that faces the challenge of rethinking and remaking the humanities in light of new concerns. If this volume shows anything, it is how thoroughly the postwar American humanities changed in just a couple of decades, due to increasing enrollment numbers, political demands for area studies (e.g., Soviet studies, Chinese studies), and the rise of fields like women’s studies and Black studies. What I find stimulating about this collection of essays is also its rich array of methodologies, from quantitative approaches (how did enrollment numbers change?) to curriculum analysis (what textbooks were assigned?) We need more books like this, about other periods and different parts of the world, if only to remind us that the humanities are always subject to remaking and reimagining.

The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II

By David A. Hollinger (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The role played by the humanities in reconciling American diversity-a diversity of both ideas and peoples-is not always appreciated. This volume of essays, commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, examines that role in the half century after World War II, when exceptional prosperity and population growth, coupled with America's expanded political interaction with the world abroad, presented American higher education with unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The humanities proved to be the site for important efforts to incorporate groups and doctrines that had once been excluded from the American cultural conversation. Edited and introduced by David Hollinger, this…


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