Lorraine Daston highlights the lack of a systematic approach to knowledge (epistemology) in the humanities, unlike in the sciences. This gap affects the perception and value of the humanities in education and society. Daston suggests the emerging field of the history of the humanities could lead to exploring this area, stressing the importance of developing an epistemology of the humanities to validate its methods and significance.

Sadly, it’s this perceived lack of ‘rigour’ which means that humanities departments, whose alumni are needed more than ever in the world of technology, tend to be cut and defunded compared to more ‘scientific’ faculty areas.

DALL-E 3 image: An abstract representation of the concept of epistemology in the humanities and sciences.
In the past decade a new field called the history of the humanities has been assembled out of pieces previously belonging to the history of learning, disciplinary histories, the history of science, and intellectual history. The new specialty tends to be more widely cultivated in languages that had never narrowed their vernacular cognates of the Latin scientia to refer only to the natural sciences, such as those of Dutch and German. So far, its practitioners have not been particularly interested in questions of epistemology. But just as the history of science has long served as a stimulus and sparring partner to the philosophy of science, perhaps the history of the humanities will eventually engender a philosophical counterpart. Even if it did, though, the question would remain: What would be the point? Just as many scientists query the need for an epistemology of science, many humanists may find an epistemology of the humanities superfluous: we know how to do what we do, and we’ll just get on with it, thank you very much.

I’m not so sure we really know how we know what we know. And even if we did, a great number of intelligent, well-educated people, our ideal readers and potential students, even our colleagues in other departments, wonder why what we teach and write counts as knowledge. The first step in justifying our ways of knowing to these doubters would be to justify them to ourselves.

Source: How We Know What We Know | In the Moment

Image: DALL-E 3