“Numanities” is the leading research concept of ISI. Its outlets include the yearly International Congress of Numanities (ICoN), a specific book series (to be launched in 2015) and various individual publications and projects.

NOTE: The following document is a shortened version of the essay “The role of the humanities in contemporary society: a manifesto of NUMANITIES”, by Dario Martinelli, forthcoming in 2014.

The crisis of the humanities

The humanities are currently facing a multilayered type of crisis that involve, at the same time (and in organic fashion), their impact on, and role within, society; their popularity among students and scholars; and ultimately their identity as producers and promoters of knowledge.

Modern western society, with its primarily-economic changes and the establishment of new priorities (both, often, in a neocapitalistic direction), has been identified as the strongest cause of such crisis, not only creating the conditions for, but in fact encouraging it. As of 2012, for instance, no more than 0.45% of American federal research money or 1.06% of the EU research budget have been invested on humanistic research.

Most intellectuals predictably reacted with indignation to such data, trying instead to emphasize the enormous (and by all means not anachronistic) heritage that the humanities bring to our society. “Intellectual strength, profoundness and independence” (Prof. Peter André-Alt, Free University of Berlin); the ability “to develop habits of mind, a sense of how to reason rigorously” (Dr. Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities at Harvard University); the creation of “knowledge, skills, and understanding [needed] to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences), are only few of the many values commonly associated to the humanities and currently endangered in diverse ways.

In some cases (such as Prof. John Paul Russo, from University of Miami or Dr. Diana E. Sheets, from University of Illinois, respectively), the crisis has been identified with academic and scientific changes more or less inherent to the humanities, such as the impact of new (mostly digital) technologies or the saturation in the politics of social justice, both to the detriment of a more solid, challenging and classical cultural education.

The need for critical and self-critical discussion

A short, and perhaps incomplete, summary of the crisis may be identified in seven points. Generally speaking, the humanities are currently:

1)      lacking economic relevance;
2)      perceived as “unpractical” and unemployable;
3)      not matching with technological development;
4)      receiving little or no funding from institutions;
5)      experiencing a decrease of students;
6)      experiencing a decrease of scholarly interest;
7)      losing centrality in society;

The impact of such points on the humanities obviously affects strictly scientific aspects. The humanities are in a constant process of theoretical and methodological redefinition: what kind of scholar is a humanist nowadays? What does humanistic research consist of? What are its case-studies? What is the actual relationship between the humanities and technology? Are humanities and social sciences the same thing, by now? What is, really, interdisciplinarity?

We need to create more proactive platforms to discuss the current crisis and its possible solutions, in a spirit that should be both critical and self-critical. While, indeed, it is true that society (the way it is economically and institutionally structured today) remains the main responsible for this difficult phase, to simply blame external factors may prevent the humanists’ community from a complete and fair assessment of the situation. To say it all, and at least to some extent, our primary fault as humanists has been that of stubbornly thinking that the world could radically change around us, but never really affect us, as it instead did: we felt that our identity was sacred, our reputation indisputable and our position untouchable. We witnessed the changes in society, but we either did not understand their implications, or we simply let them happen in the way they did (not rarely supporting them, in the name of personal interests).

A Numanities manifesto

”Numanities” (i.e., New Humanities) is an umbrella term seeking to unify the various fields, approaches and also potentials of the humanities in the context, dynamics and problems of current societies. They aim to animate a concerted, critical and self-critical, discussion that range from scientific and theoretical questions to social, cultural and political ones.

In the former function, Numanities seek to cover

1) Traditional fields, as long as their research paths are focused on issues of current concern, and do not see “past”, “tradition”, “identity” as crystallized entities, alien to development and redefinition;

2) New fields, recently emerged to meet the demands of societal changes (e.g., digital humanities). As we shall see later, the humanities should provide a source of “unbiased”, “curious” and “critical” analysis to these changes;

3) Interdisciplinary dialogues between humanities and social and/or natural sciences (namely: fields where the interdisciplinary combination was crucial in updating and upgrading existing research paradigms – e.g., multimodal studies)

4) Humanities “in disguise”, that is, those fields (currently belonging to other spheres, particularly social sciences), whose “spirit”, attitude and methodologies remain rooted in a humanistic vision of the world (e.g., soft power theories, future studies, etc.);

5) Applied humanities, perhaps dispelling that general reputation of “detachment from reality” that the field seems to have recently acquired in common perception.

In the latter function, Numanities aim to inspire a debate on the following points:

1) Rethink the position of humanities in modern society. Regardless of the importance that they may acquire in present or future scenarios, humanities should have a recognizable role in research and everyday practices. The key-word, here, should be “dignity”. In order to recover dignity, humanities must rethink their position and role at all levels, from the choice of research topics to the selection of the right platform to showcase them; from the simple approach to writing a project application, to the whole way they read and interpret the world.

2) Reestablish the dialogue between humanities and institutions, through a rediscovery of empirical research. Institutions are granting less and less funds to humanities, mostly because they sense a lack of concreteness and profitability of the field: to an extent, the attitude of a few humanists is making things worse. The concept of “intellectual” has somehow split into two separate categories that do not communicate with (and in fact despite) each other: an anti-establishment “bohemian outcast” on the one hand, and the business-oriented “manager” of knowledge on the other. The former has only the talent, the latter only the money, much to the detriment of cultural and intellectual progress. What got lost in the process is the “architect” of knowledge: the intellectual who combines the vision with the engineering, the abstract with the concrete. Some humanists seem to think that such a figure would be entirely new and inappropriate for humanities: on the contrary, this is the most ancient humanist there is. In fact, this was the case of the founding era of humanism: the “Renaissance man” was eclectic, avant-garde and visionary, and yet extraordinarily rational and concrete.

There is a chance that the crisis of humanities is not only due to the wild neo-capitalistic mentality of most modern societies (an undeniable factor, of course), but also to those many humanists who got stuck somewhere between a romantic myth and a postmodern disillusionment of their ability to actually be empirical and aware of the world.

3) Remind humanist scholars and the rest of the world that humanities have always taken progressive stands within societies, not Luddite ones. There is a risk, for humanists, to become uncritical scholars of the past, and occupy the scholarly niches of traditions, folklore, philology, with an exclusive interest for memory, conservation and identity. While these, in themselves, are enterprises of enormous value (there is no need to explain why), the crucial contact with values is occasionally endangered: an attitude of the type “traditions must be preserved because they are traditions” turns a good opportunity for reflecting upon a community’s identity and its future, into a tautological nostalgia for the “good old days”.

Digital technologies are one of the best examples of how, generally speaking, technophobic humanists are missing an occasion to connect the dots across past, present and future. The sight of an ebook causes a melancholic preoccupation on how people are not reading real books anymore, how libraries are emptier, and so forth. But what is a real book? Is it by any chance that printed object that before Guthenberg was not a real book? A tradition is always preceded by another tradition: the risk is not to jump in defense of tradition, or integrity, or identity, but rather of familiarity. Maybe we defend what we know best, not what is best in principle.

The point in Numanities is not to accept new technologies in principle (we shall see it later), but rather to give a proper, careful scrutiny at them: scientific criticism, when needed, should be grounded and motivated by scientific, not nostalgic, claims.

5) In the current context of economical, political and ecological struggles, to be progressive should mean to be ethically-minded, sustainable, quality of life-oriented and dignity of life-based. In the words of Gandhi first and Schumacher later, progress is implemented through appropriate technologies. “Progress” is not necessarily represented by every single thing that is newer, bigger, faster: a critical (therefore, intimately humanistic) view seeks progress in what is tailored for the real needs and demands of a given community (indeed: what is “appropriate”, and that – as we have learned – may also mean existing, local, slow technologies).

Humanities have the theoretical skills to offer a constructive and critical view on these matters: numanities would like to reestablish this interest and additionally cultivate operative and concrete tools not to let those skills wasted in purely abstract, distant-from-reality formulations.

To formulate the question in a catchy manner, the point about progress is not about going forwards or backwards. The point is to go towards. Towards the people, towards the society, towards the environment, towards life.

6) Promote those values that the other fields of knowledge are less equipped to formulate. It is not a feeling of superiority, but – on the contrary – a claim for nurturing skills and identities in the most appropriate way. If natural sciences study and create what makes life possible, humanities study and create what makes life worthwhile. Creativity, beauty, quality of life, dignity of life, empathy, tolerance, culture, reflection… this is what humanities do best, and what humanities are mostly for. In a very appropriate pick of words, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences define the humanities as “the keeper of the republic”.

7) Strive for the excellence of humanities. As Dr. Sheets suggested, humanities have to restore “rigorous standards of academic excellence”: changes in society aside, this is one prominent factor worsening the reputation of humanities. With the increase of mediocre research inputs, it is more and more difficult for institutions to spot excellence. Our reply to the system, besides the other tautological refrain “Humanities are humanities, and therefore cannot be ignored”, has often little to do with high-quality, groundbreaking research.

Modern societies have taken a sad, yet important decision: they have decided that culture, arts and philosophy are not endlessly sustainable: in fact, they are just sustainable in small amounts. Humanists know that this is a wrong decision, but they are not able to produce valid counterarguments, besides those that run in circles, nor do they manage to adapt to the new picture (save some exceptions). Time has come for us to prove how excellent, determined, sustainable, appropriate and concrete humanities are capable of being. We will need good ideas, which is fine, because humanities are about ideas; we will need to learn the new languages of modern society, which is still fine, because languages are a field of humanities; and we will need to be rational, humble and practical, which is the only down-side, as these qualities used to be typical of humanities, but we partly lost contact with them.

The role of semiotics

Semiotics can and should be part of numanities. As Thomas Sebeok once said, semiotics is the name that philosophy took during the 20th century: boldness aside, semiotics did have the merit to bring communication and mediation at the center of the philosophical discussion, in a time, the last century, where indeed these two phenomena had become central in general.

Semiotics was also a forerunner of truly interdisciplinary studies, during difficult decades like the 1960’s and the 1970’s, when academic programs and research strategies were rather strict and monolithic. Semiotics produced a refreshing type of intellectual, able to connect the dots of several disciplines through a common methodology. Eventually, that attitude transcended the boundaries of humanities, and started involving more and more areas of natural sciences (zoosemiotics, cybersemiotics, etc.), becoming a pole of attraction for many scholars from the most diverse fields. Of course, in more recent years, this whole enterprise was damaged by some semioticians’ superficiality and arrogance (ending up alienating some sympathies from other fields), but if we keep the focus on the discipline’s potentials and applications, we still get a very valuable set of tools for understanding society. It is no coincidence that some recently-developed disciplines (like multimodal or cultural studies) have incorporated semiotic methodologies in their paradigm.

Third: although in different shapes and degrees, semioticians have always kept an eye opened on ethical and political issues, often managing to compromise scientific impartiality with socially-committed statements. This has kept the field in close, concrete and proactive contact with reality as such, not only observing of it (a primary task for numanities, as we have seen).

Even readers who are not deeply familiar with semiotics may recall at least the cases of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) or Ferruccio Rossi-Landi’s works on language and ideology (e.g., 1972). Plus, there is an entire (lesser known to non-specialists) tradition of specific applications of the semiotic paradigm to ethical issues, up to straight identifications of semiotics with ethics (as in Ponzio-Petrilli’s project of semioethics). Other applications include Stefani 1985 and 1989 (musical semiotics with peace studies), Stefani-Guerra 2005 (semiotics with social integration and art-therapy), Habermas 1998 (semiotics with communicative ethics), Tarasti 1997 and 2000 (on the general necessity of ethically-minded research in semiotics), and the whole path on the semiotics of resistance, from Eco 1997 to Bankov 2004, then to Tarasti 2005, and (on a specific zoosemiotic application) to Martinelli 2008.

Providing a commentary on society and reality is, to a certain extent, a moral duty for humanists. If, as we mentioned above, the humanities’ object of study is “making life worthwhile”, then – once again – contributing to the reinforcement of values like culture, quality of life, tolerance, and so forth, cannot be anything else than an ethical statement. Let us not be afraid of that: there are no ghosts of authoritative regimes’ propaganda, here. It is an entirely democratic enterprise that simply takes to the letter the necessity of creating a “value-based” society.

Last, but definitely not least, we have the theoretical mission of semiotics: the study of signs, codes, communication, representation, and so forth. It would be extremely difficult to engage into a thorough analysis of modern society, without having a proper set of tools to understand the dynamics and the signification of the various phenomena involved. Semiotics possesses those tools.

For all these reasons, there is a future for humanities, and one can see a prominent role for semiotics in the process, therefore a future for semiotics too. Let us once again repeat the plea for “appropriate technologies”: the action of going “towards” implies both a reinforcement of memory, tradition and identity (humanities should treasure the strength and skills acquired in millennia of history), and proactive adaptation to present needs and demands (humanities have to be flexible, innovative, up-to-date).

When we think about it: to constantly put one’s self into discussion, to actively accept changes in life, and yet to maintain integrity… Is this not the best definition of “growing up”?


(for the full article)

“Addressing a Decline in Humanities Enrollment” (2013). Harvard Magazine. Retrieved 28 October 2013: http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/06/reinvigorating-the-humanities

André-Alt, Peter (2012). “Humanities in modern society”. Speech delivered at the German House, New York, 4 April 2012.

Bankov, Kristian (2004). “Infinite Semiosis and Resistance.” From Nature to Psyche (ed. by Eero Tarasti). Helsinki/Imatra: International Semiotics Institute: 175-181

Barthes, Roland (1957). Mythologies. Paris: Editions de Seuil.

Bopry, Jeanette (2002). “Semiotics, Epistemology, and Inquiry”. Teaching and Learning 17/1: 5-18.

Broadhead, Richard H. et al. (eds.) (2013). The Heart of the Matter – The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Eco, Umberto (1997). Kant e l’ornitorinco. Milano: Bompiani.

Habermas, Jürgen (1998). The inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Martinelli, Dario (2009). “Notes on the theoretical program of biosemiotics; or what exactly am I doing here?”. Communication: understanding/misunderstanding (ed. by Eero Tarasti). Helsinki-Imatra: International Semiotics Institute: 1022-1032.

Martinelli, Dario (2010). A Critical Companion to Zoosemiotics: People, Paths, Ideas. Berlin/New York: Springer.

Menton, Jane Darby (2013). “Decline of the humanities up for debate”. Yale Daily News, 17 September 2013. Retrieved 28 October 2013: http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/09/17/women-in-the-humanities/

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2010). Not for Profit – Why Democrady Needs the Humanities. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Rossi-Landi, Ferruccio (1972). Semiotica e ideologia. Milano: Bompiani.

Russo, John Paul (1998), “The Humanities in a Technological Society”, Humanitas, XI/1: 14-41.

Schmidt, Benjamin (2013). “Sapping Attention”. Retrieved 28 October 2013: http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2013_06_01_archive.html

Sheets, Diana E. “The Crisis in the Humanities: Why Today’s Educational and Cultural Experts Can’t and Won’t Resolve the Failings of the Liberal Arts”. Huffington Post, 15-7-2013. Retrieved October, 1, 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-diana-e-sheets/the-crisis-in-the-humanit_b_3588171.html

Siegel, Lee (2013). “Who Ruined the Humanities?”. Wall Street Journal 12 July 2013. Retrieved 28 October 2013: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323823004578595803296798048

Stefani, Gino (1985). Competenza musicale e cultura della pace. Bologna: CLUEB.

Stefani, Gino (1989). Musica con coscienza. Roma: Paoline.

Stefani, Gino and Guerra, Stefania (eds.) (2005). Dizionario della musica nella globalità dei lingaggi. Lucca: LIM

Tarasti, Eero (2005). ”Vastarinnan Semiotiikkaa: Oleminen, Muisti, Historia – Merkkien Vastavirta”. Synteesi, 1/2005: 2-29.

Tarasti, Eero (2000). Existential Semiotics. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Terras, Marisa et al. (2013) “The Humanities Matter!” Infographic. Retrieved 28 October 2013: http://4humanities.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/humanitiesmatter300.pdf