Humanities and the Liberal Arts

Cambridge College—Humanities and the Liberal Arts



The following statements are only suggestive but they might be helpful in creating a unity, binding together the various components (or courses) making up a program in the Humanities. They are intended to be universal and are equally applicable to both graduate and undergraduate programs.

Humanities programs are frequently described in terms of subject-matters: a list of such subject-matters would almost always include literature, history, philosophy, probably foreign languages and a number of other components, often drawn from the social sciences or the fine arts. In other words, Humanities are defined in such a context by a list of subjects, and the reasons for the given list are never stated; there are, perhaps, no reasons only causes, mostly of an accidental kind, originating in convention, or historical or political factors stemming from the vicissitudes of an institution and the interests and expertise of faculty members.

It is unusual to find an institution founded, as Cambridge College was, on the basis of explicit, stated principles. It is much more common for the most important factors in an education to be, at best, hidden and concealed (so that their truth cannot be assessed), and, at worst, miasmic or non-existent.

The Greek word for “truth” is “alethes” and it is made up of two parts. The first part is the single letter “a” which is a privative prefix, like our “un-” or “dis-”, which denies or negates what follows, so that un-gracious means lacking grace or without grace. (English usage also has a-privative in a-moral and a-pathetic.)The second part of “alethes” comes from “lethe,” a participle of the verb “lanthano” meaning “to escape notice” or “to forget.” Thus, truth is that which is not forgotten or that which has not escaped notice. The Greeks chose to express this negatively, but we might put it positively and say truth is what is manifest and what we remember, although it would be necessary to explore and amplify the conventional meaning of memory.

True education does not hide itself, and that is why the principles of any program must be stated so that students and faculty alike can know, as fully as possible, what they are doing together and why. The principles are, in fact, the most significant part of an educational program, and if there are no principles there is no true learning, and if there are principles but they are unstated and concealed then the learner is being blindly processed. The freedom of the learner is denied.

The first principle of a Humanities program must be the freedom of the learner to learn. This freedom, however, does not consist in simply doing as the learner likes, but rather in learning as the learner likes, in a way that is understood and congenial. This, in turn, means that while learning is going on, the question of how it is continuing, in what it consists, must always be present, often implicitly as a background but at critical times explicitly, demanding the complete concentration of the learner.

The freedom of learning is not unrelated to the meaning of memory. In ordinary parlance, we remember something when we, as it were, look inwards and find what we seek from the past, our past; true learning requires us to do the same, to look within ourselves and recognize the truth of what we are saying or hearing or thinking, not by reference to the past but to eternity. In a way, we are creating—by recognizing—the truth which, in a strange way, we already have but without awareness of it.

Unless we suppose that learning is a totally random or magical thing, there must be specific ways in which we can come to learn or which will help us towards coming to learn. If we understand what these ways are, each of us can take increasing control of our own learning, and hence of our own life. Traditionally, these ways of learning (and, as may be realized, teaching) have been called the liberal arts.

These arts—which may be seen as habits, skills, and, in part, as tools—cannot exist separately, in abstraction, but are in the works that have been produced by their use. They also exist in the souls of those who have mastered them to any extent and possibly have produced such “works of art”; the liberal arts, as they are increasingly acquired, form the soul and become its structure.

The best way to master the liberal arts is by studying those works that exemplify them the most; to analyze those works and to reflect and meditate upon them in order to identify how the arts have been used and how they achieve the effects that they do. This is the reason why, for the most part, a Humanities program should depend upon what we think of as “classics,” or as “great books,” or what I prefer to call “good books.” By recognizing the arts that have gone into the composition of a good book (which, incidentally, may be long or short, and which does not even have to be a piece of writing, a text, but could be a painting or a sonata—any human product, any “good work”) we see how they may be used and to what ends, and can acquire the ability to use them ourselves.

Although what we learn is, in some sense, already within us, in another sense, we take it into ourselves—it becomes a conscious part of us, or, as some might say, we possess it. Obviously, with physical things, this cannot be understood literally, and it is worth considering in what way such things enter into us. To use an Aristotelian distinction, we take in the form and not the matter. But the form is that aspect or part or dimension of an object that is intelligible, so that, when our knowledge is complete, we take in all that can be understood.

We customarily speak of possessing knowledge but this hides the fact that what we learn also has the power to possess us. The relation between knower and known is, in large part, symmetrical or bi-conditional and any true education must take into consideration the power of knowledge to change us, for good or ill; it must be frankly admitted that some texts, some works may corrupt us.

The best antidote to such corruption is to be found in the liberal arts which lay bare not only what is being said and its moral (or immoral) purpose, but also how it is trying to achieve such a purpose. Ignorance of how things are achieved—that is, ignorance of the liberal arts—makes us a prey to any subversive manipulator or any wild nostrum or proposed panacea. The liberal arts free us from such possibilities, which is signified by one meaning of liberal; we are liberated.

Something—certainly not everything—should now be said about the nature and content of the liberal arts.

As has already been stated, when we learn we do not take the actual thing, the object of our knowledge, directly into our selves. We take in its form or forms. We do this, in fact, by using signs or notations. One thing stands for another. In our ordinary, everyday world this means that we use language, and the liberal arts are explicitly concerned with what that means.

Because all learning and teaching involve communication and a medium, the liberal arts deal with the various modes of signification; they deal with signs and systems of signs, they deal primarily with language. Historically, the arts of language came to be divided into three ways (and hence acquired the Latin name of the trivium, from tres, tria meaning three and via meaning way). It should also be noted that trivium stood for a place where three roads meet, and came to mean a public place, just as language is a public possession, a “place” where we can all meet; our sense of community may be gauged by the extent to which we share a language, in common.

In both the ancient and the medieval worlds the three arts of the trivium were called grammar, rhetoric, and logic (or dialectic). Any language or system of signs has, first, a grammar, that is, has a system of notation with rules by which individual letters and words—parts of speech, as we call them—may be combined and brought into relation with one another. Simply stated, at one level of meaning, grammar means the art of writing, the activity by which things are written, by which texts are composed.

But, given the existence of texts, of samples or examples of writing, it is possible to analyze what has been made and to state the rules by which letters and words may be combined into sentences. These rules—the syntax—constitute the science of writing, the second meaning of grammar. This is complicated, in practice, because such a science of writing needs to be written down, and so there is an inter-dependence between the art and the science.

The third meaning or mode of grammar’s signification is what is produced by the art of writing when it has done its work on a particular occasion, namely, the text or a book. Of these there are two essential kinds. One kind is the outcome of the art of writing, the other is the outcome of the science of writing. In the former case, we might have a poem or a novel, for example, and in the latter case a dictionary or thesaurus. There may well be a curious overlap, since a novel or poem might develop or even change the rules of writing by actually doing it and not by setting out a new set of rules. Chaucer did this, Shakespeare did this, and James Joyce did it. In the last example, we have not yet converted what Joyce did by art into science.

A final mode of the meaning of the art of grammar may be the art of reading. Clearly this is the inverse of writing. Given a product of the art of writing, it is possible to convert the physical signs—the black printed marks on the white paper—into sounds and into meaning. Reading, at one level, may mean simply the making of sounds signified by the visual marks, and the sounds, in turn, are seen as signifying things and relations; silent reading omits the first step. This raises the question of the difference between oral and literate cultures, but in either case the marks and sounds are taken into the reader as, for example, memories or ideas, and recognized, that is, known again. In a way, this may be thought of as an act of translation. We normally think of translation as taking place from one language to another, and this is quite proper, but the same kind of process must go on when we translate printed words into sounds or mental images, or, for that matter, mental images into printed words. We do not usually consider this, but the same is true when we speak to one another in conversation.

This leads to the second of the liberal arts, namely, rhetoric

Translation requires a combination of two aspects of grammar for it involves reading one text and then writing a new one. The new text, if it is successful, must correspond, in some way, to the old text which suggests that there is a higher level of generality, supplying the meaning to both versions of the text.

Rhetoric is usually thought of as the art of persuasive speaking, but this itself entails translation. The words of the speaker (carrying opinions which he himself may or may not hold) are heard by the audience who are invited to hold the expressed opinions; if the speaker is persuasive this will happen, and the opinions will have been translated or transferred from one person to another. Strictly, they have not been transferred since they remain where they originated, but they have been implanted or re-created in the audience.

While speaking, particularly public-speaking, uses language, it differs from the arts of writing and reading in that it is temporal rather than spatial; that is, the speaker speaks and is heard during a limited period of time, while the writer and reader can always return to a written text and study it repeatedly. The speaker has but one opportunity.

The constraint of time does not change the signs and their formal use (it does not change the grammar, for example) but it does require that a given subject be fitted into variable time limits, longer on one occasion and shorter on another. Technically, this is an art of condensation and expansion. To us, the most striking example of this may well be the speeches that Edward Everett and President Abraham Lincoln delivered at Gettysburg four months after the battle in 1863. Everett took two hours, and Lincoln two minutes. But Everett, who spoke first, acknowledged that Lincoln had expressed the issues more clearly in the two minutes than he himself had been able to do in two hours.

Condensation and expansion are usually accomplished by the use of figures of speech which thus become the elementary units for rhetorical analysis. Figures of speech are, implicitly, translations, for they are speaking in two languages at once. One language may be better known or better suited to expressing a particular topic, and such considerations may make one version preferable to the other, but basically they are held to say the same thing.

Figures of speech are, at bottom, analogies which appear to place the elements of two languages side by side to show the common form that lies behind their different elements. This is fairly evident when considering two languages such as English and Greek, or French and German, but even within one language such as English there are different vocabularies and technical sub-languages. It is revealing to translate from one technical sub-language, or from one style, into another, and supposedly literal statements turn out to be metaphorical or even, at the extreme, allegorical.

It is important to recognize that the task is not to identify the use of a figurative language and its attendant advantages and disadvantages, but rather to recognize that all languages are figurative and thus need continuing supervision to prevent them from being taken as literal.

Expansion occurs as analogies are identified and these are put into larger contexts, as large as myths, fables, and allegories. Alternatively, the whole pattern of figure and analogies may be condensed into a summary, or even into single word.

If rhetoric is the art of saying the same thing in two (or more) different languages, we are at least involved in four terms comparable to a mathematical proportion—a is to b as c is to d, or a:b::c:d. Here, one ratio or analogue, a:b corresponds to another ratio or analogue, c:d, because of the same relation between the members of each pair. To cite a simple or limited example, it may be said that the ship is to the sea as the camel is to the desert, The similarity of the relation between ship and sea and that between camel and desert is the common notion of a means and medium of transportation, of travel. But once having embarked on this making of analogues the way is open to continuing expansion and also to the making of condensed metaphors when the camel becomes “the ship of the desert.” But variations can turn out to be somewhat ridiculous, and nobody would refer to the ship as “the camel of the sea.” And yet clipper ships were called “Greyhounds of the sea,” and the unraveling of this metaphor would have to take into account not only the dog but also its speed on land. One analogy leads on and on, seemingly inexorably.

All this may sound somewhat abstract and remote, but given the fact that students are continually being asked to write explanations, explications, commentaries and interpretations of what they have read, it should be obvious how fundamental rhetoric is in education. Students read, let us say, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and are then expected to say what it means—to re-state it, to translate it into their own words. This is rhetoric.

What must be acknowledged is that proceeding by analogue moves easily to generality and it becomes necessary to distinguish with some precision the sameness and difference existing in the figures or analogues having the same grammatical form. This leads into a consideration of the third of the liberal arts, logic.

It is usually taken for granted that there are forms in things, ideas and concepts in minds, and what might be called “essences” which exist independently of any particular instance or sample in space and time. Language presupposes that its words and shapes express or stand for abstract forms (whether recognized or not); this is what justifies us calling words notations—that is, that they stand for something else, they stand for what is noted.

Discourse, spoken or written, is inextricably bound up with classes, the members of which have similarities or common properties enabling them to be combined, divided, and sub-divided, using their identities and differences to arrange them in analogical patterns. These may be called universals.

Long series of arguments may be generated, guided by the way in which individuals, sub-classes and classes relate to each other, defined in the laws of logic. These systems of ideas may be grasped only by involved literary devices and the laws of logic are the necessary tools for the refinement of technical and professional knowledge. The classic example is the use of the syllogism by which new knowledge is generated out of old; when we reach the conclusion it is different from either of the premises, but comes out of their combination.

In any discourse or text, it is possible to trace the steps from one statement to the next and to define or describe the transition and to evaluate its basis and validity.

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The three liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic have been given a somewhat summary description and, because of the nature of our own discourse and understanding, they have been dealt with separately. This is necessary but also misleading, for any and every notation is susceptible of analysis by all three of the arts. Indeed, to understand anything, all three arts MUST be used; every sign or notation has all three references.

The complexity and subtlety of such an analysis and the way in which each art carries with it the ghosts, as it were, of the other two, has led to arbitrary and simplistic points of view, each maintaining that only one of the arts is necessary and that the others should be ignored as non-existent or insignificant.

In the intellectual history of mankind there have been frequent struggles between the three arts or, rather, between the proponents of these arts. The first major example of this on record is that between the Sophists, on the one hand, and Socrates and Plato, on the other. More will be said of this later.

In the heyday of the Hellenistic Library at Alexandria, grammar claimed to be the fundamental and over-arching study. In Roman times, the notion of rhetoric, of eloquence, dominated the thinking of men like Cicero and Quintilian, and formed the basis for what was deemed the best education. At certain periods in medieval times, logic took precedence and scholastic debates were of the most intricate and sophisticated kind; the arguments came to be of such a pettifogging kind that they were discredited ultimately, were called “logic-chopping,” and caused the honorable title of trivium to be converted into the derogatory term trivial.

These struggles for supremacy—intellectual supremacy, if viewed as ideals, and political supremacy, if viewed as between scholars and writers—are reflected in Plato’s dialogue Charmides. There it is put in somewhat different terms, as the search for the science of sciences, that is, for an architectonic knowledge that would put all other knowledge into a hierarchically ordered system and turn empirical opinions into genuine knowledge.

Reference was made above to the Sophists who, in 5th century Hellas, claimed to teach a science of sciences, an all-powerful skill, that would enable its adherents and practitioners to have their own way. Not to rule, for that might imply responsibilities for governing others, but to have their own way.

The Sophists were opposed by Socrates who questioned them (in conversations imaged in the Platonic dialogues such as the Protagoras, the Hippias, and the Gorgias). His questioning laid bare, if we are to believe Plato, the presuppositions of their teaching: that the purpose of knowledge is power over others and the that desired power is achieved by rhetoric. What is curious is that since the public declaration of such a purpose puts listeners on their guard and makes its achievement more difficult, it is never spoken; there exists a silent conspiracy. It is hard—but not impossible—to apply the liberal arts to silence.

Socrates opposed this by taking as his principles the Delphic Oracle’s injunctions, “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much.” He claimed that the god of Delphi had given him a mission, to find some one wiser than himself, but it had resulted in a recognition that he himself was ignorant, as, apparently, were those he questioned, but he knew it and they did not. His characterization of himself, that he knew that he did not know, is, on the face of it, paradoxical, and the paradox is only heightened when it is realized that in

Greek he could have been saying that he knew that which (i.e. what) he did not know, and even that he knew because he did not know. The saying invites a liberal arts analysis.

Analyzing the Socrates who appears in the Platonic dialogues, it appears that Plato, at any rate, was quite clear that it is not possible to find a “science of sciences,” but rather that we must give equal value to the three arts of the trivium. The dialogues are superb in the way that they move smoothly and effortlessly from a part of the conversation which is dominated by one of the arts into another part dominated by another of the arts. Plato does not allow any one art to become supreme and we find grammar, rhetoric and logic being given equal importance in the search for the knowledge which is virtue. Because of this parity, I prefer to reserve the term “dialectic” for Plato’s embodiment of all three arts in his dialogues. Thus dialectic is greater than logic. Of course, the dialogues are also poems and may be additionally analyzed in terms of poetics.

It would have been easier, perhaps, for a thinker to have opposed the rhetoric of the Sophists with cool, calculated logic, for example, and possibly an Aristotle would have done it. But this would have suffered from exactly the same intellectual defect as the Sophists themselves—giving primacy to one of the liberal arts. Plato is too wise to do this for he knows that the arts are equally significant and that as they co-exist they are self-referring.

The need for true education is as great in our own day as it has ever been, and we need to restore the balance between the three liberal arts. At the moment we are back with the Sophists, in a certain sense, and the work of Marshall McLuhan has shown us that the electronic media has, as its essential content, itself. The medium is the message, that is, that rhetoric is triumphant.

The consequence of this is that there are no purposes to be served, no values to be achieved, other than to continue being persuasive and persuaded—of nothing but itself. This is a mindless exercise for the ever-shifting images of the media point to nothing beyond themselves and any attempt to provide an order or unity to a life is doomed to failure. The restoration of grammar and logic to our culture is of paramount importance.

While we seek for some measure of unity in our personal lives and in our political affairs, we must understand that any viable unity is an ongoing revelation in and through time. It is not a hard and fast system, good for all time. Again, Plato is well aware of this and shows philosophy as the ongoing conversation between human beings who seek the truth. But the truth is a process revealed in the continuing analysis by and application of the liberal arts of the trivium to what we say to each other, to our human conversations.

The Humanities have human freedom as their ultimate subject-matter, and since this freedom is to be found in the products of the liberal arts it is not necessary to provide a list of “good works.” There are many such “good works” and all that I can say is that the study of the Platonic dialogues has always been of great value to me, surpassing that of any other texts. The theme of the dialogues is always, implicitly or explicitly, “how a

man should live,” and if we wish to live worthy and noble lives it must be understood that virtue is knowledge. True education is concerned with both virtue and knowledge, and a study of the Humanities leads us towards what is essentially human.

The thoughts expressed here cannot be implemented, deductively, in any program. They suggest a spirit in which true education may be carried out. During the course of study, students and faculty alike may increasingly become aware of the liberal arts described here and increasingly master them or, rather, increasingly practice them; one does not master them but one may become a master of them, that is, one may come to use them habitually because they have become an enduring structure of the soul,

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1. Traditionally, the liberal arts were seven in number, The three named and described above are the arts that are relevant to systems of notation we call languages. After these had been studied for some time, the four remaining arts (called the quadrivium) were introduced. They extended the arts of the trivium to the language of mathematics. The four arts were called arithmetic, geometry, harmonics (or music, in one of its many senses), and astronomy. Arithmetic provided a mathematical grammar, with numbers as parts of speech, with laws of notation and operation: geometry provides a parallel grammar with independent elements of space and rhetorical means of translation. These two arts developed side by side and still show their analogical and figurative relationships (as in ‘square numbers’ and ‘triangles’). The elements of both arithmetic and geometry are understood to be at rest, but when they are put into motion we get harmonics/music—numbers in motion—and astronomy—or the mathematical theory of movement in space.

The quadrivium in no way displaces the trivium; it merely applies the distinctions of the trivium to a more specialized and refined subject-matter.

2. The arts of the trivium may be described in terms which are derived from logic.

A notation, a word is a lifeless thing in itself. It becomes living and potent when we put a meaning or use on it. The Latin word for put or put upon is impono, and so the putting of usage on words is called imposition.

A word has a first imposition when it is understood to refer to something else, when it is used to signify an object, say, when “book” is taken to mean the text I am reading. The same word can be used to refer simply to itself, when it is said “Book is a noun.” This usage is called second imposition. It is also possible to refer to the word “book” and not to mean either the object or the part of speech; for example, it could be said that “book” has four letters. This is zero imposition.

The latter is not very important usually, but the science of grammar is called the science of second impositions (since it deals with words as parts of speech) and the practice of writing, or the art of grammar, is the art of first impositions.

The idea of imposition is helpful in making us realize that, given a word, we have the freedom to place upon it the way it should be understood, what its reference is—whether to itself or to something else. While we have this freedom, we also have the responsibility, if we wish to understand and to be understood, to identify the imposition that concerns us. Indeed, they all may concern us, but we must learn to separate them from one another in dealing with them.

When words are taken in their first imposition, that is, as referring to something beyond themselves, or as notations, it is necessary to distinguish the different kinds of things which are signified by the same word or sign. Clearly “book” can signify a concrete object, an individual thing, but it can also signify a collection, aggregate or class of such objects. Beyond either one there is also the universal.

When a word, in the first imposition, refers to a specific object, a book, or to a collection of such books, it is said to have the first intention. When the same word refers to a universal it has the second intention. Logic thus becomes the science of second intentions.

In some discourses—those we think of as elevated or sublime—the words, having been taken in the first intention, suddenly reveal the second intention, and we are no longer considering this man, or even these men, but Man. Since the terms can have both intentions, even when we focus on one of them, the other is always present.

Although we may be concentrating on only one aspect of the impositions and intentions, the fact remains that they are all always present and the liberal artist must be able to identify and distinguish them all. A great deal of the confusion in discourse, whether spoken or written, is due to the omission or inability to make these distinctions.

Much of what is needed tends to be concealed, so that, for example, taking words as names hides the radical analogical nature of notations. The notations are imitations of things and the thing as known imitates the mode of notation by which it is known. In casual terms, if we see things through a rose-colored lens, everything will appear rosy. The structure of our language structures what we can know and how we can know it. We can—and do—invent new languages (or extend the old) but the same principle still applies.

This cannot be avoided but it must be recognized as a condition of our knowing, and the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic make clear the nature of that condition, and thus clarify the knowledge itself. It knows itself for what it is, as we, too, know ourselves.