Humanities Essays

Writing guide
Posted on February 1, 2008

In humanities essay you will ask in distinctive ways such questions as these: Who are we? What are our responsibilities to ourselves and to others? What is a good life? In what relation do we stand to the past? What do we owe future generations? You will try to answer these difficult questions, think about them, analyze possible variations, and write them down in a structured, logical, and meaningful way. Still, the questions remain largely the same. In the humanities essay, you are united by questions more than by answers. You will also need to interpret documents that already exist. It falls to the humanities to “comment on and appraise” texts, based on a faith that as we study the important artifacts of culture we grow more aware of who we are and what we have done. Humanities branch consists of such disciplines as history, philosophy, religion, literature, and the fine arts (music, art, and drama).

As a student you will write for many purposes your humanities essay assignments, two of which are to inform and to express. Expressive essay writing often begins as a personal response to an individual text. When you start to think about your sources for the analysis, ask yourself such questions like the following, they can help you to clear your reactions:

  • What do I feel when reading this material?
  • Why do I feel this way?
  • How am I changed or how could I imagine myself changing in response to this text?
  • Why is this material important to my essay topic?

Much of what is best about informative and persuasive essay writing in the humanities begins as a personal response. Practice the habit of analyzing the text even if it is not relevant to your classes. You will find it much easier to write your humanities essay in the future.

In your humanities classes you will frequently put your informative writing to use in arguing your point of view or some idea. Consensus is not the goal of arguments in the humanities. But this is not to say that all arguments are equally valid. Arguments must be supported and well reasoned. They can be plainly wrong and they can be irresponsible. One interpretation, argued well, can be clearly superior to and more compelling than another. You should practice your skills of argumentation to write successful humanities essay in your class.

You can be also asked to make claims in your humanities essay. Claims in the humanities commit you to making interpretations. An important part of any claim is an inference, a pattern of relation that you believe gives meaning to your subject.

You will have different types of assignments in your classes. The most common are analysis, research, book reports, and book reviews. There, you will study a text (written or spoken word, works or art, music, dance, drama) and then respond to it by analyzing, interpreting, evaluating, or critiquing it. In your essay you will need to present your conclusions as an argumentative thesis and then support and defend these conclusions with evidence drawn from the text and other relevant sources, to develop and test your ideas through inductive or deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning – the form of reasoning that makes observations of particular examples and then generalizes a whole group based on the findings. The greater the number of samples and the greater the consistency (similarity) of samples, the more likely the generalization is true. Nevertheless, induction can result only in probability, not in certainty.

Deductive reasoning – the form of reasoning that concerns itself with logically sound relationships (or validity) among statements. Deduction is almost mathematical in correctness, expressing these relationships as a series of three propositions:
Major premise – generalization about large group or class
Minor premise – statement a member of the large group or class
Conclusion – the statement that links the major and minor premises, declaring something to be true about the person cited in the minor premise.
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