pile of books

Humanities = Geisteswissenschaften?

Some thoughts on a philosophy of science lost in translation.

(Or: "Digital Humanities" in Germany.)

[1] There have been many attempts to define Digital Humanities. Although I’m not historically entwined with the field for lack of age and thus missed out on a lot of debate, I think I have a fairly good grasp on the different directions this can take. But in all the gruntled soul-searching, ranging from manifestos to half-abandoned thoughts, I have yet to come across a simple point that I would like to raise:

[2] If DH is an international and interdisciplinary discipline, are we sure that we are all talking about the same thing and not just close-enough-that-no-one-notices-thing? Since disciplines have different traditions in different countries that cannot always be equated, maybe their point of intersection shouldn’t be either.

The Gist of It

[3] What I really mean to say is: If the dictionary translates “humanities” inadequately as “Geisteswissenschaften”(1) and if Germans use Digital Humanities and Digitale Geisteswissenschaften interchangeably, are they not subconsciously speaking about a subset of DH rather than what native speakers understand DH to be, simply because they think of something slightly else when they hear “humanities”?

[4] Geisteswissenschaften are, in the strict sense, philosophy, (art) history, philologies, musicology and religious studies. Traditionally, they do not include media/communication studies, performing arts, film studies, game studies, anthropology, ethnology or, more generally, that which can be called Kulturwissenschaften, cultural studies, something that has been defined as a larger umbrella term as well as a sibling to Geisteswissenschaften.

[5] There are many overlaps, of course. Between Geistes- and Kulturwissenschaften (both ever inching closer to each other), between Geistes– and Naturwissenschaften (when we think of disciplines like archaeology floating somewhere between humanities and natural sciences) and between Geistes- and Sozialwissenschaften (humanities and social sciences).

[6] The problem with the translation of Geisteswissenschaften as “humanities” and vice versa might then lie in their traditions more than in their present states and also in the wider implications that the theory of science behind them has for the way scholars think of themselves and go about their research.

[7] And the main question is what that means for the Digital Humanities / Geisteswissenschaften. (Spoiler alert: I will only share some thoughts in this post, not an answer.)


I talked about DH in front of German freshmen and used “Digital Humanities” as the title of my presentation. (It is common in German academia to use the English term.) Afterwards one of the students asked me why my title was a general reference to a digital humankind. Right. He simply didn’t know that “humanities” refers to “Geisteswissenschaften”. He only knew the word humanity. So I clarified this. “And besides”, I said, “there’s only one humankind so why would I use the plural?”

[8] As always, the proof is in the pudding. So the question might be rather moot and that’s why no one has bothered with it: Do Germans mean DH when they talk about DH? Well, do they present wildly different topics when they show up to the relevant conferences? Do they seem out of tune with everyone else, apart from the usual national idiosyncracies? I hope not.

[9] But! Let’s investigate this further still. Because despite the obvious overlap between the humanities and Geisteswissenschaften, I want to pull at the fringes as I noticed something curious in regard to DH specifically.

Let’s Google

[10] When googling “humanities geisteswissenschaften” together, I get an overwhelming amount of results concerning DH. On the first five pages, at least 34 out of 50 hits are about DH in a way that’s immediately obvious(2) – mostly because it’s German websites with “Digital Humanities” in their title or headline and an explanation somewhere in their text about “digitale Geisteswissenschaften”.

first google results for “humanities geisteswissenschaften”
page 2 of the results
page 3… you get the drift

[11] Now, I have no idea how Google’s search algorithms work so maybe the top results simply correlate to the type of profile Google has of me. And DH is a hot topic to be sure. Maybe some DH projects are more likely to have a web presence compared to non-digital projects. There are a lot of things I would have to consider if I wanted to study this seriously. But I’m not making a paper out of it. I’m making a blog post. So I’ll take the freedom of speculating:

[12] 1) Before DH, there was no reason to use “humanities” and “Geisteswissenschaften” interchangeably on a regular basis and in reference to a specific discipline because there was none that transferred from the English-speaking world to a German “philosophische Fakultät”(3) in quite the same, currently en vogue applied science-y way. Geisteswissenschaften are a very traditional branch of science in Germany and the emphasis on internationality (aka giving everything English or English-sounding names) is only a recent trend. It follows from an orientation towards the more international Naturwissenschaften, natural sciences.

[13] 2) This could be negligible if we were talking about a specific discipline like Kunstgeschichte -> art history. Pretty straightforward even despite different national scientific traditions. But we are talking about a range of disciplines that, if I may say so, seem occasionally ill-defined when it comes to the humanities and pretty conservatively defined when it comes to Geisteswissenschaften. So, broad understanding vs. narrow?

[14] 3) Not quite, because the humanities can also be reduced to English departments in the DH context, as we’ve seen, based on their impulses to the field. Fun fact: I feel like the German tradition of DH(4) has been just as much if not more strongly influenced by the historical disciplines rather than the philologies. Since no one has written a history of DH activities in Germany, I can provide no receipts for that impression. However, the fact that Cologne and Graz host strong DH centres in the German-speaking world might be a clue, seeing as they have a long tradition(5) in this regard.

So what?

[15] So what does it all mean? I’m not sure. I just know that my toes curl whenever someone on the Humanist list writes about the “interpretive” humanities, making it sound like that’s all there is to them.(6) I would agree that what scholars do is interpretive, only, I would never think of using that as a main classifier for our field of study – it’s a given. And it’s not wholly different to the interpretive act natural scientists perform when they make sense of readings, speculate on phenoma and basically wrap their head around something. It’s not the same, of course, there are different levels of ambiguity involved, different methods, different argumentations, different goals, different possibilities of falsification, different claims of “exactness” and provability. It’s the difference between hermeneutical and empirical sciences. But sciences they are both. At least to a German mind. They are both Wissenschaften.


An American colleague of mine recently told me about attending German classes. There, he was asked what his profession was.

He said: “Ich bin ein Wissenschaftler.”

“Oh, you’re a scientist!” the others replied.

“Nein,” he elaborated, “ich bin ein Geisteswissenschaftler.”

“Yeah,” the others said, now confused, “you’re a scientist.”


[16] Maybe it matters not. I think it does. Somewhere deep inside, or something. How you understand what you do and why you do it.

[17] Explanation time:

[18] In German academia, we have the main dichotomy of Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften.

[19] A Geisteswissenschaft is a “science of the mind”.

[20] A Naturwissenschaft is a “science of nature”.

[21] Both are Wissenschaften = sciences.

[22] The terminology was significantly shaped by Wilhelm Dilthey, a theologian and philosopher of the 19th century. He did this with Hegel’s understanding of an objective-objectified “Geist” (mind/spirit/intellect) in mind. No pun intended. To sum up, he was strongly influenced by the tradition of German idealism(7) and made a big distinction in the purpose of the sciences: The Naturwissenschaften “erklären” (explain). The Geisteswissenschaften “verstehen” (understand).

[23] The natural sciences explain processes in nature. The humanistic sciences try to understand historical-cultural events by reliving (Nacherleben, literally “re-experiencing”) a stranger’s existence through its expression in writing, speaking, gesturing, art etc.

[24] I will stop here with my little digression but it is worth reading what he wrote about Hermeneutik (hermeneutics) as the method of the Geisteswissenschaften.

[25] One can only hope to ever be so insightful.

Definitions… and Wikipedia

[26] Let’s get back to my whimsical investigation and turn to a point of comparison – Wikipedia!

[27] I like using Wikipedia in German and English. What fascinates me most is how the articles differ and what they link to as the apparent “equivalent” in the other language.

[28] So I’ve looked up some relevant connections:

Digital Humanities (German) links to Digital humanities (English).

[29] Pretty straightforward. Digital Humanities is translated as digitale Geisteswissenschaften in the German article. Furthermore, the German article specifies that DH is about the application of computational methods in both Geistes– and Kulturwissenschaften. I find this a very positive specification.

[30] Aside from this, the articles seem fairly similar at first glance, though the German one is much shorter. What’s also noticeable when looking at the other language articles from the perspective of the English one: Of the 18 languages, all of them (where I could read the script) have their own expression for “Digital Humanities” and thus differing titles, albeit with similar appearance. Only the German article uses the English name of the discipline as the main title and supplies the German translation in brackets. In the other articles, it’s the other way around.

Geisteswissenschaft (German) links to Geisteswissenschaft (English).

[31] Huh! Let’s quote the English article:

Geisteswissenschaften (German pronunciation:[ˈɡaɪstəsˌvɪsənʃaftən], “sciences of spirit”) is a set of human sciences such as philosophy, history, philology, social sciences, and sometimes even theology and jurisprudence, that are traditional in German universities. Most of its subject matter would come under the much larger humanities faculty in the typical English-speaking university, but it does not contain the arts.

[32] Sounds about right to me, except for the social sciences part. Funny that it says that it does not contain the arts because as I noted in footnote 3, the Geisteswissenschaften are housed in the “philosophische Fakultät” which the dictionary calls “arts faculty” 🤔

[33] But yeah, it does not contain the arts.

[34] Moving on…

Humanities (English) links to Studia_humanitatis#Humanities (German).

[35] This is interesting because the English article links to a small subsection of a pretty short German article on the humanist education programme from the Renaissance. Frankly, the Renaissance is all I can think of when I hear “humanities”. Subsequently, I struggle to identify as a “humanist”. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a “Humanist”. I am not. (Though that would be some great company to be in.)

[36] The German article doesn’t link back to the English one. It’s only available in Alemannic. I love that. And I love that one article can sometimes be seen as a different-language-version of another but not vice versa. Curious.

Wissenschaft (German) links to science (English).

[37] The German article is pretty generally about Wissenschaft and Wissenschaftlichkeit  which the dictionary tells me is “scientificity”. Sounds awkward. Wissenschaftlichkeit is a very common word in German. Translates better to good scholarly practice, I suppose.

[38] It’s only near the end that the article mentions the division of the sciences and that the division into Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences), Geisteswissenschaften (humanities) and Sozialwissenschaften (social sciences) is widespread.

[39] Contrast that with the English article. This is the second sentence:

Contemporary science is typically subdivided into the natural sciences, which study the material universe; the social sciences, which study people and societies; and the formal sciences, such as mathematics.

[40] Big difference. No humanities to be found. There is only one mention of the humanities in the whole article and it has to do with funding:

In the OECD, around two-thirds of research and development in scientific and technical fields is carried out by industry, and 20% and 10% respectively by universities and government. The government funding proportion in certain industries is higher, and it dominates research in social science and humanities.

[41] Clearly, in the English understanding the humanities and science are not just divided by method and object of study. They’re not even in the same realm of academia. If you didn’t know any better, you’d wonder why it’s possible to study both at a university, seeing as they are so fundamentally different. If there is no Wissenschaft to serve as an overarching principle of self-conception to science and humanities, what is there? Academia? Research? Colour me unconvinced.

[42] There is no philosophy of academia.

[43] (Is there?)

Wissenschaft (English) links nowhere.

[44] … so many things I could say about this 😀 I only came across the article by accident. It’s very short so here it is:

Wissenschaft is the German language term for any study or science that involves systematic research. Wissenschaft incorporates science, learning, knowledge, scholarship and implies that knowledge is a dynamic process discoverable for oneself, rather than something that is handed down. It did not necessarily imply empirical research.

Wissenschaft was the official ideology of German Universities during the 19th century. It emphasised the unity of teaching and individual research or discovery for the student. It suggests that education is a process of growing and becoming.

Some 19th century Americans visiting German universities interpreted Wissenschaft as meaning “pure science,” untainted by social purposes and opposed to the liberal arts.

Some contemporary scientists and philosophers interpret Wissenschaft as meaning any true knowledge or successful method, including philosophical, mathematical, and logical knowledge and methods.

[45] I wonder who wrote this. And why they left it like that. I’m not even sure what to say, except that the way this is phrased makes it all sound kind of questionable to me. “Education is a process of growing and becoming”? I mean, I guess! Would just like some type of source for that weird paragraph. Then again, this is Wikipedia we’re talking about.

[46] Here’s how I would define Wissenschaft, off the cuff: It is a methodologically sound inquiry into our world with the aim of generating knowledge. Wissenschaft actually means quite literally that, Wissen being the German word for knowledge.

[47] If we take the definition from the English science article, we see that it’s not that far off:

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

[48] Except for, you know, the “testable” part.

[49] So that is why Wissenschaft and science are linked together and serve as each other’s translation and are still quite apart in what they encompass.

[50] And that is why I wonder whether the same might not be true for the humanities and Geisteswissenschaften as well.

The Difference It Makes

[51] As you may notice, I struggle to explain how these differences manifest themselves in everyday practice. I only know that they manifest themselves, for example, in micro-irritations when I read articles like the one from Paul Rosenbloom from 2012, “Towards a Conceptual Framework for the Digital Humanities.”(8)

[52] It is a fine paper with good food for thought that I actually read because it was part of the Defining Digital Humanities reader(9) which I read from end to end. I was not overly bothered by the Anglocentric slant of the essay collection; that was to be expected. But I remember reading this article in particular, thinking: “But why?”

[53] It’s that feeling you get when you feel like something is self-explanatory but then you see it explained and you start questioning whether it’s so self-explanatory after all. And it’s that feeling you get when you see someone diligently working towards a solution for a problem you didn’t even know existed. And even learning that it exists for others, you can’t bring yourself to contemplate it truly because… why?

[54] In short, the essay is about how “the humanities can be viewed as part of science”(10) and what that might mean for DH. As has become clear by now, I hope, this is simply not something that would ever enter the mind of a German scholar (going out on a limb here!) and so it was that I breathed a sigh of relief when – after mounting incredulity – I got to this part:(11)

But whether the generic is called philosophy, or science, or even Wissenschaft — a German word for science that includes not only those academic disciplines typically labeled as science in English but also other areas of academic study, such as the humanities [Hansson 2008] — the key point is to consider how our understanding is increased across the full range of subjects of interest, along with the methods best able to increase this understanding.

[55] Phew! Up until that point I had not realized how big the schism between German and English academia is in this regard and the mention assuaged me somewhat, simply because it acknowledged the rift. Because before that paragraph, my anxiety had been growing with every sentence over what I had previously perceived as self-evident, wondering whether I had gone insane.

[56] That’s just one example. It may not make a difference in our approach to our objects of study but it makes a difference in our approach to the theory of study itself and the more DH looks towards creating its own theoretical foundations, the more these questions are going to come into play and the internationality of DH will be put to a test.

[57] Here’s another thought: Maybe the internationality of DH has become one of the main obstacles in creating these theoretical foundations?

[58] I have only been talking about the German concept of Geisteswissenschaften here but of course there are many more languages and concepts out there. For Wissenschaft you have scienza in Italian or nauka in Russian. For humanities you have sciences humaines in French or renwen in Chinese.(12) And so on, and so on.

[59] I would be interested in learning what difference these make to the self-understanding, disciplinary understanding and methodological conduct. The differences might be subtle but I believe they are there.

To Close

[60] My main annoyance stems from German academics who I hear talking about “Digital Humanities” all the time when really, they mean digitale Geisteswissenschaften. An argument could be made that the understanding of Geisteswissenschaften has expanded beyond the traditional stock of philosophy, history and philologies towards Kulturwissenschaften (still very much separate from social sciences but hey, I know enough people who mix them in there as well!). Indeed, an argument could be made that the German understanding of Geisteswissenschaften is rapidly moving towards the more all-encompassing humanities. That still wouldn’t change anything about the underlying assumptions about Wissenschaft though.

[61] I’m not even sure whether I’m annoyed by all of this. Annoyed might be the wrong word. I’m slightly befuddled and there seems to be no end to any of the confusion, except by seeking refuge in practical activities, far away from theory.

[62] But really: Why is no one talking about all of this? Or, if they are and I’ve just missed it, why aren’t they doing it more intensely? Do we think nothing good can come out of it? Why are we an international academic discipline then? Are we one?

[63] Do we even care?

Actually, Wikipedia To Close

[64] I feel like this post has already more endings than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but here we go, I have one more thought.

[65] A central concept in Wissenschaftstheorie – theory/philosophy of science – is the concept of Erkenntnis. That is what we are out to gain. Here are all the translations of the word that the dictionary gives me: insight, perception, knowledge, cognition, verdict, rationale, awareness [understanding], finding [discovery, also verdict], realization [awareness], cognizance [realization, perception], recognition [realization], award, understanding, enlightenment [bodhi], sentence, realizing, discovery.(13)

[66] And yet I struggle to translate it. A commonly used word in the German academic context is Erkenntnisinteresse and it is closely tied to the hermeneutic circle; any humanist no matter the discipline will do well to include a statement about this, at least in a longer thesis: It describes the reason for an interest in finding something. (And you can only look for something you have already found, so the circle goes.)

[67] You know what the German word for epistemology is? Erkenntnistheorie. The theory of Erkenntnis.

[68] In fact, there’s a fairly elaborate German Wikipedia article about Erkenntnis. It is not the same as knowledge, Wissen. But that is what the English article of epistemology translates epistēmē to, knowledge.

Erkenntnis (German) links to six languages, none of them English.

[69] The search for Erkenntnis is the central common denominator of Wissenschaften, maybe even more so the Geisteswissenschaften. And there isn’t an English word for it, let alone an awareness, as far as I can see. Why is that? Is the concept simply much too “verkopft” in German? (“Verkopft” translates to “overly intellectual” according to the dictionary and that is the meaning but it literally means, like… stuffing something into the headspace that doesn’t necessarily belong there… also nice is “kopflastig”, “head-heavy”… German certainly has a lot of words for those… 🤔)

[70] But honestly, this kind of boggles my mind. I know everyone’s probably like

whereas I’m all

but I would be really interested in hearing some thoughts on this.

[71] Any philosophers of science around?


(1) I will be using the dict.cc dictionary throughout: http://web.archive.org/web/20160922203148/http://www.dict.cc/?s=humanities ()

(2) Google search on 21 September 2016 with the search options set to no country or language in particular. ()

(3) Which hosts the disciplines of the humanities in German universities, though the dictionary tells me it translates to “arts faculty” – the arts are classified as a subset of the humanities, as far as I can gather. Though I don’t see “the performing arts” as Geisteswissenschaften, nor indeed anything that would venture near creative writing courses and the like, though they are deemed part of the humanities. Did I get this right? This is about to get really confusing. () (second reference )

(4) Known then as Fachinformatiken, information/computer sciences specific to a certain subject within the Geisteswissenschaften. I’m actually not sure what period we are talking about – I know there were DH activities in the 1960s and I assume these activities were, in the case of the Historische Fachinformatik (computer science applied to historical disciplines), established under that banner at least in the 1980s, if not the 1970s. But I don’t know when that final switch over to DH was. It must have been recent, in the last 5 years maybe? Because before then, at least in Europe the term eHumanities was still used as well so it cannot have been as clearcut as it seems now. ()

(5) And indeed professorships with Prof. Manfred Thaller and Prof. Ingo H. Kropač. ()

(6) I feel like this has happened but I cannot for the life of me find the email string now, even going through the archives. Maybe different words were used. Or maybe it just happened in my head. ()

(7) I will admit that I never much noticed it before – and it might not even have anything to do with this – but it drives me mad that there doesn’t seem to be a commonly used English translation of the German word “ideell”. It does not mean ideal (that would be “ideal”), it basically means… belonging to the realm of ideas/mind/intellect. The opposite of material. The dictionary gives me “ideational” but I have never encountered this outside of academia, whereas the German “ideell” is fairly widespread. One might even call the word overrated. I still miss it every time I try to write an academic text in English. Along with Erkenntnis. But we’ll get to that. ()

(8) Paul S. Rosenbloom, “Towards a Conceptual Framework for the Digital Humanities”, in: DHQ 6/2 (2012), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/6/2/000127/000127.html. ()

(9) Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan and Edward Vanhoutte (eds.), Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing 2013. ()

(10) Rosenbloom 2012, paragraph 2. ()

(11) Ibid. paragraph 10. ()

(12) There’s a lot more to say about all of these but I’m not the best qualified person for the job. I will gladly, however, at least refer to a new journal about the History of Humanities  and in particular to the editorial of the first issue from spring 2016, where some of these issues are addressed:

Rens Bod, Julia Kursell, Jaap Maat, Thijs Weststeijn, “A New Field: History of Humanities”, in: HOH 1/1 (2016), pp. 1-8, http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/68505. ()

(13) http://web.archive.org/web/20160922204650/http://www.dict.cc/?s=erkenntnis ()

Image Sources:

Featured image taken from unsplash.com (Patrick Tomasso).

Memes and gifs… I’ll refer to knowyourmeme.com (1 // 2 // 3).

Citation Recommendation:

Cite this blog post
Tessa Gengnagel (2016, September 23). Humanities = Geisteswissenschaften? parergon. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/so8i

Published by

Tessa Gengnagel

PhD student from Germany. Background in History / Medieval Latin / European Multimedia Arts & Cultural Heritage Studies. Interest in Digital Humanities.

One thought on “Humanities = Geisteswissenschaften?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search