We can think of all the ‘objects’ that we study in the arts and humanities as, broadly speaking, texts. They may be literary, historical, legal or philosophical written texts; visual texts such as paintings, buildings, artefacts, plays-in-performance and films; aural texts, as in the performance of music and in spoken languages; or symbolic texts, for example religious ceremonies, maps, architectural plans and music scores. These things are all ‘texts’ in the sense that they ‘stand for’ or represent the conditions of time and place in which they were created, and all the knowledge, ideas and activity that went into their making. We cannot re-create those conditions. And we can seldom study the actual knowledge, thoughts or intentions of their makers and doers, past or present. What we study are the results or outcomes of all these things – the written accounts, paintings, pieces of music, plays, maps, Acts of Parliament, buildings, and so on – that were and are being produced.
When we analyse and interpret these texts in appropriate ways, we can often get ‘back’ to some of the knowledge, ideas and activity that went into their making. But even when an author tells us how she wrote a particular novel and what she meant to say in it, or a painter records what was in his mind, those accounts are not the simple ‘truth’ of the matter. They are yet more texts which we have to scrutinise. All these texts are open to our interpretation of what they mean.
For instance, we know that the Battle of Waterloo was fought in June 1815. And if we know quite a lot about what happened then, that is because people made written, visual and symbolic records of it which have come down to us: official documents, records of speeches in Parliament, journals, diaries, letters, sketches, maps, and so on. These are what we study (not the battle itself, of course). If you were to compare different accounts of the battle – from the French or British side, or by men from different ranks of the armies – then you would probably find that, because they had different ‘points of view’, their versions of the event are different. They may even conflict. An historian has to study all these texts with a critical eye: weighing up the evidence for and against particular interpretations of what happened and why, before reaching conclusions. If Wellington himself had left an account of why he made certain decisions during the battle that would of course be very interesting. It would be important as ‘evidence’ which could not have come in a direct way from anyone else. But it would need to be seen as ‘what Wellington thought he was doing’, and be weighed in the balance along with the rest.
The different arts and humanities subjects are living traditions of thought and practice. When you study them, you learn:
how to analyse a range of different texts; interpret their meanings and evaluate them;
to think critically and independently;
how to communicate your ideas to others in speech and writing.
The meanings and significance of human activities are never just ‘in’ the texts you study, ready to jump out at you. You have to question, or ‘interrogate’, those texts and interpret their meanings for yourself. How to do this is what we will explore in the next few sections of the course.