The human sciences are systematic inquiries into the conduct and creations of human beings. The oldest of the human sciences are very old indeed: the work of ancient grammarians who discerned the hidden rules that govern spoken Sanskrit or Latin; of the logicians and rhetoricians who schematized and classified patterns of valid and plausible argument; of the historians who recorded ephemeral events and attempted to draw general conclusions from them. The newest are as fresh as rational choice theory and demographic models of fertility and mortality. Like all sciences, the human sciences aim to produce knowledge that goes beyond the immediate and the local: they seek patterns, regularities, generalizations, and explanations. And like all sciences, the human sciences are constantly and intensely concerned with questions of evidence: what kinds, how much, and in what combination do conclusions require? The standards for, say, economics and linguistics are as different from one another as those for astronomy and biology. Finally, like all sciences, the human sciences must solve the problem of which objects will reward sustained inquiry and which not: only in the eighteenth century did the market appear to be regular enough in its workings to merit analysis, spawning the science of political economy; only in the nineteenth century were the vicissitudes of birth and death rates considered stable enough to justify a science of demography.
There are three urgent reasons for rethinking the history of the human sciences now. First, the nineteenth-century division between the natural and human sciences and its concomitant focus on the natural sciences has distorted our understanding of what knowledge is, as well of the relationships among its various branches. Second, the history of the human sciences (including the allegedly non-utilitarian humanities) is a history of powerful applications. Third and finally, the human sciences have always been locked in a symbiotic relationship with widely diffused cultural views about what is human. The History of the Human Sciences cooperation begun in 2006 between the University of Chicago and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin aims to lay the foundations for a new historiography of the human sciences that will address these questions and train outstanding young scholars.