Prof. Dr. Jan-Hendrik Olbertz: Mediating between disciplines – Why the humanities and cultural sciences are important to innovation locations

The humanities mediate between different cultures; they reflect’ and offer guidance on the values and developments in society. They can recognise and analyse orientation deficits and modernisation breaks. Humanities create new contexts from findings of the sciences and are thus a vital part in the modern knowledge society.


Humanities focus on intellectual and cultural creations such as science and education, the arts and religion as well as states and justice. In this context, the term in­­tellect not only refers to an individual intellect, but also to the so-called objective intellect as defined by Hegel, which manifests itself in supraindividual spheres and entities such as, for example, justice.

The term came from a calque in 1849 from „moral sci­­ence“ (John Stuart Mill). However, the current meaning originated from Wilhelm Dilthey. He defined the humanities as a contrast to the sciences. The latter contribute to recognising the world, while the first develop and apply methods of understanding, as identified by Schleier­macher as hermeneutics. Of interest in this regard is the juxtaposition of „two cultures“ by C. P. Snow from 1959.

Indeed, there are some substantial differences between the accesses to truth of the humanities and the sciences. Not only are the objects, methods, ways of communication and cooperation, forms of presentation and organi­sation different from those in the sciences, so are their mechanisms for legitimacy. The meaning behind the hu­­man­ities is often not immediately recognisable; its use­­fulness is proven only after lengthier time spans and it is by far not as easy to grasp as is the case in scientific re­­search. The keyword education is the most illustrative example of this. The biggest subject-related differences result when compared to application-related and experi­mental re­search. The transitions to the humanities-­related work­ings by contrast are flowing in basic scientific research and theory de­­velopment – and primarily when pure knowledge is in­­volved, whose practical application is not the focus of the research interest.

Current humanities no longer claim the leadership func­tion for the inter­­pretation of the world arising from theol­ogy and philosophy. However, humanities today do see themselves in a leading mediation role within the scienc­es. It is and remains the duty of the humanities to develop basic terms for good and bad, reasonable and beautiful (and of course always including the respective opposite), in order to provide individuals with orientation and main­tain and further develop public awareness – with all re­­lated controversies and breaks. Ultimately, this involves basic values of humanity; the historico-cultural responsibility for its care and further development has been handed down to us. Within the context of globalisation, religious, cultural and ethnic diversity, this is an important prerequisite for the peace­­ful coexistence of mankind, for rationality and justice, social balance, but also, for example, sustained business and careful use of re­­sources. This summarises the value of the humanities.

To illustrate their function: one of the tasks of the histor­ical sciences is, for example, analysing the events and processes from the past as well as the related narratives in order to understand their continued effect on the present, hence on our value system and perception patterns. Let us consider – to name two current occasions – the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 (www.luther
­­ or the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. These two anniversaries still have a considerable impact on challenging and fertilising thinking and doing in the humanities. Perception is expected here, one that achieves enlightenment and deciphering of mys­­terious events, with which people have dealt for cen­­turies, and which have found their way into their daily culture in the form of stories and narratives. Evidence of this can be found in books, paintings, sculptures or compositions, whose perceptions continuously change, while the sources remain the same. For each generation has different and other questions about the past, which is therefore constantly converted to the present. This never-­ending process is fertilised and accompanied by the humanities, be it in form of historiographic, philosophical, philological or theological provenance.

Other examples: in archaeology or ancient re­­search, it is important to not only date, analyse and classify a finding, it is also important to address the perspective from which it is viewed. This is the perspective of the his­­torical moment which already develops an impact as a sediment of existing knowledge, historically transported in­­terpretations, conventional vantage points as well as hopes, expectations and projections. This calls into play the history of reception of an object or topic. This is why cultural science perspectives have a high epistemic value for archaeology.

A different pattern of cooperation is pursued by the „Image Knowledge Gestaltung“ excellence cluster at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Technical images are cre­ated and viewed everywhere in experimental sciences or in the medical field. This gives rise to the question of what is actually seen and what not, which is of considerable rel­­evance to the cultural sciences. Every expectation of what is to be seen ironically restricts the ability to see, while the consciousness of this circumstance in turn expands it. The corresponding sensitisation can be practised by having an expert in art and visual history assist natural scien­tists and making them aware of things which can quickly escape their specialised (and frequently restricted) view. From „iconography of the technical image“ thus re­­sult – provided an enlightened openness between the disciplines exists – new and productive insights and per­spectives which are only possible at the interface between the observations by the humanities and sciences.
Today, humanities will experience a successful further development if they do not isolate themselves, but rather cooperate with the sciences. This of course also applies vice versa. Besides, there is hardly a scientific issue or problem that can be fully recorded and reasonably processed from the centre of a single discipline. Equal­ly, it is hard to imagine a scientific discovery or solu­­tion that does not require a philosophical or ethical reflection. Such a reflection cannot take place only after the comple­­tion of the scientific work, nor can it be considered a nec­e­­s­sary accoutrement to research and teaching. Rather, it must be understood and executed as their integrative element. This requires interdisciplinary cooperation.

No less important in our complex reality are the social sciences. They use observation and analysis of human behaviour to deliver explanatory models for group ac­tions, reciprocal dependencies, interest-driven movements and collective strategies. Knowledge of this is vital in order to recognise the unity in the diversity, respect the diversity and develop action models which make a peaceful balance of interests possible around the world.


The author was Professor for Education Science at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg from 1992 to 2010 and was the Dean of the Faculty of Education Science from 1993 to 1996. From 2000 to 2002 he was Director of the Franckesche Stiftungen zu Halle. From 2002 to 2010, he was Minister of Education for the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. Prof. Olbertz has been President of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin since 2010.