What differentiates literature from subjects like history, geography, biology, chemistry, and physics?

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Literature is considered an art and relegated to the non-sciences specification "the humanities," whereas geography, biology, etc.—and, to a slightly lesser extent, history—are all considered to be sciences in a more formal sense.

Upon examination, however, the differences between the sciences and the humanities is smaller than it might appear. Geography and history, for instance, deeply influence each other and have both influenced the path of scientific inquiry and speculation. These relationships are similar to the ways that literature is shaped by the author's set and setting. Indeed, history is often directly shaped by contemporary literature.

The biggest real differences between the humanities and the sciences perhaps lies in the way that sciences often obscure the politics and motivations of the work's creator, whereas humanities disciplines emphasize the examination of creators. This helps to present science as objective and unaffected by the participating scientists, although modern historians have repeatedly shown that this is, in fact, the opposite of the truth.

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Literature as a field of study is considered part of the broader field known as the humanities. The humanities have been variously defined, but one excellent definition comes from Rens Bond in his book A New History of the Humanities. He explains that humanities have been historically considered "the disciplines that investigate the expressions of the human mind." These include literature, the performing arts, language, and art history. Some definitions include the social sciences in the humanities, bringing history, philosophy, ethics, and religious studies into the broad category. Another way of thinking about this group of subjects is that they are "disciplines of memory and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going," as expressed by the American Academy of Arts & Science’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The other subjects mentioned—geography, biology, chemistry, and physics—are empirical studies. They deal in facts and formulas. Rather than concerning themselves with the creations of human minds and cultures, they focus on the natural world that exists outside human creative powers.

Both the empirical subjects and the humanities can be grouped together under the banner of "liberal arts." These subject areas are the courses usually included in a four-year college degree such as a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree. Liberal arts are differentiated from business or technical studies, such as accounting and management information systems, and the trades.

Literature courses often perform double duty at a liberal arts college. They can often be used to fulfill either English requirements or humanities requirements.

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The major difference between these two types of subjects is that the first group of subjects deals with ideas that generally cannot be experimented on and falsified while the second group of subjects deals with ideas that can be.

The sciences, in general, deal with ideas that can be subjected to the scientific method.  They can be experimented on and proven false.  For example, if you believe that a heavier ball will fall faster than a lighter ball, you do not have to resort to theorizing and thinking about it.  Instead, assuming you have the right apparatus, you can drop two balls of varying weights and experimentally determine whether your hypothesis was correct.

By contrast, you cannot really do this with literature, history, and other such subjects.  For example, if you believe that Hamlet is more tragic and more powerful than King Lear, there is no way that you can subject that to an experiment.  You cannot objectively prove that your subjective judgement is correct.  You can give evidence that supports your idea, but you cannot perform experiments that can confirm or deny your original opinion.

Because of this, the first group of subjects that you ask about deals more with opinions than with facts.  There are, of course, facts involved.  The date that India became independent is a fact.  The number of lines in a sonnet is a fact.  However, most of what is interesting about these subjects is opinion.  What makes a sonnet great is an opinion as is the identity of the person most responsible for India becoming independent.  This is different from the second group of subjects that you mention, in which opinions play much less of a role.

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