Degree of Letters

By Deane Barker

Usually, when a university confers an honorary degree (often to a commencement speaker) the degree is a “Doctorate of Letters” or “Doctorate of Humane Letters.” It’s usually claimed that the degree is granted due to the recipient’s lifelong contribution to the arts.

But what does “letters” mean in this usage?

I looked around for a long time on this one, and I found a question on the English Stack Exchange that asked for the definition of a “man of letters.” The question starts with this partial definition:

The term man of letters, as I understand it, was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe an individual who lived a marked intellectual life; who might, for example, own a large library, conduct independent scientific investigations on his own initiative, and be engaged in correspondence with leading literary and scientific figures of his time.

The accepted answer states:

“letters” is a rather archaic term for what we would today call “literature”

And another:

“Lettere” in English is what you would call “Humanities” (meant as “studies”)

Humanities is roughly defined as study that is not professional training, math, or the natural sciences.

The first answer from the Stack Exchange question pointed to this definition of “letters”:

literary knowledge, ability, or learning; a man of letters; literary culture in general

The second answer from the Stack Exchange question points to the Wikipedia article for “Intellectual” that has a section for the label “Men of Letters”:

A “man of letters” was a literate man, able to read and write, as opposed to an illiterate man in a time when literacy was rare and thus highly valued in the upper strata of society.

Wikipedia also has a definition for “letters” on its disambiguation page:

an obsolete synecdoche for literacy; e.g. “He knows his letters”

So, the word “letters” seems to refer to the general concept of being educated or knowledgeable. Therefore, a “Doctorate of Letters” is a degree in…knowledge? A “Doctorate of Humane Letters” would be a degree in knowledge of the humanities.

But, coming back to the frequency of honorary awards, it seems to simply be a general title that’s not specific enough to require earning anything through coursework. It is a “degree in learned experience,” if anything.

You can still get earned degrees in “Letters.” In fact, some universities still or recently offered Bachelor’s programs in letters. This is from a now-archived 2016 page on the University of Oklahoma website:

the Letters program offers students a carefully supervised and coordinated curriculum in the humanities leading to the degree of Bachelor of Arts in Letters.

Why I Looked It Up

I was reading an article about a commencement speaker at a university. It’s still very customary to award an honorary degree in letters to such speakers.


Added on

In a discussion of the diplomat George Bancroft:

Bancroft’s belief that a democracy required the guidance of men of letters encouraged political involvement.

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