In the wake of both 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008, the humanities have been offered as constituents of higher education which, if more prominent and more strenuously promoted, might have prevented both events. At the same time, the humanities have undergone an assault from governments in the West, with massively reduced or wholly cut funding as part of an attempt to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in universities. The response from parts of the humanities to these government initiatives has been strident, insisting that a thriving humanities or liberal arts curriculum is crucial to democracy, ethics and citizenship, and that the humanities should be an essential ingredient of science and business education. Contemporary semiotics’ deployment of the concept of Umwelt demonstrates that the contribution the humanities might make to theory, practice and social life remains indispensable. Yet this contribution is of a rather different character to that portrayed in the traditional defence of ’humanistic’ study. Indeed, the example of semiotics reveals that the humanities themselves are regularly misconceived.