AFTER two years of preparation and planning Hong Kong has just held the first meetings of the fellows and the executive of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities.

Learned academies have been with us since Plato, or more accurately since the revival of the Platonic academy by Marsilio Ficino in the middle of the 15th century. Loose regional congregations of scholars then spread across learned Europe, until in the 17th century they lost prestige to the more national and, crucially, more scientific societies, such as Britain's Royal Society, founded in 1660.

Since then scientists have attracted most of the attention. But national associations for the celebration and advancement of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences have survived and prospered even in the modern age. The British Academy of humanities and social sciences was founded in 1902; the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780. The Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts is a 19th-century foundation. Meanwhile the French Academy, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, was designed mainly to protect and pronounce on the language.

The idea that the humanities are to be distinguished from the social sciences was important to the Hong Kong academy's founders, not least because China itself includes the humanities within its Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Never have the humanities worldwide been more in need of those core activities of recognition and advocacy that the Hong Kong academy plans to engage in. Recent events in Britain and the US have left parts of the sector at some risk of disappearing altogether.However, none of these august institutions stands exclusively for the humanities. The Australian Academy of the Humanities, founded in 1969, was an exception in this respect, though New Zealand has one now, and the Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities long predated either.

What we often refer to loosely as the arts, as opposed to the sciences, has two other divisions besides the humanities. These are the creative or performing arts and the social sciences. Both can usually justify themselves and, more important, they can seek funding, whether public or private, on the basis of wide community recognition of what they do and its value. People feel it's important to have someone writing novels, painting paintings, composing and performing music; and that we also need someone investigating drug use, healthcare uptake, single-parent families or income distribution. The creative and performing arts can appeal to creative genius; the social sciences, from economics to sociology, can appeal to plain utility. But what can philosophy, history or the study of art (of literature, music, the plastic arts) appeal to?

These disciplines of thought are distinctive precisely for their widely perceived lack of utility.

What use is a philosophy degree, we ask. Or while artists paint, sing and write, the historian or critic just talks about it.

Ficino and his successors were advocating a form of thought in which the thinker participates in the material they are thinking about. But when a sociologist or anthropologist thinks about a society, there is a necessary veil of alienation between the thinker and their material. When a philosopher or literary historian or critic thinks about a poem or about justice there is no veil; the response is a new part of the material itself.

Or as Ficino's successor, the great humanist Giambattista Vico, saw it two centuries later: in the humanities we think about ourselves from within, as makers of thought and art, not from outside, as mechanisms or data.

Humanities departments are not museums, but they are the dividend on thousands of years of cultural capital as well as contributors to it.

The humanities are the missing middle ground between the arts and the social sciences, between creation and analysis. Without them society is only semi-articulate about itself and universities are not universities at all.

What's missing in the US education system, with its enclave of elite universities and its huge mass of educational under-achievers?

What's missing in China, where academics privately bemoan the heavy hand of the party holding universities back, where the huge planned investment in the services sector, so much smarter than Australia's plan just to go on selling minerals until doomsday, still ignores the real innovators, the small businesses that customise the products others invent? And where there aren't many more people left to move from country to city and the only way to further prosperity is better education?

Is it too much of a stretch to say that this missing middle ground is where we think about what it's like to be creative thinkers and how we understand the values we live by?

The closest analogies within universities are perhaps the pure sciences: except that the humanities are thinking about people, not the universe.

Maybe once again Hong Kong is showing China the way forward.

Simon Haines is professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.