What can the humanities contribute to our practical self-understanding?

About the programme

In this five-year programme, we investigate how diverse contemporary perspectives on what it means to be human interact with each other, and ask which role the humanities could play in the integration of these diverse perspectives.

Human beings constitute the research domain of many different disciplines. The natural sciences study the human body and the material basis of human behaviour and mental activity. The social sciences establish regularities in individual and social behaviour. The humanities study artistic, literary and cultural expressions of human beings. Finally, there are normative disciplines like law and ethics that see human beings as agents with responsibility and dignity.

The human being is therefore studied as an organism, as a being that creates meaning and culture and as an accountable agent. Apart from those academic perspectives, each of us operates with an implicit understanding of him- or herself in different practical roles. Although all these perspectives on what it means to be human interact with each other, the question how to deal with this diversity remains insufficiently reflected.

The goals of the programme are 1) to identify those academic debates where there is an urgent need to transcend the boundaries of a discipline towards a more general perspective on the human being, and 2) to examine the theoretical and methodological resources of the humanities for articulating and developing forms of practical self-understanding. By ‘practical self-understanding’ we refer to the reflective capacity of human beings to integrate the diverse ways in which they can think about themselves into a coherent (or even consistent) perspective that is able to offer normative orientation. This capacity forms the basis of not only a large part of our everyday experiences, but also of many of our social, cultural and political institutions.

In ten subprojects, the research group, which consists of scholars from different disciplines, will:

(1) examine tensions between different perspectives on self-understanding in important contemporary debates in the natural sciences (such as in evolutionary biology, genetics, and psychiatry) and examine possible contributions of the humanities to those debates;

(2) investigate possible contributions of traditional humanities (literary theory, history, theology) to practical self-understanding;

(3) examine the relevance of normative conceptions of the human being both in the history of philosophy as well as in contemporary discourse in a bid to establish their relevance;

(4) analyze these three lines of research in order to achieve a provisional synthesis which would show the various ways in which those perspectives are connected.

The aim of the programme is not only to develop a contribution to practical self-understanding but also to provide an impulse for discussion on the meaning and purpose of the humanities, their relation to other disciplines, and their role in society.


A further description and interview with PI Marcus Düwell can be found at the NWO website.