Life Lessons and the Art of Life. Translating Life into Philosophy and the Arts

The enduring tradition of maxims of ›worldly wisdom‹ (Lebensweisheit) and ›savoir-vivre‹ (Lebenskunst), which today lives on as a seemingly endless flow of DIY and lifestyle magazines, revolves around two poles: On one hand the notion that life is a school that provides opportunities for instruction and, on the other hand, the assumption that only specific ways of leading one’s life (or the history of lived lives) can be educational. These two notions often overlap and conflate. In spite of their differences, they also have in common the fact that both are dependent on, for the most part, literary models. This project investigates the connections between ›life lessons‹ (Lebenslehre), ›worldly wisdom‹ (Lebensweisheit) and ›savoir-vivre‹ (Lebenskunst) in their many forms. The project takes a diachronic approach, but focuses in particular on the literary genres that came to be closely associated with these topoi in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A first sub-project highlights structures of temporal and spatial withdrawal and instability: in other words, the fleeting nature of life. These structures are among the most significant operations that underlie a modern mode of organizing knowledge according to a rationalist understanding of what life means and comprises. This kernel of volatility will be interrogated, particularly in respect to the discursive, media and technical milieus of the Enlightenment and the representational forms associated with them. The extent to which literature possesses specific means of accessing and narrating characters and contexts and is thus particularly well suited to exploring this fleeting type of knowledge will be demonstrated by analyzing different genres such as the epistolary novel, Bildungsroman, occasional poetry, and political drama.
A second sub-project explores an exemplary figure, Denis Diderot. The philosophe’s pervasive ethical emphasis and his incredibly wide-ranging use of literary genres make his works an outstanding representation of the poetic conditions of philosophy associated with ›worldly wisdom.‹ Diderot’s materialist and deterministic convictions provide a critical gesture towards the tradition in which he himself wrote. An examination of Diderot’s work in terms of its literary qualities, moreover, cannot be limited to historical and systematic questions about moral philosophy. It also demands that one investigate the complex relationship between philosophical savoir-vivre and self-care, as well as how this relationship connects to biology and the natural life sciences.
A major impetus for the project is a comprehensive interest in how ›life lessons‹ were passed down over time and how this process intersected with temporal and historical shifts in concepts of life itself: relationships between generations, transfer processes in general, notions of pedagogy and philosophies of education, or concepts of temporal orientation (past and future). These ideas were investigated at the ZfL in a range of previous projects including Concept of Generation (Konzept der Generation); Inheritance, Heritage, and Heredity (Erbe, Erbschaft und Vererbung); Prognostics and Literature, and Security and the Future.

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2017–2019
Head researcher(s): Georg Toepfer