Discourses of Life. Paradigmatic Concepts around 1900 and its Significance for the Present


Knowledge of life is a central paradigm for our times. It equally affects the sciences, the economy, ethics, and politics. This project examines the configuration of life sciences that has given rise to a new, all-inclusive concept of life and therefore shaped our present situation as well. Informed by current issues, we shall examine paradigmatic discourses on life around 1900 in terms of their semantics, epistemology, and ethics of life. These three research questions will be treated as separate levels on which holistic tendencies of discourses on life are articulated. The project’s guiding question is: What are the semantic, epistemological, and ethical consequences of the implicit all-inclusiveness of life the moment it becomes an object of scientific study? An examination of this claim to comprehensiveness should provide us not only with a better critical understanding of socio- and cultural-historical configurations then and now, but also a systematic analysis of forgotten avenues of reflexivity. The project thus links a genealogical and systematic approach. This approach is characterized not least by the fact that the discourses on life at the turn of the century are very similar to current theories. This similarity enables a critical evaluation of these theories, This similarity enables a critical evaluation of these theories, while the contrasts offer very different solutions to problems that we still face today.

The project studies four paradigmatic approaches to life from around 1900. They are connected to one another based on shared conceptualizations that, each in its own way, transcend the opposition of the natural sciences on the one hand and the social sciences and humanities on the other. Ernst Haeckel expanded the biological theory of evolution to a universal life science that aimed at explaining the whole of experience via the natural sciences. Haeckel’s monistic view is given its final contours in his work Die Lebenswunder. Gemeinverständliche Studien über Philosophische Biologie (1904; The Wonders of Life: A Popular Study of Biological Philosophy), which places the concept of life at the center of his Darwinist theory of development. Wilhelm Dilthey, in his late work, developed a hermeneutics of life that culminates in a general theory of knowledge and science. Georg Simmel’s late work contains a metaphysics of life that gives his theory of culture a holistic foundation. He defines life as an insoluble, conflict-ridden, dialectical process that also includes its opposite: form. In his 1920 essay, Jenseits des Lustprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle), Sigmund Freud reformulated his theory of drives. Traversing contemporary debates on evolutionary biology, he developed a more dynamic concept of life. This concept marks the beginning of psychoanalysis’ extension to theories of culture, namely as conceived in Freud’s metapsychology of the human species. Freud positions his metapsychology at the threshold of natural and human sciences, but in his theory of drives he proposes a fundamental dualism that includes nature as well as, in modified form, culture.

Funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation 2013–2014
Associate Researcher(s): Johannes Steizinger


09 Oct 2014 – 10 Oct 2014

Epistemologien des Lebens. Jenseits der »zwei Kulturen« 1900/2000

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

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