Living Things, Human Beings: The Entanglements of the Organism

Significant criticism over the past few decades has investigated the emergence of a new discipline around 1800, with a newly-coined name, biology. The research project interrogates the ontological, epistemological, and social-political dimensions of the object this field constructed for itself—the organism. Indeed, the organism became a way to think through the relationship of dynamism and process to a concept of the object which, however, generated complicated notions of the subject. The book Living Things, Human Beings will focus in particular on discourses surrounding life processes that reveal the boundaries of any purported individual to be contested and contingent, for example, sexual reproduction, pregnancy, interspecies interdependencies, and organic-inorganic relations. These fraught interactions in which the human as organism was implicated, therefore attracted institutional and ethical-normative buttressing.

Work on this project will take place during a year-long sabbatical from Duke University during the 2021/2022 academic year. A second book project, Reflections from Germany on National Identity and Difficult Pasts, explores German engagement with responsibility for the Holocaust and reflects on its relevance for the US, also a country with a difficult past and diverse present.


Fig. above: Christian Konrad Sprengel: Das endeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen. Gedruckt bei Friedrich Vieweg dem Ältern. Berlin 1793, [265], Taf. XIV.

Head researcher(s): Stefani Engelstein


Previously published articles on the subject by Stefani Engelstein

  • “Sexual Division and the New Mythology: Goethe and Schelling,” in: History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 42.39 (2020), special issue: Conceiving Reproduction in German Naturphilosophie, ed. by Susanne Lettow, Gregory Rupik.
  • “Schelling’s Uncanny Organism,” in:  Christopher Clason, Michael Demson (eds.): Artful Designs: The Automata and Hidden Machinery of Global Romanticism, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press 2020, 167–185.
  • “Love or Knowledge: Sexual Epistemology in Fichte and Kleist,” in: Germanic Review 92.4 (Fall 2017), special issue: Writing Polarities: Romanticism and the Dynamic Unity of Poetry and Science, ed. by Leif Weatherby, Antje Pfannkuchen, 368–387.
  • “The Allure of Wholeness: The Organism around 1800 and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate,” in: Critical Inquiry 39.4 (2013), 754–776.