Research at the ZfL

Research Profile

The ZfL’s research is organized into three areas, History of Theory, World Literature, and Knowledge of Life, which are interrelated in many ways. Historically, they are linked because key concepts in each field either emerged in the late 18th century (life, world literature) or assumed a new meaning at the same time (theory). Their systematic connection results from the enormous discursive impact they each have had. For example, the then newly conceived genre of the novel, with the relationship between life and literature at its center, could not be accommodated by the established tradition of rule-governed poetics. Hence, it induced new modes of inquiry that came to be known as theory. Early biology offers another example: the new notion of “organism” traversed several fields from literature and art to biology and philosophical aesthetics. In terms of methodology, moreover, all three areas make use of historical-hermeneutical approaches. Of course, these shared interpretive tools can and need to be calibrated in accordance with each particular research endeavor. In the past, the history of concepts and the history of religion have proven to be rich reservoirs for new research questions and modes of inquiry.

Program Area History of Theory

Prior to the reduction of literature to belles lettres at the end of the 18th century, the concept included other fields of erudition such as rhetoric, poetics, religion, natural history, and the arts. These intellectual traditions and interpretive practices did not simply disappear around 1800, they rather experienced a transformation. One of the effects of this change was the emergence of theory, originally limited to literary theory. From the 18th century onward, the term “theory” has been the name given to the study of the discursive conditions that organize any given culture. It has since expanded and turned into a mode of inquiry with its own historical developments and genre conventions. The History of Theory, as a meta-discourse, thus surpasses a simple recapitulation of the theories and “turns” that have come and gone since the 1960s.

Detailed information about the Program Area History of Theory

Program Area World Literature

While the notion of world literature emerged together with the national philologies in the 19th century, it also competes with them and offers ways to overcome their divisions. Today, the studies of world literature take into concern the specific global conditions shaping the realm of literature as well as the effects of globalization on literary production and reception in a rapidly changing society. Moreover, the concept of “world literature” suggests that literature is more than just a representation or reflection of particular realities—it creates worlds and shapes realities. Therefore, our goal is not the study of all the world’s literatures but an exploration of how different literatures form and help in understanding our world.

The ZfL’s long-standing study of Eastern European literature is a good example. Eastern European cultures belong to a politically, ethnically, and religiously fraught region at the “margins” of Europe. In light of recent crises, research into the region’s literature and culture prompts a critical examination of Europe’s hegemonic self-presentation.

Detailed information about the Program Area World Literature

Program Area Knowledge of Life

Reading and thinking have always been means to some end. These skills have been believed to be vital to both the lives of individuals and collective bodies such as nations. The idea that the arts produce and transmit knowledge that is relevant to life can be traced throughout history, from notions of education during Antiquity to the modern Bildungsroman and up to the concept of national literatures and cultures. But this conviction is faltering as the natural sciences now address subjects which—according to the idea of the “two cultures”—were once the exclusive domain of the humanities (e.g., the definition of free will). Moreover, modern technology constantly generates new types of applied knowledge which blur the distinction between living and non-living and between nature and culture. The research area “Knowledge of Life” operates within the context of the challenges posed to the “two cultures” model. Its interdisciplinary projects engage with the field of biology in particular as the leading science of life. Without ignoring the logic and traditions of specific disciplines or flattening them into a single, shapeless concept of culture, our research takes on the task of investigating how natural objects, artifacts, organisms, and human beings can be studied within a shared framework.

Detailed information about the Program Area Knowledge of Life

Key Projects

The key projects work on issues from across the thematic fields of the program areas “History of Theory”, “World Literature,” and “Knowledge of Life;” they therefore bring together researchers from the different areas.

Detailed information about the Key Projects