UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars

Spring 2011: Humanitas - Humanism - Humanity


Led by Hans Adler (German, Modern Literature Studies)

In times when cosmopolitanism, postnationalism, inter- and even transdisciplinarity are central concepts in contemporary debates about the future of the university and the humanities in particular, it is appropriate and necessary to step back for a moment and ask who the agent and patient of these –isms or –ity are. Since antiquity, humanitas and its derivatives have been terms that convey both a quantitative and a qualitative meaning, referring to all human beings on the one hand and the specific quality of the human being on the other. Humanitas has served for more than two thousand years as a cornerstone in the fundament of very diverse cultures.

The goal of this seminar is twofold. On the one hand, we want to identify the position that humanitas/humanity has held in cultures of the past in order to find out whether there is a core value that remains constant throughout all the Protean changes of this concept. Was ‘dignity’ always Dignity? Was ‘human’ always Human? On the other hand, we want to investigate the multiple forms this concept has taken on in different discourses such as literature, politics, philosophy, anthropology, and the arts. That is, how has humanitas been emplotted, sculpted, painted, acted out, defined?

The overarching question of the seminar is whether the concept of humanitas/humanity is still valuable as a constitutive element of culture today, be it global, be it local. Do we find ourselves at a turning point? What is the historical status of a ‘concept’ (idea, vision, etc.) such as humanitas? Does the term refer to an identical ‘core’ in different languages and discourses? Is humanité the same as humanity or Humanität? What was/is the praxis of the concept humanitas? What is the impact of ecology on the extension of the concept when the human being is no longer considered the ‘crown of creation’? Which discourse was/is the most appropriate for developing the idea of humanitas? We may be capable of thinking humanitas, but are we capable of imagining it? Is there such a thing as ‘post-humanitas’? Last, but not least: What is the role of the humanities in a modern university?