A.W. Mellon Workshops


NEW 2013-2014 Workshop


  • Claudia Card, Philosophy
  • Ralph Grunewald, Center for Law, Society, and Justice and Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies
  • Anne Helke,  Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies
  • Mike Koenigs, Psychiatry

ContactRalph Grunewald

What is guilt? Although we usually think of guilt as a legal phenomenon, it has many multidisciplinary connotations. Guilt is variously discussed as a philosophical, ethical, or social question, and differently addressed in literary, psychological, or religious contexts. Guilt is an emotion humans experience and a topic that is at the core of many fact-based or fictitious narratives of human agency. In this workshop faculty, staff, and students from the humanities and the sciences will assess and dismantle the concept of guilt and its theoretical foundations. We will look at the validity of the conventional understanding of mens rea (blameworthiness, a “guilty mind”) and review the status of the free will discussion. We also plan to address the philosophical and religious side of guilt and ask whether something like “natural evil” or natural or inherited guilt exists and how, for example, societies deal with collective guilt (as with the Holocaust). But we will also look at guilt as a concept that changes over time and explore guilt in light of current developments in neurosciences, wrongful convictions, and social media.

Over the last decade, with new insights from the sciences, our understanding of guilt has changed dramatically. Through brain imaging we know better than ever before to which degree and if at all “free will” exists in human behavior. Through DNA, now a standard tool in forensic science, hundreds of wrongfully convicted persons could be freed from prison. At the same time we realize that spheres like social media are not free of “guilt” in the sense that the cyberspace has become an instrument to commit deviant acts (e.g. “Cyberbullying”) but is also a way to participate in deviance without much personal involvement. What implications do these modern developments have on our understanding of guilt in the (criminal) justice system? Where do we move from this changed understanding of accountability in general? Maybe guilt itself is not as important as what it is used for–initiating forgiveness or reintegration, as a foundation for punishment, or as a cornerstone for building new communities. The speakers that confirmed their involvement in the workshop are all leading scholars and scientists in their fields and will be able to address many of the issues that are mentioned above. This workshop is inclusive of all disciplines because the organizers believe that only through an open and interdisciplinary discussion and investigation will we be able to develop a contemporary and comprehensive understanding of guilt and its implications.