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The Research Project Europe 1815-1914

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Teleology and History: A Critical Assessment of an Enlightenment Thought: Statement

Organised by Henning Trüper, University of Zürich in cooperation with Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago and and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, University of California

The working group will attempt to achieve a novel approach to teleological thinking. We will historicise various forms of teleology and attempt to understand them as culturally situated.

More specifically, one prime focus will be on the production of teleological perspectives in scholarly cultures from 18th century enlightenment onwards. This means to conduct investigations in the intellectual history of theoretical thought as well as in the history of scholarly practice and academic life. Arguably, the spread and diversification of teleology was a result of the growing impact of various cultures of scholarship (for instance natural science, history, philology, legal studies, economics, theology) on epistemic notions, such as ‘rationality’, in society at large. The scholarly-academic culture of law, for instance, went hand in hand with practice-oriented political projects of legal codification, attempting to impose a rational order of the present and the future. As European theologies – from Christianity and Judaism alike – began to historicise the Bible they became a focal point for the re-negotiation of eschatological teleology and its combination with emancipatory agendas of various kinds. The connection between the academic production of teleology and technological, political, religious, literary and other discursive formations appears as a crucial concern for 18th-20th century history. 

A second focus will be on matters of the history of political cultures. Here, the question of future expectations and horizons of past experience as generated and moulded by fields of political strife will be the most prominent concern. The most salient examples in European history are presumably liberalism (both constitutional and economic), socialism, and colonialism. In relation with this, it is mandatory that we examine also the epistemic foundations on which political languages of future and past are built. For instance, one may think here of notions of agency, of ‘great men’ and heroism, of salvation, of emancipation, of experience and witnessing, and of suffering as inscribed in particular political constellations. In connection with this problematic, attention must also be paid to the specific practices, media and institutions in which political languages become manifest.

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