Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

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Research Program

Content, Methodology, and Goals

The starting point for the investigation in this research school is a specific phase in the debate about the establishment of a general normative theory of human behavior as it was discussed in the early 18th century in relation to philosophy, theology, and natural law – with key impulses coming from the University of Halle. This is the question of the basis for obligations in the form of duties to ourselves, to others, or to God. What are the reasons and motives that guide our thoughts and actions? What binds our free will? In addition to natural law, which philosophers sought to identify by studying the nature of humans and the material world, they also recognized divine law (the will of God), and positive law (created by the will of worldly authorities, particularly sovereigns). Natural law can be understood as an expression of the (contingent) will of God, but also as an expression of a necessity based in reason, to which all that exists – even the will of God – is subject. The relationship between divine, worldly, and natural law, or between God, the sovereign, and reason, was the subject of recurring debate during the 18th century. And even after the end of the Enlightenment era, the relation between these three normative levels or sources of authority have continued to be renegotiated and redefined. The competition between these sources of norms is thereby a defining element of both modern and premodern societies.

In addition to the conflict between sources of authority and norms, another topic of investigation is the cultural conditions and processes of social negotiation that are required in order for particular norms and values to be made binding. In its historical dimension, this means examining which cultural and religious conditions have been considered binding in order to establish and guarantee obligation. What conflicts accompanied the attempts to establish these various conditions? What communicative spaces and what media were used in the process of reaching consensus? The question is also relevant for our own time: Do pluralistic, functionally differentiated societies similarly require certain fundamental cultural characteristics in order to ensure the bindingness of fundamental norms and values? Or is it possible to still establish binding norms even if the shared cultural foundations are absent? How does the discourse about bindingness relate to discussions of human rights, or of virtue?