About this Project

2015 – 2017

The Idealism Project (2015–2017) sought to reanimate possibilities in the humanities through a careful examination of its intellectual roots. Idealism emerged in Germany in the eighteenth century in response to a crisis in the Enlightenment’s understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world. Out of this crisis grew the field of humanistic inquiry, in which literature, art, and related expressions of humanistic knowledge became objects of academic study. The governing thought was that the very idea of the human would help shape these fields and, reciprocally, the understanding gained would help shape our conception of the human. Thus arose the idea that humans would help shape who they are via their own understanding of who they are. The Idealists coined the term “endogenous form” to capture this self-defining capacity.

The Neubauer Collegium team formed research collaborations with scholars in Leipzig, London, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins, and organized a transatlantic series of lectures, workshops, conferences, and graduate-level seminars focused on the meaning of the humanities in the context of its own conceptual history.

In the project’s year, the researchers attempted to historicize the Idealist notion of form through three major events. A Fall Quarter conference brought together sixteen scholars to consider formal generalities in the humanistic disciplines, the evolution of philosophical thought with regard to formal unity, and the role of visual art in validating and challenging the notion. A number of conference participants returned to discuss these issues in greater depth at a Winter Quarter seminar co-taught by the three collaborators and at weekly workshops on the same topic. These gatherings were intended to facilitate intellectual exchange between distinguished scholars and graduate students, many of whom produced dissertations shaped by their participation in the project. A Spring Quarter lecture on Cecco del Caravaggio’s Resurrection by art historian and critic Michael Fried informed subsequent publications by students and members of the research team.

The collaborators extended their inquiry into the self-understanding embodied in objects of humanistic study with particular emphasis on aesthetic theory. Robert Pippin and David Wellbery co-taught a seminar titled “On Aesthetic Form,” which drew on works by Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Cavell, and others to interrogate the notion of form as the basis for aesthetic intelligibility. In January 2017, the “Concepts of Aesthetic Form” conference drew twenty scholars from the U.S. and Europe for three days of talks and high-level discussion. Presentations introduced important new research on Ibsen’s tragedies, Hegelian phenomenology, poetry as a form of knowledge, and more.

Over the course of the project, an international community of inquiry took shape. The researchers all delivered lectures, attended conferences, and published theoretical and critical work on topics germane to the Idealism Project at institutions in the U.S. and abroad. Wellbery organized an international conference on Goethe’s late style that brought a transatlantic cohort to the Neubauer Collegium in March 2016. A group of graduate students and faculty from the U.S. and Europe convened at the University of Leipzig for a Summer 2016 workshop that reconsidered German Idealism as a post-Kantian return to Aristotle. The project’s efforts to foster this community produced important direct and indirect results. Two external partners, Matthias Haase and Matt Boyle, were recently recruited to the University of Chicago Philosophy Department. And in 2016 the University of Leipzig successfully nominated James Conant for the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, an honor that includes 5 million euros in funding for five years of research in Germany.

With more publications forthcoming and ongoing activities at several institutions, the ideas generated by the Idealism Project continue to resonate. “Working within the context of the Idealism Project, being inspired by my co-inquirers, having the sense that something heretofore only partially understood was coming into view—all these things deepened my sense that what we do in our research and teaching is crucial to human self-understanding,” Wellbery said.

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