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Seminar 06 - Philosophy of (Un)Happiness: Passion and Nostalgia


Week 1: Katharina Scherke (University of Graz, Austria) and Week 2: Matthias Rothe (University of Minnesota, USA)

WEEK 1 (Katharina Scherke)

Nostalgia has been defined quite differently throughout history. Once it was seen as a mental disorder, now its positive impact on human well-being is discussed vividly. Different disciplines have dealt with nostalgia so far and very often cultural critiques framed nostalgia as leading to conservatism and restorative attitudes. The seminar is going to deal with nostalgia from a sociology-of-emotions point of view. It thus takes up a specific aspect out of the huge amount of work being done by different disciplines on emotions and passion so far.

Emotions have been (re-)discovered by sociology in the last 40 years. Within sociology of emotions two main lines of thought can be distinguished: one line making the social development of emotions a topic of discussion, and another one investigating the social effects of emotions. In regard to nostalgia both lines of thought are applicable. Having a look into the social circumstances which form the background for nostalgia and also looking at the consequences of (widespread) nostalgic remembrances in a society for this society can be a task for sociology. Sociology of emotions is

After a short introduction to sociology of emotions in general we will deal with different aspects of nostalgia (e.g. personal and historical nostalgia, restorative and reflective nostalgia, retro-trends in fashion and design). Furthermore, the usage of nostalgia in populist rhetoric, which seemingly promises an increase of happiness and wellbeing by a return to the past will be analyzed in regard to the underlying different other emotional messages (e.g. of hatred and anger).


WEEK 2 (Matthias Rothe)

“The conception of happiness… resonates irremediably with that of redemption,” Walter Benjamin remarks, implying that we cannot consider happiness as something that is (solely) in our own power. Already Immanuel Kant – moving against the self-sufficiency of any ethics of virtue – replaced the pursuit of happiness with the worthiness of being happy. Such caution might be informed by the recognition that, broadly speaking, with the advent of capitalism promises of happiness were proliferated and universalized at the same time as their fulfilment had become unlikely or impossible (society, after all, means being in relations of dependence with people with who we have absolutely no relation). Is such unlikeliness or impossibility of happiness an unfortunate aporia, society’s condition of functioning or a productive contradiction? Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s Communist Manifesto, for example, famously turn this contradiction into a drive for universal emancipation.
Their project of universal inclusion points to another closely related aspect of ‘modern happiness’ which seems to compromise any form of individualist ethics of happiness. How can one achieve happiness for oneself while many all over the globe struggle for survival, while not only human life but that of many species are in danger of extinction? Worse, when the happiness of some seems to be premised on such state of affairs and when concepts of happiness themselves are inevitably bound up with particular ways of living and thus come with exclusion?

In short: The pursuit of happiness has in Western Europe since the late eighteenth century been reconsidered in various ways as a political project, often from the point of view of unhappiness. As a political project, it seeks reconciliation between the expectation of individual happiness and the complexities of society. In this seminar, we will critically explore a number of such projects – philosophical first and foremost, but also artistic and anthropological ones. They all take the experience of society as their point of departure and shy away from making happiness primarily a moral or psychological concern. In different, often opposite ways, they inquire into societal conditions of possibility of (un-)happiness and draw conclusions with a view to individuals’ agency in change.


Katharina Scherke (University of Graz, Austria)


Short CV: tba


Matthias Rothe (University of Minnesota, USA) 


Short CV: tba

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