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Core areas

Eighteenth-century studies; history of ideas; philosophy and aesthetics of music; reception and translation of ancient Greek theories of music in the eighteenth century; music perception and experience; music and science

Project: Human nature seen through the lenses of arts during the Enlightenment

The concept of human nature unavoidably implies the existence of nearly universal regularities across the human species -- regularities, like language use, most probably explicable in terms of biology and evolutionary psychology. Thus, linking the arts to human nature implicitly promises to connect the arts to long-term, enduring, nearly universal features of the human frame. That is, if art is rooted in human nature, then it is a response, at least in part, to elements of our evolved cognitive, perceptual, and emotive architecture that are either necessary for social life, or conducive to it, or that are side-effects from features that are.

(Noël Carrol, "Art and Human Nature", The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62/2, 2004, pp.95-107, special issue 'Art, Mind, and Cognitive Science')

A statement like the one quoted above, with just a few lexical adjustments, wouldn't have been misplaced in the Eighteenth-century. The idea that the arts are linked to human nature is widely accepted at that time, and the ways in which this connection operates has been researched in many ways by both natural and moral philosophers. I believe that the research topic "The Nature of Man in the European and Atlantic Enlightenment(s)" could be examined in relation to arts and aesthetic experience in many ways.

  1. Experiencing art's appreciation (or what was formerly called "the pleasures of the imagination") is a feature common to mankind. This consideration led philosophers and men of letters of the eighteenth-century to ask themselves both what faculties of the human mind are responsible for what we call 'aesthetic experience', and what it is in the frame of the works of art that enables our emotional responses. Do these enquiries frame themselves a representation of human nature peculiar to the eighteenth-century? And, if so, what does this representation tell us about eighteenth-century's thought about human nature?

  2. How did the arts assist philosophers in the research and representation of human nature (i.e. for example with engravings in medical books)?

  3. What do eighteenth century's arts say about human nature? How do they represent mankind? Is it possible to identify a tension between their representation of real human nature and idealized human nature? And, if so, what does this tension tell us about the perception of actual human nature, and the idea of how should an ideal human nature be?

These are just a few of the questions that such a topic might raise, but they are already too many to be all pursued in the time span of my stay at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg. I thus plan to focus just on some of these themes, having in view primarily a research on the idea of human nature seen through the world of the arts in the Enlightenment.

Selected Publications

  • "Sons échappés à l'oubli : la famille Harris et les theatres londoniens du XVIIIe siècle", In: Les sons du théâtre. Angleterre et France (XVIe-XVIIIe siècle). Éléments d'une histoire de l'écoute, éd. X. Bisaro et B. Louvat-Molozay, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013 pp. 43-52.

  • "A 'Human' Science: Hawkins's Science of Music". In: The Making of the Humanities, vol. II, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2012, pp. 93-102.

  • Music as a Science of Mankind in Eighteenth Century Britain, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012.

  • Il suono eloquente. Musica tra imitazione, espressione e simpatia nel Settecento inglese, Palermo, Aesthetica Preprint, 2008.

  • "Musica e perfezionamento dell'uomo: John Gregory e l'Inghilterra del Settecento", Intersezioni. Rivista di Storia delle Idee, Bologna, il Mulino, 2008, pp. 209-234.

Maria Semi

Dr. Maria Semi

University of Göttingen
Lichtenberg-Kolleg / Historic Observatory
Geismar Landstraße 11
37083 Göttingen

Tel. +49 551 39-10748