Concepts and Theories of Life from the Nineteenth Century to the Present


Project Overview

The question ‘what is life?’ is one of the oldest in the history of human enquiry. It was, however, not until the beginning of the 19th century that ‘life’ became a distinctive object of study with its own field of enquiry––biology. Despite its close association with biology, life remained a central concern in humanities research. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, philosophers identified life with what is ‘fundamentally real’, or, in more existential terms, life became the source of meaning. With the increasing visibility of the environmental crisis and the emergence of the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe the current geological era, the connection between these two conceptions of life (the biological and the cultural/philosophical) has become decisively clear: the end of biological life on earth is fundamentally related to our cultural understanding of life. This research group brings together scholars from Germanic Studies, Philosophy, Anthropology, History, and History and Philosophy of Science working on concepts and theories of life from the early 19th century to the present. It aims to deepen our knowledge of how the concept of life changed dramatically during this period through interdisciplinary research collaboration and public engagement activities.

This project is supported by Faculty Collaborative Research Scheme funding

Lead Researchers

  • Dr Cat Moir (Germanic Studies)
  • Dr Dalia Nassar (Philosophy)

Project Members

  • Professor Iain McCalman (History)
  • Dr Ute Eickelkamp (Anthropology)
  • Dr Daniela Helbig (History and Philosophy of Science)
  • Dr Alex Lefebvre (Government and IR)

Research Students

  • Harriet Johnson (Philosophy)
  • Simon Kiorgaard (Philosophy)


Workshop: Collaborations with Nature: The Environmental Public Art of Turpin + Crawford

Date: 26 March 2018; 8:30am – 6pm

Venue: MECO Common Room, John Woolley Building | Science Road, University of Sydney

Conveners: Cat Moir (Germanic Studies), Dalia Nassar (Department of Philosophy), and Prue Gibson (Faculty of Art and Design, UNSW)

What is the role of environmental art today, and what does it take to create it? How can art raise awareness of the environmental crisis, and in what ways does it inspire action? And most importantly, if environmental art is not solely representational––representing nature, for instance––then what can it be? This workshop aims to consider these questions in light of the major public art of collaborative artists, Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford.

This workshop is co-sponsored by the FCRS grant “Concepts and Theories of Life From the Nineteenth Century to the Present” and the Sydney Environment Institute.

Click here for the program. And please click here for more details.

Workshop: Natural histories of language: philological, philosophical, and historiographical traces

Date: 7 November 2017; 10:30am
8 November 2017; 9:30am

Venue: CCANESA Boardroom, Madsen Building F09, University of Sydney

Conveners: Cat Moir (Germanic Studies) and Daniela Helbig (History and Philosophy of Science)

This workshop is part of the project 'Concepts and Theories of Life, 1750 to the present' led by Cat Moir and Dalia Nassar. In a conversation between historians of philosophy and science and scholars of literature, we enquire into the multiplicity of traces of naturalistic accounts of human language, and of pre- and post-evolutionary logics of development across our fields.

Click here for the program.

Workshop: Life before Darwin: Nature and Evolution 1750-1859

Date: 4-5 May 2017

Time: 9am - 4pm

Venue: Darlington Board Room, Darlington Centre, The University of Sydney

Keynote Speaker: Joan Steigerwald (York University, Toronto)

The publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 brought about a paradigm shift in modern science. The concepts of natural selection and the transmutation of species fundamentally changed the way we think about life. Yet Darwin did not develop his work in a vacuum. His theory engaged and competed with pre-existing ideas about life in natural theology, natural philosophy, and science. This workshop explores conceptions of life before Darwin in order to deepen our understanding of his impact. It not only engages with pre-Darwinian theories of evolution, such as those of Lamarck, Cuvier, Oken, and Kielmeyer, but also with competing romantic and theological understandings of life.