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

Concepts and Theories of

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.

The complexity of the various notions of life and their inextricability from the environmental crisis demands historical, interdisciplinary and systematic research. By bringing together scholars from two Faculties across the University working on theories of life, our aims are to:

  • disentangle the differing (and often competing) notions of life;
  • offer a historically rich and conceptually nuanced account of our understanding of life over the last two centuries;
  • shed new light on the ethical, cultural, political and environmental dimensions of these varying conceptions.

Lead Researcher: Cat Moir and Dalia Nassar

Participants: Iain McCalman, Ute Eickelkamp, Daniela Helbig, Harriet Johnson, Simon Kiorgaard, Alex Lefebvre.

Upcoming events

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

André Masson, Goethe and the metamorphosis of plants (1940)

André Masson, Goethe and the metamorphosis of plants (1940)

November 7/8, 2017
CCANESA Boardroom, Madsen Building F09, University of Sydney

This workshop, convened by Cat Moir (Germanic Studies) and Daniela Helbig (History and Philosophy of Science), 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.

Tuesday, 7. 11.

10.30 Arrival and welcome (coffee, tea, and biscuits)

11.00 – 13.00 Session 1: Origin Stories

Tim Mehigan (Queensland), Towards a Textual 'Origin of Species': From
Tieck's Der blonde Eckbert to E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der goldne Topf

Nasser Zakariya (Berkeley), Differently Ordered Spheres: Questions of
Consciousness and Periphery in Mid-20th Century Evolutionary Discourses

13.00 – 15:00 Lunch

15.00 – 17.00 Session 2: Languages of development

Samuel Lewin (Sydney), A Revolutionary Instrument: The Language of Utopia
in Wells and Neurath

Harriet Johnson (Sydney), Adorno's ars oblivionis

Drinks and dinner

Wednesday, 8. 11.

9:30 – 11.30 Session 3: Metaphors of maturity

Michael Olson (Maquarie), Kant, Anti-Semitism, and the History of Concepts

Daniela Helbig (Sydney), The Umwelt of the machine in Paul von Handel's
Physik und Metaphysik

11:30 – 12:30 Brunch

12:30 – 14:30 Session 4: Nature's expressive drives

Stefan Gawronski (Sydney), Before the word: 'Becoming human' in the baby
diaries of Taine and Darwin

Cat Moir (Sydney), The Poetics of Plants: Goethe's Conception of Literature and
his Philosophy of Life

14:30-15:00 Concluding discussion

Past events


The Nexus of Life: Ecological Crisis and Creative Understanding

Janet Lawrence

Fabled 1-12 (2011), archival ink on archival paper, 52 x 42cm (paper), 60 x 48cm (framed). Image from a series undertaken during a residency at the Fauna and Flora camp in Aceh, Sumatra. Image courtesy the artist – Janet Laurence

Hosted by the Faculty of Arts Collaborative Research Group Concepts and Theories of ‘Life’. In association with the Sydney Environment Institute & the Department of Anthropology Planetary life is now in a ‘critical condition’ – an emergency that encompasses the biophysical environment as much as the cultural and social foundations of human knowledge and practice. The challenge of the global ecological crisis, or life in the Anthropocene, calls for an expanded vision of the human-environment relationship. Seeking collaboration beyond the academy and disciplinary boundaries, this symposium brings together philosophers, historians, anthropologists, biologists, artists and poets whose work critically and creatively engages with the systems of representation and the institutional structures through which contemporary societies understand life and its limits.

This symposium is followed by a poetry reading and piano recital “Voicing the Earth”.

Conveners: Ute Eickelkamp, Luke Fischer and Harriet Johnson
Confirmed speakers:
Linda Connor, Thom van Dooren, Ute Eickelkamp, Luke Fischer, Monica Gagliano, Prudence Gibson, Sebastian Job, Harriet Johnson, Janet Laurence, Jadran Mimica, Peter Minter, Cat Moir, Libby Robin, Deborah Bird Rose and Dieter Sturma.

When: Friday 1 September 2017
Time: 8.45 – 5.15pm
Where: Level 6 Seminar Room
Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney

More information and to register:

“Voicing the Earth” information:


Life before Darwin: Nature and Evolution 1750-1859

Date: 4-5 May 2017

Thursday 04 May 2017
Time: 9am-3pm

Friday 05 May 2017
Time: 9:30am-4:30pm

Venue: Boardroom
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.

Joan Steigerwald is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities, and the Graduate Programs in Humanities, Science and Technology Studies, and Social and Political Thought, at York University. She has published numerous articles on Goethe, Humboldt, Kant, Schelling and the German life sciences. She has just completed a book entitled Experimenting at the Boundaries of Life: Organic Vitality in Germany around 1800. Her new project is Object Lessons of a Romantic Natural History.

Workshop participants:

Joan Steigerwald (York University, Canada)
Cat Moir (The University of Sydney)
Dalia Nassar (The Univerity of Sydney)
Stephen Gaukroger (The University of Sydney)
Tim Mehigan (The University of Queensland)
Melanie White (The University of New South Wales)
Jennifer Mensch (Western Sydney University)
Michael Olson (Macquarie University)

This workshop is part of the project on “Concepts and Theories of Life from the Nineteenth Century to the Present” supported by Faculty Collaborative Research Scheme funding.
Lead Researchers
Dr Cat Moir (Germanic Studies)
Dr Dalia Nassar (Philosophy)