Europe's 'cultural heritage' reconsidered: rupture and continuity in European cultural orientations

Organiser: Bo Strath (HEC) and Peter Wagner (SPS) 
Date: scheduled for 2005/2006


For a long time the centre of attention in the analysis of European integration was placed on, first, market-making and, second, polity-building. But increasing emphasis has recently been given to the question of European cultural commonality. While 'European identity' or 'European cultural heritage' are the key terms of this debate, recent work in sociology and history questions the idea, which is implicit in these concepts, of stable cultural orientations persisting over long periods of time.

In this light, the specific identity of Europe cannot be sought in any cultural heritage, ready for use in the present, but through a sequence of socio-historical transformations in which basic issues of self-understanding were ever newly interpreted. This programme will analyse selected such transformations in European history - two founding ones, and two recent ones - as well as two transversal themes of the debate about the European heritage - the question of European liberty and the question of European unity - with a view to applying recent theoretical innovations in the social and historical sciences to the analysis of European society and history.


A research programme for the years 2005 and 2006
by Bo Stråth (HEC) and Peter Wagner (SPS)
submitted to the Research Council for its session of November 2004

Was Du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast,
erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I


The main objective of this research programme is the elaboration of a more adequate understanding of the cultural specificity of Europe. In other words, we do sustain the idea that there is a European cultural specificity, but hold at the same time that it is most often misconceptualized and, as a consequence, not well grasped in its main components.

The current debate is divided between, on the one side, those scholars who try to identify a common identity of Europe, overcome from a common past, and, on the other side, those - mostly younger - scholars who insist on the diversity and plurality of cultural orientations and, moreover, ever shifting cultural practices within Europe. In our view, this is a rather barren debate, based more on theoretical presuppositions than actual historical or sociological insight.

Our own perspective would start out from the latter emphasis on cultural practices. Recent work in sociology and history as well as in anthropology and philosophy has convincingly questioned the idea of stable cultural orientations persisting over long periods of time - both in theoretical terms and on the basis of empirical investigations. However, much of the research work that is inspired by these insights now adopts a small-scale, short-term perspective and, thus, loses out of sight any form of persistence of cultural orientations.

The innovative move we are proposing is the application of the recent insights about the rooting of cultural orientations in experiences; in interpretations of those experiences; and in practices built on those interpretations to the analysis of large-scale, long-term phenomena such as, in our case, 'Europe'.

In the sociology of modernity as well as in modern history, it was long held that the modernity of Europe was brought about, and acquired its specificity, through one great rupture in European history, the beginning of modern times (Neuzeit), at best conceived as a succession of related, mono-directional ruptures. The emphasis, as is well known, was placed on the scientific, the democratic and the industrial revolutions, and the European global expansion, bringing in their sum the unique 'modern society' about, which allegedly became a model to follow across the world. In contrast, our research programme aims at a re-reading of European history as a sequence of transformations in which basic issues of self-understanding and self-interpretation were taken up and ever newly interpreted leading to a series of institutional sedimentations across European history, without though arriving at a single superior solution.

The core of this research programme is the analysis of selected such transformations in European history. Based on insights from our earlier research work on European modernity and building on them, we chose two transformations that have often been seen as constitutive of Europe - the invention of democracy in ancient Greece and the decline of the Roman Empire - and two recent transformations that can be seen as central for our current self-understanding - the rupture in history effected by the First World War and the repositioning of Europe in the current era of so-called globalization. In addition, we will analyze two themes that are transversal to European history and often seen as key dimensions in the debate about European identity - the question of European liberty, and the question of European unity and division in historical perspective.