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Inaugural lecture Mr Prof H.R.H. Büschel: Psychopolitics of Altruism

When:Tu 30-05-2017 at 16:15
Where:Aula Academy Building, Broerstraat 5, Groningen

Recent surveys in the European Union indicate that between 92 and 94 Million EU citizens are active in unpaid, voluntary work. In the Netherlands no less than 40% of the population works as volunteers caring for the elderly, for children from broken families or for refugees. Given the demographic development in Europe, these figures will undoubtedly increase in the future. These people were usually called ‘altruistic’ in the sense of Auguste Comte who coined the term ‘altruism’ in the year 1852 as a description for discourses and practices based on voluntary commitment without obvious profit and self-interest.

The motivation for altruism has been controversially debated by philosophers and other scholars for a long time. Altruism – this is the recent shared opinion – is based on the individual’s pleasure in following a morally praiseworthy aim, thus gaining cultural and social capital. Altruism is not self-less, but ultimately serving others AND the self.

Historians have, so far, not sufficiently contributed to these debates. Historians are, by profession, reluctant to engage with essentialist concepts and seemingly irrational actions. What might be labelled altruism, therefore, is often framed in concepts of gift/giving and reciprocity in historical studies or studied within the traditional Christian framework of works of mercy.

The lecture argues against this trend. It will map the potential of altruism as a topic as well as a new concept for historical research. As a first step it will sketch a fruitful entry point in this field of research: a global history of the epistemology of anthropological, sociological and psychological research about the question whether we can trace and foster altruism in human beings. The lecture will show how scholars of life sciences tried to collect evidence about human behaviour and altruism in the 1970s by experiments and observation and how these initiatives were entangled with psychopolitics – the connection between psychology and political decision making.

As a second step the lecture will discuss the potential of altruism as a topic and concept in historical research in a more broader sense.

The central argument of the lecture is: Altruism as a topic and concept can help to discover and analyse new dimensions of human discourses, experiences and practices in the past. But as historians we should always take into account the psychopolitics of societies in the past and analyse altruism within the framework political, social and cultural hegemony and pressure.

More information

  • Inaugural lecture: Mr Prof H.R.H. Büschel
  • Title: Psychopolitics of Altruism
  • Chair: Contemporary History
  • Faculty: Arts
  • Register at the latest one week in advance by returning the replycard or by filling in this form
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