Remembering the future

The remarkable flourishing of new ideas, philosophy and debate on human freedom and creativity in Europe between the 17th and 19th century is often celebrated as the continent’s ‘republic of letters’, overcoming centuries of religious and political strife. However, this burst of creativity coincided with some of the darkest chapters in Europe’s history: the enslavement, subjection and exploitation of vast populations across the globe as Europe’s imperial domination expanded and deepened. These two dimensions are often described as a contradiction, or a paradox of light and darkness, but is this really the case?

This lecture by Thomas Blom Hansen, Stanford University, will explore how virtually all the most consequential ideas emerging from the ‘republic of letters’ – human freedom and autonomy, popular self-determination, property rights, civility, liberal toleration, and much else - arose as direct answers to the new epistemic, moral and political challenges of empire. It was the global encounter with Europe’s others, not as equals but as subject populations, that forced European thinkers to ponder the human condition in a new conceptual language of universalism. Empire afforded this intellectual legacy, including its liberal and illiberal potentials, a global standing and authority that is still unfolding.

This event inaugurates a two year series on The contested idea of Europe: Global perspectives and possibilities for European cultural policy, co-sponsored by the Hertie School and the Federal Foreign Office.


Henrik Enderlein is President and Professor of Political Economy at the Hertie School as well as Director of the Jacques Delors Institute Berlin.

Andreas Görgen is Head of the Cultural and Communications Department of the Federal Foreign Office.


Arjun Appadurai is Professor of Anthropology and Globalisation at the Hertie School in Berlin. He is also Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. He is an internationally recognised scholar of globalisation, the cultural dimensions of economic development, and struggles over national and transnational identity. He specialises in South Asia.


Thomas Blom Hansen is the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies and Professor in Anthropology at Stanford University. He is also the Director of Stanford’s Center for South Asia where he is charged with building a substantial new program. He has many and broad interests spanning South Asia and Southern Africa, several cities and multiple theoretical and disciplinary interests from political theory and continental philosophy to psychoanalysis, comparative religion and contemporary urbanism.


Regina Römhild is Professor of European Ethnology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.


Mark Hallerberg is Dean of Research and Faculty and Professor of Public Management and Political Economy at the Hertie School of Governance. His research focuses on fiscal governance, tax competition, financial crises, and European Union politics.