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Human Transcendence: Philosophies Beyond Mere Materialism

Project leaders

Dr Jessica Frazier

Lucian Wong

'Vertical' Thinkers

Whether secular or religious, various thinkers have argued for an innate aspect of human nature, psychology or culture that inspires us to go beyond the mere exigencies of life, working to develop new abilities, possibilities, or creations. This might be the creative tensions of natural and cultural life for Friedrich Nietzsche, the inspiration of a perspective that reaches beyond the present moment for Pierre Hadot, or faith in another reality that lies 'beyond Being' for Emmanuel Levinas. In these and other contexts, one sees critiques of 'mere survival' and a minimal conception of the material world - while greater attention is given the mechanisms that drive humans to improve and develop, transforming the self and actualising new possibilities.

The human is a rope, fastened between beast and Overman... (Nietzsche 2005: 13)

…in our deepest depth, then, there lies that wonderful mainspring, which, most unnoticed and disregarded in wonted circumstances, is ever latent and active to lead us upward, over and beyond ourselves and all things finite, to the divine. (Scheler 1960, p. 107)

In the course of studying the heightened life, one encounters the vita vitalis, which stands vertical in relation to the axis of empirical existence. (Sloterdijk 2013: 200)

As anyone would concede, nothing is more obviously natural than for humans to be 'entangled in habits'. Nothing could be less obviously natural, however, than for individuals who, not infrequently, later act as pioneers in questions of world-orientation for their collectives to find themselves in a secession from habits. Precisely this is the movement towards the supra-ordinary that can be observed in the ancient birth places of philosophy, in Greece as well as India and China.  


An series of themed symposia will combine short papers with vigorous discussion and debateSpeakers will explore themes ranging across secular and religious, contemporary and classical, Western and Asian contexts in which we seem to see the tension between the 'horizontal life' and 'vertical aspirations' at work.

Matter and Religion 

19 May 2016
Dr Donovan Schaeffer, Dr Jessica Frazier, Dr Jonathan Duquette

Matter is one of most familiar yet obscure concepts in the modern western account of the world, yet the history of 'matter' reveals a complicated genealogy of classical concepts, combined with theological debates about the mysterious status of the reality that surrounds us. This seminar will explore the concepts and controversies that surround the notion of matter, touching on the disenchantment of the world, the disjunction of secular and sacred reality, and forms of 'new materialism'.

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Transformation: Emerson, Gadamer, Sloterdijk 

20 May 2016
Dr Jessica Frazier, William Konchak, Lucian Wong

Many twentieth century thinkers have balanced on the fine line between secular atheism, and philosophies that affirm the intrinsic value and vital forces of human life. Indeed, thinkers associated with vitalism, pantheism, and humanism have often argued that humanity has within it the resource for self-transformation, development and creative Becoming. In this symposium we explore the ways in which Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Peter Sloterdijk have built a 'vertical' drive into their visions of human life.

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Mind, Biology, Society: Intimations of Transcendence

Wednesday 12th October

Dr Isabelle Behncke Izquierdo (

Dr Beau Lotto ((

Dr Tamas David Barrett (

Popular understandings of evolutionary biology often take it to mean that human life is essentially a horizontal process of survival - that is, repeated adaptation to environment, ensuring that the organism lives long enough to procreate and continue the self-same process in a new generation. Communities exist to facilitate that process.

In such a view there can appear to be no drive to exceed the minimal requirements of that unending process of adaptation, survival and procreation. This symposium challenges the assumption that Humanity's basic bio-social constitution favours 'mere survival.' three scholars of cognitive psychology and evolutionary anthropology explore the forces within the machinery of survival that lead humans 'upward', to develop higher levels of behaviour, psychology, culture and ideas. Here we see ways in which challenge, change, and playful innovation lie at the heart of the human.

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