ZiF Research Group

'Felix Culpa'?

Guilt as Culturally Productive Force

October 2018 - July 2019

Convenors: Matthias Buschmeier (Bielefeld, GER),
Katharina von Kellenbach (St. Mary's City, USA)
Felix Culpa

During the last decades, it has become more common to appeal to people's sense of guilt regarding current social problems such as economic exploitation or environmental protection. Besides the political instrumentalization, guilt and shame have also been discovered as cultural forces which are able to foster and expedite moral revolutions, for instance. But the development of political discourse to overlap and become indistinguishable with discourses of guilt has also led to a critical stressing of the destructive consequences if collective guilt becomes a leading notion within a culture. In contrast to current research approaches, the main focus of this research group does not lie in the damaging impacts of guilt, of which a person wants to break free or which he or she tries to overcome as quickly as possible. This research group, however, concentrates on the question, to what extent guilt can be seen as a highly significant productive force in cultural processes of legitimation as well as transformation.

The concept of productivity does not solely refer to the economic context. In terms of the research group, it rather emphasizes the outcome which can arise from coping with guilt. The productive dynamics of guilt do not only include passive suffering but also encompass the active denial of guilt, the negotiation of guilt as well as collective practices of remorse, release, reparation, and transformation. Thus, temporalities of guilt, that is: how much guilt is acceptable in a given timeframe and what is the intergenerational divide, is also the focus of this examination. Cultural foundation myths point to the central role of guilt as a source of legitimation in the creation of new social orders that adjudicate and conciliate between victims and perpetrators of antecedent violence. It seems to us that cultures gain their inner dynamics and cosmological coherence from the tension between the attribution and the denial of guilt. On the other hand, if guilt is wholly denied or to quickly dissolved, the chance is missed to develop a new sense of guilt. Furthermore, a reflective sense of guilt allows a culture to develop central measures of values which shape social life in an essential way.

The research group intends to investigate guilt as a significant factor in the development and transformation of culture, which also plays an important role in the creation of cultural belonging. Cultural discourse and symbolic representation will gain special attention in the study of the research group.

The group proposes two innovative ideas:

  1. In the past, cultural theories, as well as theories of society, have pointed to the foundational role of violence in the establishment of law and order (Hobbes, Marx, Foucault, Girard, partly Benjamin) without addressing adequately its corollary, guilt. The project proposes to shift attention from violence to guilt as an ambivalent source not only of cultural cohesion but also of moral revolutions and other forms of transformation which originate from a discourse on guilt, symbolic representations and social practices of guilt attribution, remorse, denial, release, reparation, and transformation.

  2. This change of perspective entails a secondary theoretical innovation that reframes guilt from its current representation as a destructive and burdensome phenomenon, from which individuals and societies ought to be liberated as quickly as possible, to the recognition of guilt as a culturally generative phenomenon.


This new perspective of the research group connects different concepts of guilt from different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds. The fellows will engage in interdisciplinary exchange. Through this exchange, they will bring together the Jewish-Christian tradition of guilt with practices of guilt in different religions (Islam, Hinduism, Indigenous religions) and will compare them to guilt practices in non-European settings (Indonesia, India, Mozambique). The main questions are, if this comparison leads to a universal concept of guilt or if within different cultural backgrounds various understandings of guilt exist, which might show some similarities (Familienähnlichkeiten, Wittgenstein) regarding certain elements of guilt and guilt-practice, but which do not coincide all the way. Furthermore, the question arises, how guilt as a social and juridical practice relates to guilt as a subjective sense of guilt and how guilt, shame, remorse, and sorrow can be differentiated from each other.

In March 2017 Dr. Matthias Buschmeier and Prof. Dr. Katharina von Kellenbach have already initiated at the ZiF a workshop dealing with the question of productive guilt, which has paved the way towards the research group 'Felix Culpa' - Guilt as Culturally Productive Force that they are now chairs of. The research group will start their research on this topic at the ZiF from October 2018 until July 2019. The assembled group consists of internationally known scholars from various disciplines such as anthropology, medieval studies, religious studies, slamic studies, law, international relations, philosophy, classics, psychology and literary studies. They all have previously published on the topic and submitted individual research projects that explore the research hypothesis. The fellows come from prestigious Universities such as Princeton, Dartmouth, Rutgers, UC Santa Barbara, University of Southern Queensland, Wake Forest University, Humboldt-Universität Berlin, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Leibniz Universität Hannover und Universität Bielefeld.


Please direct any inquiries about the research group 'Felix Culpa' - Guilt as Culturally Productive Force to Matthias Buschmeier and Katharina von Kellenbach.

Email: matthias.buschmeier@uni-bielefeld.de  and