7 February 2013

Exploring human self-understanding and its limits


Professor Claudia Welz from University of Copenhagen is the first theologian ever to receive one of the Ministry of Education’s prestigious EliteForsk research awards. The honor is given to internationally recognized young academics. Five PhD students from the University of Copenhagen will also be awarded EliteForsk travel scholarships on February 7.

Claudia Welz. Click to view larger image

Claudia Welz. Click to view larger image

Claudia Welz’s research follows two paths. On the one hand, she discusses biblical and theological traditions and their relevance today. An example is the notion that human beings are created in the image of an invisible god. On the other hand, she examines human self-understanding and its limits through phenomenology, hermeneutics, philosophy of emotion, theories of subjectivity, psychology and psychopathology.

 "I’m fascinated by existential questions. They concern, e.g., the meaning of life, faith and doubt, the problem of evil and suffering: What is it that really matters despite the fact that we are going to die? What roles do phenomena such as angst, despair and self-deception play for people who are trying to recover from crises that may raise the question whether there is such a thing as a shared reality?" Welz asks.

"I investigate in what ways ambivalent feelings disclose the complexity of being human. Humans seek to understand who they are as they are not completely transparent to themselves. Human existence itself appears as a mystery that invites us to embark on a journey of discovery."

Conscience, self-disclosure and self-deception

Welz, 38, became interested in Jewish philosophy of religion and literature while spending a year studying in Jerusalem. This forms the basis for her studies in memory, forgetting, and personal identity, as well as trauma, guilt and shame – studies that will be included in her forthcoming treatise Conscience, Self-Disclosure and Self-Deception: Emotion – Memory – Identity.

"When a person is caught in a self-created illusion, the illusion can trick not only the individual but also others. However, in a transitional phase, self-deception can function as a form of conflict management by simplifying confusing situations and provisionally excluding those aspects that would make life unbearable," says Welz.

In the Philosophy of Psychology, self-deception is either considered something that a person does intentionally and is responsible for, or something a person cannot control. Welz takes a nuanced approach by drawing on Søren Kierkegaard’s insight into the dialectical interplay between knowing and willing. She argues that there are several levels of consciousness at play. Therefore, one can keep oneself in the dark about the ‘knowledge’ one has with (or against) oneself. One might even ignore the ‘voice’ of one’s own conscience. Taken literally, con-science is one’s knowing-with oneself.

New fields of research

Welz’s research is interdisciplinary. She combines theology with different philosophical approaches and discusses parallel and alternative developments in other sciences. Her award-winning Ph.D. dissertation, Love’s Transcendence and the Problem of Theodicy (2008), was defended at the Institute for Hermeneutics and Philosophy of Religion in Zurich. As a postdoc at the Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, she wrote her theological ‘Habilitation’ thesis titled Vertrauen und Versuchung (2010). And once H.R.H. Crown Princess Mary hands her the 1.2 million kroner prize, she can add the title ‘EliteForsker’ to her CV.

 "It is with great pleasure and gratitude that I receive the prize. It draws attention to fields of research that I am passionate about."

Welz plans on using the prize money to finish some larger research projects, as well as to prepare a research application for a new interdisciplinary Center for Modern Jewish Thought and Post-Holocaust Theology, Philosophy and Literature.

Travel scholarships and Sapere Aude grants

Some 17 EliteForsk travel scholarships worth 300,000 kroner each will be awarded to talented young PhD students. Five of these scholarships will go to PhD students at the University of Copenhagen. The recipients are:

Kasper Steen Pedersen, Faculty of Science

Trine Mygind Korsby, Faculty of Social Sciences

Tor Biering-Sørensen, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Peter Macus Kristensen, Faculty of Social Sciences

Tue Heesgaard Jepsen, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences



Professor MSO Claudia Welz, Department for Systematic Theology, Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen, Tel. +45 35 32 36 82

Communications Officer Anne Rahbek, Faculty of Theology, The University of Copenhagen,Tel.: +45 23 29 71 46