Profile Area Universality & Diversity

Mission Statement

Based on the theoretical and methodological potentials of the historical humanities – especially the interdisciplinary interaction of linguistics, religious studies, history, philosophy, as well as literary, linguistic, and cultural studies – and in close dialogue with the political and social sciences, the Profile Area "Universality & Diversity" poses the culturally, socially, and politically highly topical question of how to deal constructively with religious, cultural, and linguistic diversity, and the inherent opportunities and conflicts. The common framework of the Profile Area’s research fields and approaches is based on the assumption that knowledge in the humanities proves itself in the face of the current societal challenges that arise in the field of tension between the general validity claims of prominent guiding concepts – such as culture, reason and language – and the conceptual articulation and historical perspectivization of lived diversity. In addition to the analysis of phenomena and debates characteristic of European societies and cultures, Goethe University’s professional competencies in the analysis of knowledge orders beyond the European range of experiences are of central importance in this context.
In its research, the Profile Area builds on the university's interdisciplinary networks, organized in several research centers that together form the profile of Frankfurt as a research location. They include the Center for Interdisciplinary African Studies (ZIAF), which also acts as an interface with the natural and social sciences; the Interdisciplinary Centre for East Asian Studies (IZO), another interface with the social sciences; the Frankfurt Humanities Research Centre (FzHG), offering a common platform for research initiatives of Goethe University faculties 6-10; or the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften in Bad Homburg (FKH), Goethe University's Institute for Advanced Studies and a place for debate and dialogue on processes of transformation in social reality in the age of globalization and digitalization. Other centers – some of which also have an international character – are currently being established. Prime among them is the "Frankfurt-Tel Aviv Center for the Study of Religious and Interreligious Dynamics", jointly managed with Tel Aviv University, which strategically connects interdisciplinary religious research (with a focus on Judaism, Christianity and Islam) at both locations.

The research focus "Dynamics of Religion: Processes of Comprehension, Misapprehension, and Mutual Understanding" exemplifies the cooperation and discussion between the disciplines within this Profile Area. It brings Christian theologies, religious studies, Jewish studies and Islamic studies together with history, philosophy, ethnology, or archaeology. By means of interdisciplinary and interreligious explorations, the focus lies on  researching in both historical and contemporary global contexts the mutual relations and perceptions – dialogical or conflictual – between the three inherently diverse religions "Judaism", "Christianity" and "Islam" (and between them and the increasingly secular constellations of modern and contemporary plural societies). Key to this question and in this context are the complex processes of "comprehension," "misapprehension," and "mutual understanding". The participants' research perspectives are connected, among others, by a common interest in (1) the conceptual and historical research of the dialogical and conflictual aspects of mutual processes of understanding between religious traditions; (2) the phenomena of understanding one's own religion and the religious other in multi-religious and secular contexts, (3) the relationship between intra-religious and inter-religious plurality, (4) the attribution of cultural identities to the self and to others in the area of cult and ritual, (5) the socio-cultural dynamics and economic contexts of the encounter between ethnic and religious groups, (6) the interreligious dynamics of cultural transfer, translation, appropriation, and transformation of religious-cultural knowledge orders, (7) phenomena of destructive or creative misunderstandings, and (8) the rational, emotional, and political-social conditions of the possibility for religious dialogues and understanding, or (9) the transformation of religious, cultural, and social discourses through the increasing digitality of both research and public communication. The idea behind establishing a "Competence Center Religion" is to systematically develop the potentials of the participating disciplines in the fields of science communication, transfer and science policy.

The Profile Area "Universality and Diversity" aims to strengthen the existing networks between the research carried out by different disciplines, joint projects and centers, as well as between individual Goethe University projects that deal with the above-mentioned research topics through joint forms of working and discussion forums, thereby profiling the different disciplinary approaches on historical questions and current debates in the fields of society and culture, and simultaneously exploiting their mutual synergies. At the same time, the Profile Area intends to cooperate closely with the "Orders & Transformations" Profile Area, whose research perspectives are greatly important to the topics of diversity and universality. The approaches of religious studies, history, cultural studies, linguistics, and literature in turn offer important cooperation possibilities for the social sciences. Likewise, a dialogue with the Profile Area "Sustainability & Biodiversity" will set out to find how cultural and biological diversity relate to one another, and how diversity research in the humanities and the natural sciences can learn from each other. Key to the Profile Area's work are joint strategies for the internationalization of research and teaching, the systematic promotion of early career researchers, and further strengthening the city of Frankfurt as a center of science through the acquisition of third-party funded projects.

Profile Area Spokespersons

What fascinates and motivates me about the Profile Area's research perspectives is the polyphony of thematic accesses and methodological approaches that play a role in it. Whether independently or as part of a critical dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, in their questioning about the relationship between universality and diversity, the disciplines involved embody a decisive characteristic of excellent research at Goethe University: relevance to contemporary challenges, historical depth of focus, and a differentiated theoretical toolkit.
Christian Wiese (Jewish Philosophy of Religion),
Spokesperson of the Universality & Diversity Profile Area

As a linguist, I feel naturally at home in the area of tension between diversity and universality. For despite all linguistic diversity, the fascinating linguistic variation we observe both historically and across the world's languages is not arbitrary but systematically constrained by universals. Against this background, I would like to play an active role in shaping the exchange between our Profile Area's many different disciplines and, by engaging in conversations about the different views on diversity and universality, help develop a common research perspective for our Profile Area.

Cornelia Ebert (Linguistics),
Spokesperson of the Universality & Diversity Profile Area

Key Research Areas

Amid the growing complexity of coexistence in post-migrant societies, experiences of diversity and demand for unifying aspects of cultural differences are becoming increasingly important. Multilingualism is becoming as common in Western societies as it already is in many areas of the global South. Moreover, it is possible to discern a growing diversity of religious convictions and cultural practices, even if these sometimes also demarcate themselves from one another and require new translation efforts. In Western societies especially, previously established categorical systems of order and forms of government are sometimes put to an existential test by these dynamics. In this context, beyond the mostly present-oriented and prognostic analyses of the social sciences, the basic knowledge of linguistics, religious studies, and history, the conceptual differentiation and reflexive capacity of philosophy and cultural studies, as well as the intra- and intercultural translation competence of literary, linguistic, and cultural studies prove to be crucial social resources.

Against this background, the Profile Area "Universality and Diversity: Linguistic, Religious, and Cultural Dynamics" bundles the relevant competencies of the aforementioned disciplines at Goethe University and, using methods and approaches from the humanities, provides answers to these pressing contemporary challenges with the necessary historical depth.

Dynamics of the Religious

The aim of this key research area and the research collaboration of the same name is to use interdisciplinary and interreligious explorations to examine the mutual relations and perceptions – dialogical or conflictual – between the three inherently diverse religions "Judaism", "Christianity" and "Islam" in different historical and contemporary contexts. Key is the common interest in phenomena of understanding one's own and foreign religions in multi-religious and secular constellations; in interreligious dynamics of cultural transfer, translation, appropriation and transformation of religious-cultural knowledge orders; as well as in the rational, emotional and political-social conditions of the possibility for religious dialogues and understanding.

Multilingual Agency                                                                                     

This key research area is concerned with current global challenges and crises, among others, through worldwide migration movements of people, languages and cultures. It deals with challenges that regionally oriented research is increasingly facing as a result of globalization dynamics and transregionalization processes. This can be exemplified by the LOEWE priority area "Minority Studies - Language and Identity". It examines the interactions of factors that determine identity, such as language, religion, culture and ethnicity, from the point of view of the self and of others, both "in one's own country" and "abroad". 

This is closely related to the phenomenon of moving cultures, multilingual societies and hybrid language practices. Multilingualism has an impact on different levels. Research in this area can be devoted to individual requirements, but also investigate dimensions of societal heterogeneity up to global communication. Many of these processes and mechanisms are phenomena of so-called translanguaging: Here, the linguistic repertoire of individuals is no longer understood as a mosaic of different individual languages, but as a complex overall linguistic repertoire. In addition, written practice and oral communication, especially in the fields of new media and digital communication, have to be analyzed in connection. Multilateral multilingualism and multimodality require new ways of description, interpretation and representation. The key research area "Multilingual Agency" wants to contribute to this in an innovative way.

Aesthetics: Materiality, Mediality, Potentiality

Questions of perception and form are central to understanding the dynamics of complex societies. Far from being an isolated realm of recreation through beauty, the arts have been a central site of symbolization, articulation and negotiation of current concerns and conflicts from modernity to the present. Beyond the narrower field of the arts, architecture and design are central to an understanding of the material conditions of coexistence and their impact on the shaping of historical and contemporary ways of life. The arts, design and architecture are also important forums for anticipating future challenges and media for designing future forms of society.   

Questions of aesthetics in its dimensions of materiality, mediality and potentiality have long been a central focus at the Goethe University and one that has shaped its profile. Since 2015, research expertise in the field of aesthetics has also been bundled at Goethe University in the Master's degree program in Aesthetics, which is unique in Germany and involves seven subjects from three departments. 

The Blueprint of the Human Language Faculty

Despite the many apparent differences regarding sounds, words, and structures between the languages of the world, all languages are based on universal principles that characterize them as being part of human cognition. Our linguistic research program aims to uncover these principles and the rules of their interaction to gain a deeper understanding of the blueprint of the human language faculty.

Three essential insights of modern linguistic theory constitute the starting point of our research program: first, linguistic expressions are organized hierarchically, although superficially, linguistic signals consist of a linear concatenation of sounds, words and sentences. Second, linguistic variation, both diachronically and across typologically different languages, is not random but restricted in systematic ways. The blueprint of the human language faculty therefore determines the commonalities among languages and, moreover, the range of linguistic variation and its limits. Third, the human language faculty is organized in a modular fashion, comprising the core modules of language, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. To arrive at a coherent model of the grammatical architecture underlying the human language faculty, specific research questions need to be addressed, using research methods tailored to the particular module under investigation.

Accordingly, we investigate the relation between the variable and invariable principles of language to answer central research questions that form the common basis of the linguistic research carried out at Goethe University.

  • In which way does the blueprint of the human language faculty determine the acquisition of one or more specific first languages?
  • How can the typological heterogeneity of the languages of the world be captured within a general blueprint of human language?
  • To what extent are the different modules of the human language organized in a parallel fashion?
  • Does the diachronic variation between different stages of the same language mirror the same general principles as synchronic variation between genetically close and distant languages?
  • How does linguistic knowledge interact with other cognitive systems in production and comprehension?
The Profile Area gives national and international visibility to excellent collaborative research initiatives and individual projects that focus on different aspects and dimensions of linguistic, religious and cultural dynamics. Specifically, it investigates the conditions and possibilities of religious and cultural processes of comprehension and transformation as well as the structures and practices of cultural memory and cultural heritage, the foundations of human linguistic ability, the power of architectural concepts to shape culture and society, the role of digital infrastructures in processes of cultural meaning production, the relationship between democracy and aesthetics, the human-animal difference, and the control potential of historical and contemporary forms of state rule.

HMWK (Hessian Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and the Arts)


ERC Grants 

Emmy Noether Junior Research Group


Leibniz Prizes

  • 2015, Hartmut Leppin (FB 08)
  • 2007, Bernhard Jussen (FB 08)