It is generally accepted that the modern university has its birthplace at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the model put forward by Wilhelm von Humboldt for the University of Berlin (1810). Humboldt’s idea of the university is explicitly grounded in the Enlightenment ideal of Bildung: a term, which may be translated as education, but also contains the senses of (self-)formation and (self-)cultivation. The ideal may be defined as the formation of an individual’s capacities and potential for autonomous reflection as an end in itself, and as the elementary condition for any civilized society. In its classical understanding, it implies an appreciation of the value of learning which emphasizes its capacity to deeply form and transform the individual. For Humboldt, as for other thinkers of the German Enlightenment, (such as Kant, Mendelssohn, Herder, Schiller and even Hegel), it was considered not enough to educate individuals simply to fulfil pre-established social, political and economic roles. For a society to flourish, the formation of an individual’s capacities and their potential for rational and autonomous reflection must be pursued as an end in itself.

The aim of this paper is to rethink the idea of the university, and especially the contemporary role of the humanities and the liberal arts, with a view to developing a new understanding of the classical Enlightenment ideal of Bildung. It is certainly thought provoking that while the ideal of Bildung has often been declared anachronistic, within German letters it has never been wholly renounced. For much of its history since the eighteenth century, philosophers have employed the term to describe the activity of philosophy itself. Even when later thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Adorno deemed it necessary to reformulate the ideal of Bildung due to the degradation to which they considered it had fallen prey in their time, they never went so far as to dismiss or abandon it. Thus the guiding questions of the paper are: Why has the ideal of Bildung been so enduring and what value does it still have? What are the resources and limits of Bildung to inform an idea of what the Humanities and the Liberal Arts today should be?