Schelling in Göttingen: What is a ‘Block-Seminar’?

I recently had an interesting experience that I think would be of interest to anyone from outside of the German academic world, who is or will be studying here: es heißt ,,Blockseminar”.

What is a Block-Seminar? In the course of this post I will explain it with reference to my experience of the one that I have recently attended. I can already say, I would seriously recommend looking into this possibility if you will be studying in Germany.

But for now, in short, it will suffice to say that a ‘block-seminar’ is a seminar that takes place over the course of a weekend (perhaps with a few additional-supplimentary meetings), with extended and focused sessions, such that the course of an entire semester can be covered in an intense, concentrated and short period of study. It saves you time! On the other hand, of course, it means a lot of independence – which has good and… perhaps some dangerous aspects! More below!

As already mentioned, I have recently had the fortunate experience of attending a block-seminar in the Ecumenical Institute, of the Theological Faculty at the University here in Heidelberg, and it was a great experience.

The block-seminar was offered as a cooperative-course in tandem with a parallel group working on the text at the University of Göttingen

… in the lovely German university-town of Göttingen, which lent itself well to a weekend trip in Germany.

The Heidelberg portion of the seminar was led by Dr. Friedericke Nüssel (left), in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Martin Laube (right), who led the Göttingen group at the University of Göttingen.


Regardless of one’s ‘religious affiliation’, I would recommend taking classes on philosophical content in this institute, because I have to say that the texts and ideas that were dealt with were handled in a scientific, or ‘wissenschaftlich’ way – as strange as that may sound to some. We focused on clarifying terminology and the argument of the text, as well as situating it contextually.

The content of the seminar was a close reading of F.W.J Schelling’s  Über das Wesen der Menschlichen Freiheit/On the Essence of Human Freedom, which is basically an essay about Evil and has been very influential in the development of European thought.


The text, perhaps too simply put, handles the the question: how can we think of evil without just making it a lack of ‘the good’? Or, can we give a positive account of ‘evil’ at all? Can human freedom be thought otherwise than as a freedom between good and evil? This leads Schelling into cosmology, ontology, natural science, metaphysics, theology, and of course… lots of difficult passages – so, it is great to read such a text in a group of people with different backgrounds! Although this text does indeed have a theological import, it is also very philosophically interesting. Moreover, the way it was handled in this seminar lent a interest to the text that could be appreciated from a cross-disciplinary perspective, lets say. 

Now I will describe the particular aspects of this block-seminar that were especially good. First, the Heidelberg group consisted of a handful of members willing to work through this difficult text together from different backgrounds. We began by meeting 3 times of a regular course duration in Heidelberg (every other week or so), before spending a weekend in Göttingen, where we met with the the Göttingen group to discuss the text together. Then we all met in Göttingen, wherewe were very warmly received. (For instance, accommodation and refreshments throughout the course of the day-seminars were provided by the Theological Institute.) Again, little was left to be desired. The atmosphere was an open and interested one, whereby the text could be discussed and approached from different angles and backgrounds. I found this very helpful, as I will soon be writing a ‘Hausarbeit’/essay on the the topic of freedom in this text.

Despite the reputation and rumors that ‘European Professors’ are harsh, severe and removed, I have found that if the students take the courses seriously, the professors are more than happy to discuss and work with students. So far I have only had good experiences.

So, basically, we stormed through an entire seminar in a friendly atmosphere, with interested and interesting persons, leaving the rest of the semester free to prepare for either the examination or paper (depending on what one chooses), and to read the text and secondary materials as preparation. It saves quite a bit of time and give a lot of freedom! And, it creates ZERO schedule conflicts with other courses, so there is no worry of not being able to fit everything into the same schedule. The downside is, of course, that one may easily get off track (‘procrastinate’) with so much freedom – careful! If the texts are kept up with well in advance of the major session, such that basic things are already clear, and what is unclear has already been identified and can be put into questions, then the time can be used efficiently and effectively. But if not, I can imagine how such an 8 hour text-fest could be an absolute slaughter…

All in all, I would really recommend in general and to anyone that they try a ‘blokseminar’ while they are studying abroad. But in particular I would also recommend, in light of the experience that I had in Heidelberg and Göttingen, to look into this faculty for courses of interest if you will be studying here.


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