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B3-ZIN5: Meaning-making in Contemporary Society (19-20)


Meaning-making in Contemporary Society

Dutch TitleZingeving in de hedendaagse samenleving

Course Code




Year of Study

Bachelor, 3rd year




7.5 ECTS


Caroline Suransky

(Intended) teaching staff

Caroline Suransky, vacancy, student assistant and guest lecturer(s)

Learning objectives

After the successful completion of this course, students are able to: 

  1. Compare how diverse (organised) worldviews manifest themselves in the public debate with regard to selected social concerns  (Final attainment level: 1b, 3a) 
  2. Identify and discuss how humanist traditions and values are expressed in contemporary public debates (Final attainment level: 1b, 2a, 3b, 4a) 
  3. Substantiate how their own point of view regarding selected social concerns, relates to humanist traditions and values (Final attainment level: 3b, 4a, 4b) 
  4. Explain how meaning-making processes in societies are cultivated according to Nussbaum’s theory on Political Emotions (Final attainment level: 2a) 
  5. Analyse their own key findings on meaning-making– and worldview dynamics in the public debate, with the help of selected course literature (Final attainment level: 2a) 

Content description

In this course we focus on the idea that meaning-making does not happen in a social and political vacuum, but in the particular contexts in which people are situated. On the one hand, meaning-making is a very personal endeavour, each individual gives meaning to the world in his or her own way. On the other hand, meaning-making processes are profoundly influenced by the possibilities and the constraints which situate people in society. 

This course focuses on the reciprocal and complex relation between meaning-making and humanisation, between personal challenges to make sense of the world and collective dispositions, pressures and influences which one experiences in society. We will particularly explore the influence and role of worldviews in the public debate. 

When people make meaning, they often relate this process to their identity. Identities are complex, dynamic and multi-layered. Meaning-making invokes questions such as: who am I? what do I stand for and why? But also: with whom do I belong? We will address identity (development) , both where it concerns people’s individual –  as well as their collective identities in social and political contexts. 

One of the central readings in this course is the book Political Emotions by Martha Nussbaum, in which she discusses the question of how to build a democratic and just society in which all citizens’ rights can be assured. She claims that for this project to succeed, citizens will need to find common ground and to share a commitment to democracy and humanist values. Nussbaum advocates the building of a ‘civil culture’ or even a ‘civil religion’, to help cultivate the political emotions that can contribute to creating a situation in which people care for one another. She asks how (personal) feelings such as love and compassion can be fused with politics and policies that guarantee justice for all. Nussbaum’s questions are relevant to Humanistic Studies as it engages with issues of (personal) meaning and humanisation, both separately and in conjunction.

An example of the kind of issues we will address in this course is the refugee crisis in Europe. We will study: what happens in the public debate around this issue? How do (organised) worldviews play a role in this debate? What kind of arguments and motives do you recognize in their view points? More particularly: does humanism play a role in this debate? Who speaks on behalf of humanists? How do you recognize humanist traditions and values in this debate? How do you think that humanists should respond and why? 

Throughout the course, students are expected to stay in touch with the news (newspapers, television, actual meetings, social media) in order to recognize and analyse the plural voices of worldviews in these debates, be it explicit or implicit.

The lectures and dialogues around the abovementioned issues will form the basis for the examination of the course. There will be a group assignment in which students choose a particular issue in the public debate and prepare a presentation for the rest of the group and there will be an individual assignment for which students write a paper centred around the question “How do worldviews, with particular reference to humanism, manifest themselves in the public debate?” 


Lectures, dialogue, student group presentations, self-study.


Group presentation and report (50%)

Individual paper (50%) 

Participation in class/tutorials

Literature and sources

Required reading:

  • Nussbaum, M. (2013). Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. To be purchased by the student/lecture shelf in the library

Additional selected readings, to be determined.