Hans Joas

The Sacredness of the Person - A New Genealogy of Human Rights

English edition forthcoming with Georgetown UP
(German title: Die Sakralität der Person)
ca. 303 pages
Hans Joas
Foto: Hans Joas
© Heike Steinweg

Hans Joas, born in 1948, is Ernst Troeltsch Honorary Professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin’s faculty of Theology as well as Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He has received numerous accolades for his works, including the Hans Kilian Prize, the Max Planck- Humboldt Research Award, the Prix Paul Ricoeur and the Theological Prize of the Salzburger Hochschulwochen.

Awards (selection):

Prix Paul Ricœur 2017

Bielefeld Science Award 2010

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Spanish rights Latin America (UNSAM Edita), Chinese simplex rights (Shanghai People’s Publishing House), Brazilian Portuguese rights (UNESP), France (Labor et Fides), Italy (Franco Angeli), Croatia (Breza)


A persistent debate over the last few decades has focused on the question: where does the concept of human rights originate? Does it come from our Christian-Jewish roots or is it an invention of the Enlightenment? It is neither one nor the other according to the social theoretician Hans Joas, who narrates quite a different history of human rights in his latest publication.

In the style of a »historical sociology«, he unearths a surprising perspective: the notion of universal human dignity is the result of a process of sacralization, during which the individual human was regarded as increasingly more sacred. Joas traces this process in exemplary studies, such as the abolition of slavery and the genesis of paradigmatic »Declarations of Human Rights«, analysing them as a complex cultural transformation.

Human rights, as is illustrated here, are not simply the result of a simple consensus on universal principles: they originate from a long, cultural interdisciplinary discourse on values. Their history consists of many stories: these have been narrated by Hans Joas in a gripping book that reopens the debate on the concept of human rights.


»This important book by Hans Joas presents a valuable and well-balanced account of how the notions of human dignity and human rights were born out of the mutually inspiring combination of secular and religious thought, interpretation, and action.« SZ

»A profound book […] that demonstrates the patience and tenacity needed to develop thoughts and present them not only clearly but elegantly.« Otfried Höffe, FAZ

»Despite the occasional use of highly specialised jargon, this book is an intellectual pleasure to read. It is certainly never boring.« Deutschlandradio

Other publications

Die Macht des Heiligen/The Power of the Sacred (2017)

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France (Seuil), Netherlands (Lemniscaat), English edition available through Oxford UP

Die Entstehung der Werte/The Origin of Value (1999)

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Spanish world rights (Pólvora), Serbia (Belgrade Circle)