University of Bonn Welcomes New Schlegel Professor

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Laura Münkler ist neue Schlegel  an der Universität Bonn. © Gregor Hübl/Uni Bonn
Laura Münkler ist neue Schlegel an der Universität Bonn. © Gregor Hübl/Uni Bonn all’images in original size .
The University of Bonn has appointed yet another outstanding Schlegel Professor financed from Excellence funding. Laura Münkler is Professor of Public Law and the Philosophy of Law and will drive forward transdisciplinary research. Besides the philosophy of law, her main areas of focus are legal theory, constitutional and administrative law and healthcare law, especially the foundations of the democratic state governed by the rule of law.

Originally from Hesse, Professor Laura Münkler is motivated by scrutinizing existing structures and broadening the horizons of her own field through interand transdisciplinary work. "I think that interand transdisciplinarity always helps us to gain new angles on problems, even those that have already been debated at length by subject experts, and to identify some of the blind spots caused by the assumptions underlying the various disciplines," the legal scholar explains. And the University of Bonn is the perfect place for her to do just that: "With its Transdisciplinary Research Areas, the University of Bonn will give me some excellent opportunities to network with colleagues from other subjects."

At the University of Bonn, she now plans to apply this approach to the very building blocks of the democratic state governed by the rule of law. How is the knowledge system structured? How should such a state deal with differing points of view? How is digitalization transforming processes?

In so doing, she will be expanding on the research that she carried out for her Habilitation thesis, which addressed the relationship between knowledge and democracy-an issue that became a particularly hot topic of discussion in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. "I finished my Habilitation just at the right time, when the pandemic was just getting going," Münkler laughs. "My thinking is that democracy and expertise ultimately have an ambivalent relationship with each other, meaning that all’experiments-and there are quite a few approaches one can take-come with a degree of friction."

Looking back, she has this to say on how politicians handled the contributions from experts during the pandemic: "The main problem in my view was that, for a very long time, people only focused on virological and epidemiological knowledge." This caused expertise from other fields and feedback from society to be overlooked, such as insights from psychologists and educators about the situation facing school-age children. "This showed that, although every opinion essentially deserves to be given attention in a democracy, this rarely happens until it’s backed by some form of expertise that can support it."

Laura Münkler believes that the Individuals and Societies Transdisciplinary Research Area (TRA), in particular, will offer her a number of starting points for developing this further. "I’m interested in questions of community-building in a way that, rather than suppressing the individual, allows them to join communities while preserving their liberty yet without remaining solely focused on themselves as an individual." Professor Münkler will contribute to the work of the Life and Health TRA as well since she is also interested in aspects of healthcare law and serves as a policy advisor in this area.

Professor Jürgen von Hagen, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Economics at the University of Bonn, is delighted to welcome its latest addition:  "Professor Münkler is a fantastic researcher with an incredible amount of promise. I’m delighted that we’ve been able to appoint her and grateful to the Rectorate for the opportunity to do so via a Schlegel Professorship."

Making her way to the University of Bonn

Laura Münkler studied law at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and went on to work as a research associate there while also teaching at University Paris Nanterre as a visiting lecturer. She switched to the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) for her doctorate on cost-benefit analyses in statutory health insurance. From 2016 to 2021, Laura Münkler was a member of the Young Academy at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, including a period as its deputy speaker. She completed her Habilitation, entitled "Expertokratie. Zwischen Herrschaft kraft Wissens und politischem Dezisionismus" ("Expertocracy. Between knowledge-based rule and political decisionism"), at LMU in 2020. This was followed by posts at the University of Freiburg, the University of Greifswald-where she held the Chair of Public Law, specializing in administrative and healthcare law-and the University of Würzburg, where she headed up its Chair of Public Law and the Philosophy of Law. She was appointed Professor of Public Law and the Philosophy of Law (a Schlegel Professorship) at the University of Bonn on October 1, 2023.

About the Schlegel Professorships

The Schlegel Professorships, named after the University of Bonn’s famed philologist August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845), are prestigious chairs created as part of its efforts to promote excellence. Appointments to these professorships are made by the faculties for existing and developing research fields of major importance.

"Gaining New Angles on Much-Debated Problems"

Laura Münkler has been the new Schlegel Professor for Public Law and the Philosophy of Law at the University of Bonn since October 2023. This particular Excellence Professorship would seem to suit her down to the ground given her passion for interand transdisciplinary working. Within the Individuals and Societies Transdisciplinary Research Area, she will study the foundations of the democratic state governed by the rule of law. She spoke to Katrin Piecha.

What led you to the field of law?

That’s quite a tricky question to answer, because I never really knew what subject I should study. At the start, it was mainly a process of elimination. In other words, I knew that some things wouldn’t suit me-like pure mathematics or physics, which my brother did. However, I had a bit of a talent for languages, was interested in politics and was curious about historical processes of development and forms of institutionalization, coupled with a certain sense of justice. And that was why, after ruling out literature and politics, a law degree ultimately seemed the best option.

What do you love about your subject?

People often say that a law degree is actually dull and imposes certain constraints on you with its heavily dogmatic structure. But law’s not like that at all’in reality. Instead, it’s amazingly diverse and lets you tackle and combine some completely different things. That’s what I love about it: scrutinizing existing structures, pinpointing existing assumptions and looking at how something has evolved over time.

And you enjoyed it so much that you became a professor in it.

Absolutely! If I’m honest, though, I spent a long time in my third semester wondering whether to quit my degree. In the early days, I was a bit daunted by the way the material was presented, the heavy focus on the outcome of cases and a dogmatic straitjacket where certain viewpoints existed that I found intriguing but that weren’t relevant to solving the case. I then decided to give it all’one more semester and signed up to different types of courses-many different seminars and colloquia. That made me realize two things: first, why things had to be done the way they were and, second, that there actually were a great many questions out there that interested me. The fact that it’s also possible to work across discipline boundaries and bring together a lot of different perspectives. That fascinated me.

What do you find most exciting about combining law with other disciplines?

I think that every discipline is ultimately founded on certain assumptions or adopts a certain point of view. Law is based very closely on decision-making by the state, on a specific framework determined by what the legislation says. And this framework is rarely subjected to any further scrutiny. This is why I believe that interdisciplinary research can show you what specific viewpoint your own subject actually clings to and what limitations this entails. It also helps you appreciate the strengths of your own subject. This is because it’s precisely when your subject is juxtaposed with views and structures from other disciplines that you realize that the specific constraints that the law imposes can most definitely be beneficial as well.

What made you want to come to the University of Bonn?

I was actually very happy in my previous role at that moment in time, not least because I lived closer to my family. However, I chatted with several colleagues here and discovered that, not only did our research into some exciting issues overlap, but we were also coming to completely different conclusions in some cases. I think you can get a lot out of talking to people who may not necessarily share your opinions but who can help you turn that very disagreement into new insights. That was great. At the same time, the opportunities that await me at the University of Bonn are the perfect match for what I’m looking to do. And, in that respect, you could say I’ve ventured out of my comfort zone once again.

What are you particularly looking forward to at the University of Bonn?

First, I’m very much looking forward to exchanging ideas and opinions with my law colleagues. We’ve begun to outline a project looking at the foundations of the democratic state governed by the rule of law. Second, I’m excited by how setting up the various Transdisciplinary Research Areas (TRAs) has opened the door to such interand transdisciplinary variety. I really appreciate this ability to connect up different disciplines in a way that can reveal interor transdisciplinary insights. I’ve already collaborated with literature and cultural scholars and a little bit with medical scientists and economists as well as philosophers of language. And, needless to say, when you’re a philosopher of law, you’re always going to straddle the boundary between law and philosophy as a basic principle.

I think that interand transdisciplinarity always helps us to gain new angles on problems, even those that have already been debated at length by subject experts, and to identify some of the blind spots caused by the assumptions underlying the various disciplines. And this is why, despite all’its challenges, I find interand transdisciplinary research to be a particularly fertile source of new insights and, for me at any rate, a fulfilling pursuit.

Do you already have an idea of particular departments you’re keen to work with?

I think there’ll be quite a lot of common ground. The TRA Individuals and Societies, which studies institutions, individuals and societies, has some particularly pertinent overlaps with my work. You could almost say that all the research I’ve done up to this point has been connected to it.

Because I’m also interested in healthcare law, as both an academic and a policy advisor, I might also be able to contribute to the TRA Life and Health, which studies aspects of healthcare-albeit with quite a strong medical focus and less of a link to the law.

Your Habilitation was about the relationship between expertise and politics. It’s an issue that has become extremely relevant, principally because of COVID-19. What have you found?

The problem in my opinion is that democracy and expertise ultimately share an ambivalent relationship. In other words, all’attempts to find the perfect solution one way or another-and there are quite a few approaches you can take-are bound to encounter some friction. For example, conflicts over fundamental rights can only be resolved by consulting the experts. So I firmly believe that simply presuming that democracy means laypeople being able to make decisions on any issue whatsoever isn’t the way forward. At the same time, of course, expertise isn’t a purely objective thing, and scientific knowledge in particular is always built on a constraint, which is this: in order to generate knowledge, we ignore contextual factors-however, these factors play a highly significant role in political decision-making in particular. Put another way, any form of expertise, even if it’s ultra-valid and thus reliable, can never tell us what we should actually do, i.e. what policy decisions we should make.

You’ve only been here in Bonn since October 1. Have you already identified any favorite places?

I actually hope that my office is going to become my favorite place. It certainly has the potential to. Apart from that, I really enjoy running along the Rhine and coming up with new ideas as I go. As far as the city goes, I have to admit that I haven’t yet found any other particular favorite places because I’ve been commuting. But I’m sure I’ll discover some before too long.