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ETHU has a long and rich history. It emerged in 2012 out of the fusion of the Centre for the Study of Enlightenment and Contemporary Humanism (VERL) and the Centre for Ethics (ETHI). Both were research groups at the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

VERL was established in 1972 under the impulse of professor of philosophy Leopold Flam and a couple of his colleagues at the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy: the philosophers Hubert Dethier and Maurice Weyembergh, the historian Renée De Bock-Doehaerd, the Germanic linguist Michel Vanhelleputte, and the Romanic linguist Jeroom Vercruysse. Back then it was the first research group in the faculty, and it was from the start interdisciplinary in spirit. Initially, research focused on the study of the historical Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, its predecessors, and its contemporary developments. Special issues were published, among others on Giulio Cesare Vanini, d’Holbach, Hegel, and the dialectics of progress. In particular, important research was done on Belgian and Dutch freethinkers, which resulted in the publication of a “Vrijdenkerslexicon,” a dictionary on these figures; recently the importance of this research was internationally recognized when the radical Enlightenment came again to the attention. Toward the end of the 1970s, the emphasis shifted under the influence of then-director Maurice Weyembergh, toward the critique of Enlightenment and humanism. During the 1990s, the topic of subjectivity and intersubjectivity gained prominence with the work of Else Walravens, and in the last decade of its existence, before the merger with ETHI, VERL was also zooming in on different strands of humanism (pragmatist, hermeneutic, postmodern), the critique of religion and non-theistic religiosity, migration and human rights, and the challenges to humanism posed by developments in technology and digital media. From 1973 to 1990, the center published the four-language, interdisciplinary journal Tijdschrift voor de Studie van de Verlichting, titled from 1980 onwards Tijdschrift voor de Studie van de Verlichting en van het Vrije Denken (Journal for the Study of the Enlightenment and of Free Thinking).

ETHI was installed in 2007. It resulted from the broadening of the Centrum for Bioethics under the coordination of Johan Stuy, to a research group specializing in project research on the ethical and political aspects and applications of (1) biomedical research and the environment in a globalizing world, (2) moral and medical health care in a multicultural society, and (3) digital media and virtual social worlds.