Deep down I hope to be a different person by the time I have completed this exercise,” writes Marli Huijer, a professor of public philosophy holding an endowed chair at EUR, in her latest book, entitled (in translation) Long Live Public Philosophy! A National Thinker’s Experiences. In this book she describes her view on public philosophy, a type of philosophy which seeks to make it accessible to as many people as possible. By her own account, she has definitely become a different person now that she has almost completed her term as the National Thinker.
In the last two years she has given over one hundred lectures, and has been invited everywhere (including the Palace on Dam Square) to ponder the state of things in the Netherlands. On 21 April she will be succeeded as National Thinker by René ten Bos, a Professor of Philosophy at Nijmegen Radboud University.
'I wish to keep talking'
Huijer has only just begun to realise what it means to be the National Thinker. “The original title of my new book was Philosopher without a Nation. I liked how provocative it sounded,” she says. “It was not until I wrote the book that I discovered how important the Dutch context is to a public philosopher. The book turned into a plea for philosophers to be truly involved in the political and social debates that are taking place here.”
Looking back on her term as the National Thinker, Huijer says she wanted to ‘think in between the lines’: “I want to hear and use the many voices of the Dutch people.” This was not always easy. Especially when, in a manifesto, she argued in favour of an open-minded and pragmatic attitude to sheltering refugees. “If you read all the negative things people say about you, you run the risk of becoming too fearful to talk. I don’t want that. I wish to keep talking.”
Your new book reads like advice to any
philosopher who wishes to step outside
the ivory tower. Is that what you had in
“Partially, yes. Books that dispense supposedly philosophical pearls of wisdom sell well. It is quite tempting to write such a book, but you run the risk of dumbing things down and presenting nothing but aphorisms. That’s not what philosophy is about. I actually hope that public philosophers will continue to seek a connection with academic philosophy, so as to ensure that the subject is not dumbed down.”
What could academic philosophers
learn from public philosophers?
“What the great societal issues of the age are. Where philosophy is required. It is useful if such questions make their way to academia somehow. We live in a highly secularised country with a great need for in-depth knowledge and meaning.”
Where is this need for in-depth knowledge
and meaning coming from?
“In a world where there are fewer and fewer religious authorities telling us what to do, we are more and more dependent on the very democratic Dutch way of making decisions. But what are the various points of view involved in these decisions? Philosophy is very useful in this regard. It is always on the look-out for other points of view.”
Are you saying that the National Thinker
is a new kind of authority?
“He or she is mainly someone who is given two years to encourage thoughtful consideration, increase people’s love of philosophy and ensure that there is a public debate, preferably a high-quality one.”
The title “National Thinker” suggests
that you consider things on behalf of the
“Yes, isn’t that wonderfully ironic? Of course there is not a single philosopher who can consider things on behalf of ‘the nation’. It is a title, but one which is sometimes taken very seriously indeed by the public, despite the irony. Every time you speak your mind, your inbox will be full of e-mails by livid people who ask where the hell you get off thinking such things, being the National Thinker and all that.”
“As the National Thinker, you can’t just present your own point of view. I found that a hard position to be in, because it is very hard to turn off your own ideas. The National Thinker must take into account the wide range of opinions and ideas held by Dutch people. To that end, you must be willing to look at things from a less popular perspective, and to think in terms of what unites us.”
There was a moment when you did find
it necessary to speak your mind. A year
ago, you and Martin van Hees published
a manifesto in Trouw, calling for a pragmatic
approach to refugees. The manifesto
was supported by nearly two hundred
professors, philosophers, writers
and artists. Why did you feel the need to
write that manifesto?
“At the time I was talking to a lot of people who felt we, philosophers, had to say something about the way in which we were treating refugees. Several European countries closed their borders, thus preventing Syrian refugees from penetrating further into Europe. This resulted in the deal between the EU and Turkey, which many philosophers were feeling uncomfortable with. You see, philosophy is pervaded with cosmopolitanism. As Diogenes said ages ago, useful ideas can be found all over the world.”
What were you hoping to achieve with
“It was a plea for an open-minded attitude and a pragmatic approach to refugees. On a global level, the percentage of people that moves to another country is about 3 percent. Whenever there is a famine or war, that number will rise. And these numbers can be accommodated. But after the 1990s we closed the asylum seekers’ centres we had established for refugees from the former Yugoslavia. As a result, we were not prepared for sheltering so many people.
“The public unrest was mainly caused by the fact that no European leader had prepared for the arrival of such large numbers of refugees. Now Erdogan keeps threatening to open the borders. We must prepare for that eventuality. If not, there will definitely be great social unrest again.”
Three days after the publication of the
manifesto, your son rang you and said,
“I’m super proud of you, Mum. Did you
have any idea, though, of the kind of reactions you were going to get?” What
kind of reactions were they?
“Thankfully, I received a lot of positive comments, but I also received a lot of angry e-mails saying I was a traitor.” She says with a smile, “Not the National Thinker, but the National Traitor.” Naturally, it’s no fun hearing people hurl abusive language at you. As long as there are no threats, I think it’s part of the game. But when all the abuse turns threatening, you will start to feel uneasy. There was a moment when I made a habit of checking out the street before leaving the house. The threats were such that I actually went to the police. But identifying the person who is threatening you is a huge hassle. In addition, you run the risk of giving someone the very attention he craves. So in the end I decided not to press charges.”
How did you respond to the threats?
“Initially, I I felt afraid. I asked the people around me to keep an eye out for people, so that I would know if I needed to protect myself. But I was originally trained to be a doctor, so I’m a pragmatic kind of person. I’m fully aware that my life can end just like that. As a result, I found myself thinking in that situation: if anyone does anything to me, I’ll take it as it comes.”
That is very pragmatic indeed.
“I think that’s because my parents died at a relatively young age, when I was 35. So I got accustomed to the idea that I would be the next generation to die.”
Did you expect that speaking your mind
could have such a result?
“I knew it is getting more and more common for people to threaten others on line. I armed myself by not reading Twitter or the comments left under online newspaper articles. If you read all the negative things people say about you, you run the risk of becoming too fearful to talk. I don’t want that. I wish to keep talking.”
You invited several people who had written
angry letters to you about the manifesto
to come and talk to you. Why did
that matter so much to you?
“When you are sitting opposite someone, it is much harder to say, ‘I’m going to bash your head in.’ Physical presence means there are corrective mechanisms in place that force you to listen to the other person and to present them with well-structured arguments. I wanted to have a conversation about refugees that actually involved valid arguments.”
Did you manage to do that?
“Yes. One participant was a bit of a complicated case. She still sends me angry e-mails. But the participants were infinitely more willing to arrive at a shared position than I had expected. In the end, everyone admitted that something had to be done with the refugees. That you can’t just send them back to a war zone or allow them to drown in the Mediterranean.”
Do you understand the anger of the
lady who is still sending you e-mails a
little better now?
“That’s a hard one. For instance, she will send me images of a mosque where imams are saying seriously homophobic things. In such cases, I cannot but reply, ‘This is a terrible thing to see, and I think it’s obvious that this subject must be raised.’ But this does not mean that every Muslim is dangerous or that we must close our borders to all people with a Muslim background.
“In a way, it’s a good thing that I have someone who keeps on nagging like that. Because her e-mails keep popping up in my inbox, I realise that this really is an issue in the Netherlands. This anger forces me to keep reflecting on my own way of thinking. What does it mean to my theory that a person like that is right? That’s why I love it when, at the end of a lecture, an angry person will come and see me.”
Really? Do explain.
“At the end of a debate, an irate man once came to see me. He worked in a disadvantaged neighbourhood here in Rotterdam and said, ‘In my school class, I can see the failure of our multi-cultural society at work every single day.’ Unfortunately, he was too angry to engage in a real conversation, but reactions like that remind me that there is a serious problem in this society.
“On that same evening, a lady told me she had welcomed a refugee into her home in the 1990s. Now that she is in need of some help herself, the refugee’s family is supporting her. It also demonstrates the enormous contrast in our society. You will see this polarisation again and again when you speak out on a subject like refugees.”
Is this polarisation the recurrent theme
of the last two years?
“I had only just been appointed the National Thinker when the large numbers of refugees started making their way to Europe. It caused a divide in society. It is inherent in philosophy that you try to consider views that make you feel very uneasy.”
Marli Huijer, 62, is a professor of public philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy holding an endowed chair, as well as a leader of a philosophy research group at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. In the 1980s she read medicine in Amsterdam and worked as a drug addiction doctor. Later she read philosophy and was awarded a doctoral degree for a thesis on Michel Foucault’s work. Huijer wrote several books on the impact organisation and technology have on our lives. She is a columnist for publications such as Filosofie Magazine and is a member of Trouw’s Philosophical Team. Her book entitled Leve de Publieksfilosofie! Belevenissen van een Denker des Vaderlands was released on 6 April.