I f I had had to work through this book at secondary school for my exams, I wouldn’t have read a single line of philosophy ever again afterwards.’

Not the greatest response to read in the newspaper Trouw as author of the textbook for pre-university philosophy. But the author in question, Fleming Tim de Mey, was able to laugh it off. ‘Superficial remarks like this are so vague that they really don’t bother me. It gets tougher where the substance is concerned. To be honest, I have found that annoying at times.’


De Mey really hadn’t expected his book The benefit of the doubt to cause such a stir when it was published. In fact, after completing the writing of his book on scepticism and the importance of doubt, he thought the worst was behind him. ‘Because this was going to be examination material, a committee took a look at it. Some ten to fifteen fellow-philosophers were allowed to dump all over my stuff. That wasn’t nice, especially as the criticism wasn’t consistent. What one liked, another thought was useless, and so it went on.’

The storm didn’t blow over. Far from it: after the book’s publication in late 2014, the reviews came pouring in. ‘There was a lot of discussion about it. In the end, I think that a third of the reviews were positive and two-thirds had comments about aspects of the book.’ In his mind, the Fleming divided the negative reviews into two categories. ‘On the one hand, there’s the general criticism. Of my writing style, the form of the book or the use of certain terms. I’m perfectly happy with that. I take all those points on board and really try to do something with them.’

Flight of fight

It became harder when reviewers discussed the book’s content and hence De Mey’s philosophical thinking. ‘That’s when the criticism is quite a lot harder to take. Because you yourself are well aware of what the weak points are in your own work. If you get really savaged about those, it’s painful. It touches on your own deeper insecurities.’ There is one review that De Mey has never even managed to read through to the end. ‘My ideas were doubted so fundamentally in it that I couldn’t take it anymore. It became too personal.’

The tactic De Mey uses in dealing with reviews is always the same. ‘You can choose flight or fight. I always opt for the first of these, and have never responded to a review. Including the review I was unable to read all the way through. There’s no productive outcome once you start reacting. You’ll never come out of it well, so I always just let it go. It’s hard, especially when it gets personal, but I think it’s best in the long run. That’s also my advice to colleagues who face negative reviews. Learn what you can from them and let the rest go.’

This attitude has ensured that he has not lost any of his pleasure in writing. ‘I can put aside comments like ‘He who reads this will never read about philosophy again’, because I also received many enthusiastic reactions from students and teachers. Of course, substantive criticism is still difficult. Your own insecurities are reinforced, and I can tell you that nobody enjoys that. But I don’t get discouraged. I’ve got the hang of it now.’