How did you encounter this subject?

“I got a degree in archaeology and worked as an archaeologist for a few years. Unfortunately, the work dried up in that field. I’d always been interested in philosophy, as well, so this ended up becoming my second degree, at Tilburg University. One day Harrie de Swart taught a lecture, after which we had a one-hour conversation on how sad it is that people have difficulty understanding each other. This is a subject Mannoury and other significs, as they called themselves, liked to discuss. They wanted to analyse language in hopes of preventing misunderstandings from arising between people. I was partly motivated by the same pursuit.

“Significs operate from the premise that language will never be able to reflect reality, and that language is used to influence people. What was new about their approach was that they also focused on language users in their research.”

How did that one conversation result in your embarking on a PhD?

“I mostly became a PhD student because a fellow student proposed that we do so together. The thought had never really occurred to me. He ended up not doing it himself, but it was good that he gave me the inspiration and that it turned out like this.”

Who was Mannoury and what is his legacy?

“He was a mathematician, philosopher and communist. All three of these things were central to his being. He grew up in Amsterdam and published four hundred writings. He mainly believed in relativism. This was a recurring theme for me. I ended up taking seven years to complete my research. There was a point at which I found myself thinking: It’s almost as if he doesn’t want me to understand the subject matter. Until I found myself thinking: Could that be it? Mannoury believed that reality is always subject to change and switches between a thesis and an antithesis. This thinking in opposites is called dialectics. Since he felt that things could not be expressed in language, he didn’t provide any definitions, and he didn’t want any followers calling themselves Mannouryans. He felt that people should be critical and never assume anything. Articles have been written on him, but no one had ever written a PhD thesis on him before. Philosophy courses should pay more attention to this golden age in Dutch history, which featured Mannoury, and also Van Dantzig, Brouwer and Van Eeden.”

What can we learn from Mannoury?

“Both in his work and in his daily life, he was a person who believed that conflicts should be resolved. People must always continue to listen to others and not be dogmatic. We could do with a little more of that today, in politics and in other things. And once upon a time he designed a teaching method in which children, in addition to spelling and grammar, learned to think significally, which is to say that they learned to understand the processes involved in speech and understanding. He believed that people must learn that language can be deceptive.”

What was the hardest thing about your PhD research?

“Demarcating the boundaries of my subject matter. If you seek to understand the context of everything, it can be hard to stop yourself from reading everything you can get your hands on. If you have a source such as Delpher, which contains digitised versions of all the [Dutch] newspapers, where do you stop?”

What is on the cover of your dissertation?

“I made a conscious decision to pick a photo of him in his younger years. Most photos depict him as a man in his seventies. I actually wanted a red cover – a reference to his belief in socialism – but I ended up thinking white with a red stripe looked a bit less loud.”