Gijs van Oenen had a vague idea for a book about the battle between left and right, about how both populists and woke activists are convinced that they are right. Van Oenen was finally prompted to go ahead and write the book when he found himself being ‘cancelled’. During a lecture at the Nieuwe Instituut, he put a question to the woman giving the lecture, an American political scientist he knows well. The moderator then stepped in and said that he could not ask the question as it constituted a misunderstanding of a feminist doctrine. “My voice was taken away from me, and I was forced into a metaphorical corner. I was disqualified, and the speaker I had addressed my question to was apparently deemed unable or unwilling to answer my question. This caused so much resentment in me that I started to write a book.”

Gijs van Oenen (1959) is an associate professor in Philosophy at Erasmus University. He studied Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, where he obtained a doctorate in Philosophy of Law in 1994. His book Culturele veldslagen was published recently and was preceded by a book entitled Overspannen democratie (‘overstrained democracy’) in 2018. He is also one of the authors of the Durf te denken! (‘dare to think!’) method of philosophy.

“Every book you write is a form of self-actualisation”, Van Oenen says. Explaining himself, he quotes Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who said that philosophy is an expression of the self, but he then quickly adds: “The idea of self-actualisation actually comes from Hegel.” Readers may notice that the book stems from a personal interest, but it is definitely not his intention to use it as a tool to voice his own indignation.

In Culturele veldslagen, Van Oenen highlights the emergence of both left and right-wing beliefs. He wants to be ‘value-free’, as an author, publicist and academic. This idea comes from Max Weber. “Although you can’t ‘disconnect’ your beliefs and values, you do have a duty to present every source and every author you discuss – when teaching and publishing – to the best of your ability.”

Political leanings not apparent

Van Oenen joined forces with a colleague at the university – Spinoza expert Henri Krop – to design a programme about the history of the humanities and social sciences, in which various philosophers and movements were discussed in lectures.

After the programme, a student approached them to say how ‘fascinating’ it had been and that she had wondered about the political leanings of Van Oenen and his colleague throughout the programme; she had found it impossible to determine this. “That was the biggest compliment she could have given me. We had made no effort to hide our leanings but did want to discuss every movement as best we could. “If you understand the origin of something, there’s nothing that can’t be justified.”

Inhuman understanding

With the above in mind, Van Oenen read Männerphantasien, a book by author and cultural philosopher Klaus Theweleit. In it, Theweleit draws on letters, diaries and soldiers’ novels in his unorthodox analysis of why soldiers who had lost their minds in the First World War turned on women and murdered them.

Van Oenen read Theweleit’s book in the early 1980s, on the recommendation of a friend. In his circle, you had to have read this book to be ‘with it’. “It gives you an insight into the less attractive aspects of human behaviour. Ultimately, a lot can be learned from this. The human behaviours we disapprove of most are the most insightful. What I’ve said before applies to this book as well: if you understand the reason for something, you can understand why it happened. Inhuman understanding, you might say.”

Freedom is happiness

Van Oenen recently celebrated 25 years at the university. He received a statuette, ‘a token of institutional appreciation’, and took the opportunity to express his appreciation of the university. “In all these years, no one has ever told me what to do and what not to do. That’s special and worth a lot.”

Another thing that has helped Van Oenen during his time at the university is Weber’s idea that ‘if you want to work at the university, you shouldn’t mind all the different kinds of people springing up around you whose value you don’t recognise’. This has not always been easy for Van Oenen. “But that’s no reason to be against the university. it’s just part and parcel of life at this institute.” Van Oenen took some time to figure out which position at the university would enable him to give free reign to his most important value: ‘freedom’. He decided that the role of professor was not for him and that he is happy to be an associate professor. “I think this role gives me the most freedom.”

Reading habits:

Number of books per year: “A lot, but not all the way through. It’s like Star Trek, where lots of stars appear and shoot past the ship; the same goes for books and literature. You try to grab a few books, but another 30 very quickly pass you by as you do this. It’s impossible to keep up. I once heard a fantastic metaphor: knowledge is a balloon that you are blowing up. The bigger the balloon, the more knowledge you have. However, the external surface area of the balloon, which represents everything you don’t know, is getting bigger and bigger too. This metaphor has allowed me to accept all the books that pass me by.”

Primary motivation: the need to know

Favourite genre: philosophy, social sciences, architecture, art and classical music

Last book read: Jerry Muller’s biography of Jacob Taubes, Professor of apocalypse. The many lives of Jacob Taubes. “Taubes was an unconventional Jewish philosopher and theologian. Everyone who was anyone in academia knew him, but no one could really say whether he was a genius or a charlatan.”

Roman Koot pageturners-verslonden 3.2023_Ronald van den Heerik

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