Revolution at the Gates of the University?

The student protests in Amsterdam have gained international attention, an online petition to save the Husserl/Heidegger chair in Freiburg gains subscriptions from around the world. What do these events have in common? And what are they about? Are they just about management, or is there a deeper cause why academics and students internationally are now ready to speak out about what has been happening to their universities? I think there is. The signs were on the wall for many years, but now it is becoming clear to many that ‘the system’, ‘the bureau’, or whatever we call those forces that took over our institutions of learning is reaching the heart of the matter. It is banning certain kinds of reflection from the academy.

The chair for phenomenology and hermeneutics, which was once held by Heidegger, and by Husserl before him, is threatened – by a policy decision to replace the expensive full professorship by a cheaper tenure track for an assistant professor, in… logic and analytical philosophy of language. The time seems right to get rid of the ‘Heidegger chair’, management seems to have thought, now that the notebooks have finally proven beyond any doubt that Heidegger was a racist thinker: let’s replace this incomprehensible, irrational kind of reflection by something clear and rational. Something not reeking of politically suspect things. Protesters of this move rightly argue that Husserl, a victim of nazi policies, was the holder of the same chair. And let’s not forget that Levinas, Strasser, and more philosophers who were subject to nazi persecution moved phenomenology forward in their own time. Hermeneutics is still less suspicious in its content, by its research into dialogue, its connections with critical theory and deconstruction – which were so many moves against monological and/or totalitarian structures of thought. This chair now gains attention because of the well-known philosophers who held it. In my years at the university I have seen so many policy moves like this. It is not that analytic philosophy is not important. It is about the near total disappearance, in my country especially, of chairs dedicated to fields like philosophical anthropology, ontology in the continental tradition, philosophy of culture, social philosophy, etcetera.

The Amsterdam unrest is not the first protest against the commodification in academia in the Netherlands, nor abroad. We have seen several initiatives lately, to protest against its being taken over by market forces and the management to support that. The latest protest started as a reaction to severe cuts in the humanities. Philosophy as well as languages are the fields that suffer from these budget cuts. The protest puts ‘democracy’ forward as its primary concern, echoing student movements from an older age. There is more at stake, however. The rise of temporary contracts for teachers, to mention one. And the subsequent difficulties for young academics to secure a living. In an ever more severe competition amongst the most ‘excellent’ researchers, they roam the globe, trying to find a job that will perhaps also make it possible to live somewhere longer than a few years, and build a life with friends and perhaps a family next to their work. The forces that have created a whole generation of teachers and researchers that know no job security are reinforcing something else which undermines the university – the prolongued necessity to fit in with the powers that be, to be able to pursue the life of reflection that was the original inspiration for many of them.

To me, the present protests should not be just about (lack of) democracy, nor about this one famous continental philosophy chair, but about how, over the years, the system has limited possibilities to reflect on real world questions, as the job hunt takes all the energy of our brightest minds. This should not just be about Amsterdam or Freiburg, but about (calling a halt to) the forces that work against engaged research and teaching. Phenomenology should not be identified with Heidegger, and the continental tradition not with closed, cult-like communities in academia (that exist, for sure). There have been many great thinkers who grew up in the continental tradition, and who were continuously seeking dialogue and debate with their peers from other traditions, like Derrida who discussed with Searle, or Habermas who took up pragmatist philosophy. In the present day there have grown, from the continental roots, many new critical, existentialist and hermeneutically oriented philosophical reflections on the real world and its problems. These are the styles of reflection that keep the humanities involved in living thought, instead of turning them into dead, ivory tower games that cannot question the formats into which research and teaching is being forced. Such styles of reflection are not just important for the fields of languages and philosophy, but for aiming to understand what is happening in the sciences, in industry, in the economy, too. To understand, to put in in the words of that famous Marvin Gaye song, what’s going on!

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