Tag Archives: Academia

On June 14th, 1996, I saw this scene – the cortege of professors, with the university janitor in front, walking solemnly to their designed seats to interrogate me on my PhD thesis. I was lucky to be able to publish the thesis too, and the day of the promotion was the official day of its release. Following tradition of the University of Amsterdam, the city university, copies were already displayed in the reception room where we would go after the ceremony, in its solemn solid wood book cases, behind glass doors.

I was lucky in many respects. I had fulfilled my childhood desire to write and publish a book. A wide selection of old and new friends had come to support me on this day. Many family members were there. Several colleagues from my new university, the Vrije Universiteit, the ‘other Amsterdam university’, where I had acquired a postdoc position, were present. Good friends had helped to organize an afterparty at my home.

However, next to all the positives a cloud also hung over the event. A cloud reflecting the anxieties I had suffered during the eight years of struggle that was the way to the PhD. Anxieties resulting from hurdles that had almost let me quit the work several times. The competition between universities where I had sought guidance. Financial issues between them over my case, after my first supervisor had died and I had to find a successor for her. A conflict, after promising work before, with my second supervisor. My own financial issues, following bad advice and my stubbornness to not want to ask for an extension of my fellowship.

All these things maybe resulted from a lack of understanding of academic culture on my part. Nowadays people term someone like me a first generation PhD. My father had finished university studies up to the Masters level. In my mother’s family (I later learned) an architect grand uncle had acquired a professorship, but through the merit of his work and without a PhD. For me it often felt as a route through a minefield of expectations of the professors in power of those days, that I had to venture on my own. Not to mention going this road as a young woman in a country where almost no women were professors, and female students were seen as not more than accessories.

Still, somehow, through the cloud, I managed to be aware of what happened. I managed to enjoy every second of my achievement and academic survival. I even changed some rules, having asked to be able to sit during the ceremony, as I suffered problems with standing, being four months pregnant of my second child. The committee members put their questions forward, I replied to them, the cortege left again, they came back, and finally I was awarded the title of Doctor of Philosophy.

Now during the actual promotion, when my third and final supervisor spoke the official formula and thus performatively changed my academic status for the rest of my life, the final sentences impressed themselves on my mind – let me translate them from the Dutch:

“Value the acquired dignity as an honorable distinction and an important privilege, and therefore also never forget the duties that it imposes on you, over against science and society!”

Later I found that different universities have different formulas – and I have always been particularly happy that this one marked my transition to a doctor.

Why? Because it not only speaks of the rights the status entails, but also of the duties. The rights have been a blessing: I was able to stay in academia, an organisation like many others with its pros and cons, but for me the place to be. I was able to progress to postdoc and later assistant professor. It even has allowed me to supervise PhD students myself which is really a privilege!

The duties have never been out of my mind: to give back to society, by disseminating knowledge and insights acquired; but even more: to foster critical reflection – in a never ending process to check accepted ideas and outcomes of research. In an age of mistrust of science (and in my first language, Dutch, this means all systematic research: humanities, natural sciences as well as social sciences) to dedicate oneself to work in its garden – always weeding out prejudice and tending to the conditions for good research, makes for a wonderful never-ending adventure.

I often realize how much this blog is a conversation not just with you, my readers, but also with myself. Keeping a log is a bit like keeping a diary, but with a more specific subject – it will not cover every possible thing experienced, but those experiences connected with a certain journey. A journey which has several aims – to discover, to experience, to learn, to gain certain benefits, and more of which one is not aware beforehand. This makes every journey an adventure. Just as with the journeys of the seafarers of former times, who wrote their logs while travelling the world seas.

My log covers adventures in philosophy, which, as my motto states, understands itself as involved, or engaged. All the same, I live my adventure as a member of academia. This brings with it that many of my days are filled with solving puzzles relating to study programs, new blackboard (the internet space with that name) features, keeping a balance between work and home life, getting to know new colleagues, keeping up with faculty politics and university policies et cetera et cetera. In between I try to focus my reading and writing to reflect on specific questions, and fields of investigation.

Concerning this lastmentioned activity, institutionally labeled as ‘research’, there are very different seasons. Just as Kuhn said about the scientific community, the individual researcher too lives through phases of ‘normal science’ – working out certain specific questions in a given framework – and phases of ‘revolution’ when one questions the frameworks themselves. Writing my blog makes me more aware of what I am doing at the moment. I became more aware especially of what happens in those times that I do not write very often: in those times I am often questioning the frameworks, perhaps not in a revolutionary manner, but certainly as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Lately there are many conferences with themes that interest me, and I am lucky I can attend quite a few of them. This experience, of something ‘brewing’ around me, makes me happily aware that ‘my’ process is getting more interconnected with the processes of others, and can find a stronger momentum just by the force that interconnectedness creates. Suddenly my interests are all over the place: the relations of humans and animals, of humans and nature, questioning the concepts of ‘humanity’ and ‘animality’, questioning modernism as a result, and some of its neighbors – eurocentrism, scientism, and an imperialism which is political and epistemic at the same time.

While last week, in Utrecht, at a conference called ‘What is it to be human? On the Humanities and practical self-understanding’ I enjoyed discussions with mostly philosophers on the meaning of ‘humanity’, at present I am preparing to join scientists and theologians to jointly question human uniqueness. This will involve presentations considering extra-terrestrial life, the relation between human beings and their God, and understanding humanity in nature – with contributions considering Chinese philosophy, Buddhism, the Quran… a wonderfully diverse program. My own presentation will be on the human-animal divide, asking: what is the difference between deconstructing and decolonizing it? I will look into the differences between these two approaches, and will discuss wherein they overlap. There is only one little problem I still have to solve – how to summarize the substance of my five pages paper to a presentation of only ten minutes… I will keep you posted.

This month was marked by two special moments. The first was on its first day – being the day that it was twenty years ago that I started working at the Free UVu gebouwenniversity (which has called itself VU University for some time). I still remember when I knew I was hired, and called home from the phone booth in the dark grey concrete hall. Now there is no phone booth anymore, and everything has been made lighter. There was no party to celebrate my anniversary, there were no speeches – such things are not very usual at the VU. Nobody knew, except those whom I told, but still it was a special day for me. In those twenty years I have seen many changes at my university, and not only where its buildings are concerned.

For one, the student population changed a lot. When I came to work there, the students were mostly white, and there were more protestants among them than at the other Dutch universities. The days of student protests were long ago, and, as the VU was in a suburb without anything to do but work (or do sport), it had an air of seriousness. Since those days the socker fields have made way to large banks and law firms and hip but expensive bars. Our students nowadays come from all over the world, and have brought new perspectives with them. And, since the long occupation at the other Amsterdam university last year, a more rebellious spirit has also come over the VU. In this sphere happened the second special moment. It was a student-organized meeting, to present a petition which called for more diversity in the courses to the heads of the philosophy department. In all my twenty years at the Free University philosophy students had never done anything like it.

So staff and students gathered to discuss the petition, which argued for diversification of ´the canon´. The organizing students wanted more female philosophers included, the position of the heads of the department was not entirely clear. It seemed they thought that on the one hand there was already quite some representation of female viewpoints in the curriculum, especially where the field of ethics was concerned, but on the other hand that all the ´great (male) thinkers´ should not get any less attention. The discussion that followed made me reflect on the strange phenomenon of a ´canon´, a word so much used in today´s discussions about teaching. History teachers in the Netherlands should teach a national canon, classes in literature are debating who belongs to the canon of writers, and now even philosophers do the same with their own predecessors.

I don´t believe in canons. They are ideological constructions, to my view, and provide no representation of the most important thinkers or writers. I do not subscribe the darwinian-capitalist view that there is a struggle between thinkers, which will result that the best ones, the most excellent or the deepest ones will win and make up the ´canon´. Neither do I adhere to a marxist viewpoint, though, which would hold that a canon will mirror the material power relations, and that, if those are not benefiting the struggle of the working classes, we will consciously have to change it. I do not believe in pure chance, which seems to provide the foundation for the darwinian-capitalist view, nor in changing the course of history for the better by revolutionary acts.

I believe rather in the power of enchantment – that we can see meaning in a certain pattern or structure, and can deconstruct it too. What appears as a canon in this view is nothing but the unstable mirror of the desires of a certain group or society. Desires to be rational for instance, to hold measure, or to be exuberant. To be wise, constrained, or god-like. There is no necessary struggle, no selection of the best. There is a lot of illusion, and what seeking truth should be about is to look at the illusions, turn them around, look at the labels on their backs (´made in Europe´ or ´made in the USA´ for instance), and study what maintenance they need. Do we want to maintain them? Or is it time to change some old pieces for new ones? Reconstruct or deconstruct them. Or get us some other ones which know of themselves that deconstruction is already at work in them, even while they state their importance.

When writing on philosophy, I noticed recently that I tend to use the words ‘analyse’ and ‘interpret’ interchangeably, although I am aware that they do not designate the same. Analysis breaks a subject of reflection down in smaller parts, possibly in the smallest meaningful parts, to show the structure of the phenomenon one talks or writes about. Interpretation is after the meaning of a word, expression, or entire text – without necessarily dividing its subject into elements, but translating it into another meaningful composite that helps to bring to light what it is about. The two approaches are supposed to stand for two currents in philosophy called analytic and hermeneutic. So why do I tend to mix them up? Not, as I said, because I suppose them to do the same – but because I see no reason to restrict myself to the one or the other. Finding meaning needs both, in the same process.

I suppose some colleagues think I am against analytic philosophy, but this is a misconception. I see analysis as one of the, most neccessary, tools we have to reflect and gain understanding. I do think it to be dangerous, though, that analytic philosophy seems to get the most credit in our discipline nowadays. No, not just annoying, but dangerous. Before I go further into this, let me clear away the other common misconception – that analytic philosophy is opposed to continental philosophy. This shows a category mistake, opposing a geographical and essentialistic designation to a methodological one. The current opposition used to be, some thirty years ago, ‘continental versus anglo-saxon’. Which expresses a category mistake too, by the way, opposing a unity of language/culture to one of geography, but at least it didn’t mix the methodological criterion with something entirely extrinsic to methodology. It all doesn’t make sense, from a viewpoint of description anyway. Descartes thought it to be very useful to apply analysis in reasoning, but he was definitely from the continent, and stayed there too. William James took a phenomenological approach to things, which would place him on the ‘continental’ side – but he is generally supposed to be at the roots of this all-American current in philosophy, called pragmatism. Should we see his prolonged stays in Europe as the cause for this cross-over behavior of his?

What does it make sense for then? The opposition ‘analytic-continental’ which is in fashion nowadays is nothing but an instrument of strategy in a struggle for hegemony in philosophy. It happens that analytical philosophers reproach those they call continental for being not exact in their reasoning, leaning towards esthetic play in their texts and placing themselves thus on the outside of thorough scholarship. It also occurs that continental philosophers reproach the analytical ones to place themselves outside of thorough scholarship, because they would lack depth as well as knowledge of the great works of the philosophical tradition, and play superficial games of reason without content. The prize in this competition is not only honour, the worthiness of being the best thinker, but also something more superficial – money. Competition among philosophers has been provoked to a nasty degree in the latest decades – due to the transfer of money from universities to research institutions and market parties, that should select the best projects and the most promising researchers for funding. In philosophy, where there are not much results that are directly useful to society, and where projects cannot be judged to scientific measures like their promise to give opportunity to empirical testing – the researchers have to compete by making claims to thoroughness – depth for the continentals, edge for the analyticals. Analytic philosophy makes a stronger case in the boxing ring, as it mostly provides the committees who judge applications with clearer structures of what is to be done and how.

Why do I consider this to be dangerous? Not because I suppose continental philosophy to address the questions that really matter in a better way – not at all. The danger lies in the fact that the illusion of the opposition remains undisturbed. My point is that philosophers should not be competing, making use of improper self-indentifications, like boxers that are put in the ring for profit. They should address real problems of real living beings in the real world. Use their experience and training in reflection to see what is happening outside of the ivory tower. What is happening is that neither the old continent, nor the anglo-saxon empire of old, nor even the transatlantic Euro-American world can claim to be the center of the world anymore. The idea that this old world is the standard of reason and truth is a form of dangerous blindness. Dangerous not only for those who belong to it, but even more for those from other continents and histories who believe it still, following it into pernicious abstractions while forgetting to address that life is going to waste all around us. Let us not focus on the tragedy of some species going extinct, but on what causes so many species to go extinct so rapidly. Let us not focus on the destruction of natural landscape due to this or that kind of energy source, but to the fact that the human species has become a bunch of addicts for energy. Let us not focus on this war or that, but on the underlying competition over possession of land and resources, over ethnic or religious unity, over ‘us’ over against the ‘others’. The best thinkers of the world should consider these issues, instead of playing power games over money and prestige.

Those who will realize the importance of addressing such real problems could see that geographical, lingual, or methodological oppositions amongst philosophical tribes are obsolete. And dangerous. True philosophy should not be analytic, anglo-saxon, or continental – it should make haste to attain an entirely different level of understanding: the level of intercontinental philosophy.

Growing older I am gaining more insight in my own role in some of the frustrations and difficulties I experienced while trying to find my space in academia. For a long time I saw those difficulties as the effect of the situation in which academia had slipped since the eighties. The idea that the university is a jungle in which it is hard to survive, let alone being creative and enjoy your work is a common one. News about new instruments to enhance competition, to induce excellent research and output productivity, as well as those designed to make teaching more efficient and cheaper have dominated the field for over some thirty years now. Those who defend slow research, taking time for one’s students, and informal procedures are easily criticized as old-fashioned, if not hesitant to work hard for the public money spent on their jobs. In this atmosphere, competition often led to an atmosphere of the survival of the fittest or the meanest, and to the creation of underdog positions for those who could not move as fast as others. If one takes a few out-of-the-box decisions, one finds oneself soon at the back of the race.

What race? Why is there a race? The situation described above issues from the uneasy marriage of the idea that education and research in the university are a public matter, a community service, so to speak – and the neoliberal idea that every institution should model it’s structure to that of businesses in a market. Universities tried to expand their market share by attracting more students, forgetting that their competitors were just as much paid for by public resources – creating thus a fake competition. They competed in gaining more funding for research, also largely drawn from ‘tax payers money’, but in increasing amounts flowing from real businesses, which thus could buy prestige and research from which they could benefit directly or indirectly. The marriage was sold to academics as a way to improve quality. More competition would select the best to move to the top. All the same a lot of service has to be done, teaching is a service, not a product to be sold at a market price. And a lot of research is also a service, to improve the living conditions of humans, to protect their world, and their cohabitants.

So the race is just a thought, a kind of false consciousness. Quality is not enhanced by competition, frustrations and difficulties are. And not just for the underdogs, also for the topdogs. They may enjoy power and admiration, but these goods are never secure – they have to keep on competing hoping to get to their retirement without losing them. Those who are happy and content – in which position they may be – are those who do not let themselves be guided by competition, but by friendship. By working with others and being interested in them as human beings. Who design research that has quality because it is shared in friendship. And who teach while understanding that they, their colleagues and their students are connected in a shared desire to develop oneself and others.

So my role in the frustrations and difficulties was taking the language on competition and quality serious. Trying to go along with it. My best work in academia however, in teaching as well as in doing philosophical research, has grown out of friendships in the work place. They nurture creativity and patience, critical questioning as well as aiming for improvement of one’s work. Therefore I want to ask attention, here and now, for this important free funding – a funding in the currency of humanity.
There are many with whom I have experienced friendship in work, and they know who they are. The immediate reason for taking on this subject is that this week we say goodbye in my department to Hans Radder, as he retires. I think I am right in saying that he takes friendship as a guiding principle in working with many others, among whom I was one here in Amsterdam. He has published extensively in philosophy of science, on science and technology and on the commodification of scientific research. Of course he will not stop his work with his retirement, it is just a moment to look back. Here is his university page.


When I read the opening lines of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity for the first time, about thirty years ago, I felt overwhelmed. They moved me, before I had tried to understand them: ‘Does not lucidity, the mind’s openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war? The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.’ At this moment (after having made a study of the entire work with my class in the year before last) I am ready to make an attempt at an interpretation. The first sentence expresses in my opinion: human cleverness, it’s talent at working out ever new ways of tackling the problems of life by means of understanding, is fired by this mind-set: there is a scarcity of goods; we are, in our endeavours to harvest them, constantly threatened by enemies who want to take them first and who will, if necessary, destroy us in the process. The second sentence then says: alas, in order to win, or to not lose the war, we have to pass by, if necessary, our obligations to others (and to ourselves, perhaps, as subjectivity springs from moral awareness) – because this war has made all morality provisional.

The troubling point in these sentences is not so much that in a real war we may be forced to suspend our moral obligations towards others (although that is troubling enough!), but that Levinas suggests that all human research, all gathering of knowledge, in it’s normal, non-war condition, springs from a war-like matrix. One is tempted to say: it is executed under the reign of the metaphor of war. And one is also tempted to acknowledge this to be a fair description of much twentieth century and present day research. Adolf Hitler pushed German scientists (that is, those that he had not expelled from their jobs for being of Jewish descent) to be the first to improve human understanding of genetics, of rocket-science, of mass psychology and other subjects useful for extending German domination, by marketing his idea that Germany was drawn into war unwillingly – because of all kinds of threatening powers, external and internal. After having defeated the dictator, the mightiest victors, the USA and the USSR, adopted and expanded his system of pushing scientists forward by making use of the metaphor of war, spreading the idea of being under constant mortal threat by the other power.

It is not strange that since the days of the Cold War the metaphor of war has been nesting inside the institutional sphere of science itself: universities, research institutes, and funding organizatons all tell their researchers to compete as if the enemy was right behind them – they have to ‘publish or perish’, their work has to be innovative, excellent, and useful too, be it in the fight against climate change, disease, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, etc. etc. etc. Under ever growing pressures to perform (or else! Or what else?) we see the tendency to commit fraud in research also grow, as well as the tendency to produce sloppy research. There is no time to do it better, it is felt by a lot of researchers, since… we are in a war? With whom?

It has not always been like this, of course, and Levinas’ words do not describe ‘the mind’s openness to truth’ as such, at least I do not think so. They moved me so much because I grew up in the long shadows of World War II (shadows which have not cleared away completely up till now), and they described the reality I lived in. It does not make sense, however, to understand understanding as being always and inevitably produced under the banner of war. Understanding can be moral, in Levinas’ sense – motivated by seeing the fear and suffering of the other. Moved by eternal obligations and unconditional imperatives (not to kill, not to cheat, not to rob others from what they need to survive). It is not so much a choice for another kind of scientific research, but a refusal to work under the reign of the metaphor of war. If I do not let myself be frightened that others might get there before me, or will take it from me, I might also refuse the seduction to cheat, to be sloppy, or to accept injustices in academic working conditions. Levinas’ opening lines hopefully make academics think again if they push themselves and their junior research assistants to produce more and more results, against the common sense insight that ‘more’ is nothing once we have denied the supposed wars which are pushed upon us.

Emanuel Levinas lived from 1906-1995. I cited from the 1979 edition of his Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. The original French edition appeared with the same publisher in 1961.

I think he is the most funny philosopher that ever existed: Paul Feyerabend. I don’t remember why I bought his autobiography, Killing Time – I think I just saw it in the book shop at the Station, at a moment I was in need of something new to feed my mind. I didn’t know his philosophical work back then. In recent years I have read the book twice and would read it again, because it is so entertaining. And wise…

The title of the book is funny: normally we think of killing time as doing things with no lasting result, unnoticeable things, like playing cards, or worse: watching the screens with moving images which nowadays are everywhere in public spaces: in airplanes,in  busses, even in the waiting room of the family doctor. In countries where such screens would be unaffordable luxury men kill time in the traditional way: standing around on corners and talking about nothing… Feyerabend uses the expression to characterize his amazing international philosophical career.

As an Austrian youth he participated in World War II on the nazi side, and he is bluntly open about it. He discloses the fact that at age 19 he just had no deep thoughts about the events of his time, or that his own existence had any connection with the fate of others. He thought of war as just some adventure, but had to pay for his participation with irreversable invalidity. That, however, didn’t make him lose this attitude: the boyish, adventurous, wanting to live life to the full-attitude, which also characterized his life as an academic. He played around, wanted to win from his colleagues in debate, and became hugely popular with his ‘anarchistic’ book Against Method. It were the days of counter-culture and hippiedom, days that made the succesful professor into a cult figure. But none of this, he later saw, was really important. In those days, he knew no deep love, he didn’t understand about connection or compassion. It made him realize, as an older man: it all was just killing time.

Who wants to read his academic work might also enjoy his wittiness, and the cleverness in which it is dressed. But in his autobiography, with its narrative, instead of argumentative, style he didn’t turn into a lesser thinker. He turned into a better thinker instead. One might regret that because of his early death at 60 he didn’t have the time to turn his ripened vision of life into a new philosophical book. He himself writes, however, at the end of Killing Time, about the war inside him: between the ambition to be seen as a great philosopher and the human need to write clearly and simply, so one can share with other human beings. His final and humble insight is that he doesn’t desire intellectual immortality, but only that love may endure. Just the touching words of a man who is dying from cancer? Or a serious call to all ambitious fellow humans: ‘stop killing time!’

Paul Feyerabend lived from 1924 – 1994.

His autobiography is: Kiling Time: The Autobiography of Paul Feyerabend, The University of Chicago Press, 1995