'All of these people come here for philosophy?'

Foreign philosophers often react with surprise: why is philosophy so popular in the Netherlands? Dutch philosophers write bestsellers, the “philosophical cafes” are full, and the Month of Philosophy is flourishing. Does it have something to do with the national character of the Dutch? And does this say anything about the quest for meaning in the Netherlands?

There is a festival-like atmosphere on the creaking stairs of Felix Meritis, a large canal house that has been converted into a debate center. The Night of Philosophy is taking place here, as it does every year. Dozens of people are waiting in line to go downstairs, where five leading thinkers will be discussing the role of religion in secular society. At the same time, another part of the audience is heading upstairs, where a few well-known speakers will be having one-on-one debates about ideas related to this year’s popular theme: the soul.

The atmosphere is light and festive, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that deep analysis is taking place in some of the rooms. While stand-up philosophers debate with the audience about the existence of the soul, on the second floor a lecture is being given about Nietzsche, and on the top floor the French philosopher Frédéric Lenoir is explaining to thirty people how money has become a religion.

“To be honest, I don’t come here for the content,” says a participating philosopher who spends most of his unscheduled time in the backstage area, where the free beer is. “Debates are always disappointing, but I don’t mind that. This is basically theater, this is fun! It’s like a puppet show.”

But with a thousand visitors, the event is once again full, like it is every year. “Although it might be hard to believe in other countries, a lot of Dutch people just really enjoy philosophy,” said Erno Eskens, who organizes courses and readings at the ISVW, the Dutch acronym for the International School of Philosophy. “The Dutch see an evening of philosophizing as a night out. Maybe it’s comparable to French culture; that’s where the salons began, whereas the Netherlands is where is the phenomenon of readings began. We love readings, since they fit in with our Protestant writing culture.”


(One of the six halls at the Night of Philosophy)


Popular books

At the ISVW, idyllically located in the woods near Amersfoort in the middle of the Netherlands, it is so busy at lunchtime that the restaurant can’t accommodate all the diners at once. The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum can’t believe her eyes. “All of these people come here for philosophy? My country is many times bigger, but we don’t have anything like this. In terms of public philosophy, the Dutch are really a role model.”

A look at the top-10 shelf in the bookstores shows that philosophy is indeed popular in the Low Countries. Every year there are philosophers who manage to reach the general public with accessibly written books, in which they shine their philosophical light on everyday topics such as friendship, happiness, politics, or Facebook.

One of the most popular philosophy books of recent years is “Dus ik ben” (“Therefore I Am”) by Stine Jensen and Rob Wijnberg. It’s an interesting example, because the writers are both young, in their thirties, and are active in many different media: both are columnists, and Jensen produces television programs, whereas Wijnberg is the editor in chief of a newspaper. On different levels, they try to show people that philosophy can teach them to question their own assumptions, says Jensen. “Philosophy gives you a kind of autonomy. And it’s healthy for any democracy if citizens learn how to understand other people’s standpoints.” Her book is part of an eponymous television series, which airs on the Humanist Broadcaster, which is part of the Dutch public television system. She’s currently working on “Therefore I Am: Junior,” for children aged 9-12.

The revival of philosophy in the Netherlands began in the 1990s. Summer courses, philosophical cafes, workshops in the art of living, and news debates are buttressed by philosophers who know how to write well and accessibly about current topics. The Night of Philosophy is only part of the so-called Month of Philosophy, during which libraries and universities across the country organize debates and readings.

“My friends abroad are surprised at what’s happening here,” says Hans Achterhuis, a Dutch philosopher to whom Filosofie Magazine has given the honorary title of “Thinker of the Fatherland”. Achterhuis often writes authoritatively about philosophical issues in the Dutch opinion pages. “There are so many debates that I have to say no to a lot of them. And their level of quality is also high. There are more and more philosophical book clubs. Sometimes I’m invited to discuss my latest book, “The Utopia of the Free Market.” But they will have already done Plato and Heidegger, and they will have already read my book beforehand.”


Filosofie Magazine

The popularity of philosophy here is mainly due to Filosofie Magazine, Achterhuis says. “The magazine was introduced twenty years ago by philosophers who had the courage to address a broad audience. Academic philosophers said it wasn’t possible, but it was. The magazine also organizes the Month and the Night of Philosophy.”

With a circulation of 20,000, Filosofie Magazine was for a long time the most popular philosophy magazine in the world, in a language area consisting of about 23 million people in the Netherlands and Belgium. By comparison, in the United States that would amount to 270,000 readers. There are now similar magazines in France and Germany.

“Our aim isn’t to report news about academic philosophy, but rather to use philosophy to provide insights into current issues,” said Daan Roovers, Filosofie Magazine’s editor in chief. “We want to give people tools that teach them how to think. Kant’s notion of ‘dare to know’  is an important mission for us.” Roovers has noticed that the popularity of philosophy is having a major impact on society. The magazine has been the driving force behind all kinds of events and campaigns, such as the Night and Month of Philosophy, a philosophy prize, the honorary Thinker of the Fatherland title, philosophical cafes, and more. “Interest in philosophy books has really increased in recent years. Our magazine is a springboard for philosophical writers.”


Art of living

Another important node in popular philosophy is the International School of Philosophy, a conference center in a wooded area in Leusden, in the middle of the country. Every year, about four thousand people come here to attend readings, special weekends, and summer courses. There are also seventy people studying here to become philosophical coaches, in order to help people grapple with life's questions in a professional way.

“These things are also happening in neighboring countries, but in the Netherlands, the rise of popular philosophy has been absurdly fast, and it also started sooner here than it did elsewhere,” says René Gude, the director of the ISVW. “I see it as a reaction to the neoliberal zeitgeist, where there wasn’t much need for theory. You could just let the winners win, and you didn’t have to do any extra research into ethical standpoints. But fortunately, people again began to feel the need to think more deeply about ideologies.”
Joep Dohmen, an author of popular books on the art of living, also notices a dissatisfaction with commercialism and hyper-individualism. “Our society is determined by the market, the media, and the experts. But there are major social problems. People are discovering more and more that most scientific expertise about life is one-sided, or wavering. That’s where philosophers come into the picture. People realize that they need a kind of Bildung, an art of living, which Foucault also discussed, that helps you to relate to a world where you no longer have a community that defines the rules of life for you.”


Political significance

Gude also thinks that this “Bildung” has a political significance. And this is not only true of today, but has been throughout Dutch history. “For centuries, the Dutch have formed a small, densely populated country that was constantly battling against the water. They were forced to talk to people they genuinely hated. And this led to the tolerance that Hugo Grotius and Spinoza championed.” According to Gude, the Dutch learned early on to question their own insights and behavior, and to arrive at a language that allowed them to talk to people who had different opinions. “Today we call this the 'polder model', a politics in which the winner doesn’t call the shots, but instead has to come to a compromise. Now that the old bonds, like religion, have faded away, we need to see philosophy as a training program that enables this ‘consultation culture’.”

Paul Cliteur, a Dutch philosopher of law based in Leiden, thinks that Dutch philosophy is much too light for this purpose. “It consists of little more than popularizing the great philosophers and writing what I call ‘gift books’. These are slight books that take mild standpoints which everyone can agree on.”

A similar tendency has also been also detected by Ad Verbrugge, a social philosopher at VU University Amsterdam, who is well-known from public debates and television programs. “We must not forget that the sixties and seventies were also very philosophical,” he says. “The world needed to be reshaped on the basis of philosophy. It became a quasi-religious force, with a mission. That’s when it became very politicized and dogmatic. When those ideologies ran into a crisis, the leftist ideology was also watered down. What remained was a kind of non-political philosophy, more of a lifestyle really, which consisted of courses in the art of living, cafes, and weekends in Leusden with ‘our kind of people.’ To some degree, this was very easy and politically correct, a form of gently railing against the bourgeoisie. But since the 2002 assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, things have become more political.”


Cultural Relativism

It was not only the death of Pim Fortuyn, but also the rise of Islam that woke philosophers up, and got them thinking about what they were really fighting for. Someone who played a major role in this process was Cliteur. “I’m a proponent of prophetic philosophy,” he says. “Having the pretense of being Moses, coming down from the mountain and knowing what direction the people need to move in.”

At the beginning of the millennium, he and several others began expressing their displeasure with the culture of “everything is possible, all opinions are equal”. Is the value of a Sharia council that decides an adulteress should be stoned equivalent to the values of the rule of law and equality between man and woman? Is it forbidden to say that Western society is superior to another society? Should you be allowed to immigrate to the Netherlands if you hold the Koran above the constitution?

“Anyone who denies that one culture can be superior to another is nothing but a moral nihilist,” wrote Cliteur in Filosofie Magazine in 2002, after he had published the book “Modern Papuans: Dilemmas of a Multicultural Society.”
“There is no kind of integration possible without insisting that the foundations of the democratic constitutional state are ‘superior.’ A politician needs to be able to say that people have to meet certain conditions and standards in order to be allowed to move to the Netherlands.”

Soon the entire community of Dutch opinion-makers began to weigh in on this issue. What are Western values? And what is Enlightenment? Do all religions need to go through an “enlightenment” in order to adapt to a democratic society? The debate was very fierce. On the opinion pages, Cliteur and those who felt similarly were opposed by philosophers who felt that the liberal Netherlands was losing its tolerance. They accused Cliteur’s group of enlightenment fundamentalism: a tolerant attitude towards everything and everyone, except for those who aren’t enlightened enough. In 2006, for example, the New York-based Dutch-British philosopher Ian Buruma published an influential book, “The Death of a Healthy Smoker,” in which he argued that Islam can actually help Muslims to become democratic citizens, in their own way. The debate has yet to completely subside, but this example shows that philosophers have once again discovered the political debate.


Civilizing Mission

This example also shows that many well-known philosophers are very ambitious. Their goal is not only to help people understand social issues; they are also on a civilizing mission. Gude is one of them. “Absolutely, no question about it. Religion used to be a means of civilizing, but now philosophy has to take over that role. Philosophy is way of becoming human. We need to develop reason to become civilized people. The role of public philosophy in this process should be to get through to people at every layer of the population.”

It is striking that for many philosophers, this civilizing mission has an atheistic character. Likewise, the philosophical audience also consists largely of people who have left the church. “I would estimate that eighty percent of the people who participate in our programs are not religious,” says Eskens.

Many popular philosophical courses in the Netherlands explicitly mention that they aim to offer a worldview, or even a kind of spirituality, that provides an alternative to Christianity. One of the best-known proponents of the art of living is Dries Boele. He organizes holidays, courses, and Socratic dialogues. “For me, philosophy is primarily something practical, a way of life,” says Boele. “It doesn’t consist only of argumentation and conceptual analysis, but also involves exercises such as dialogue, writing, and forms of meditation. I’m striving for a secular spirituality. Today’s secularism is too meager, and is mainly a kind of anti-attitude. It doesn’t make our civilization any more attractive. I see Christianity as the past. And I think philosophy and the art of living form a good alternative.”

In terms of this atheistic dimension, the Netherlands resembles France, says Fabrice Gerschel, the man who launched a French version of Filosofie Magazine in 2006, without knowing about the existence of the Dutch version; last year he also launched a German version. “Germany is different; it’s still a very religious country,” he says. “There’s a lot of overlap there between philosophy and theology, and there’s also a great tradition of theologian-philosophers like Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope. People there are especially interested in moral issues and ideological debates, almost obsessively so. In France, people are much more interested in philosophy itself. Religion doesn’t play any role at all. People are free thinkers, looking to find new truths, and in general they’re not interested in traditional ideas. Which is why we don’t cover religion very much in the French version.”

It’s an unalloyed good when people leave theology behind in favor of philosophy, says Cliteur, who is also the author of “The Secular Outlook.” “Religion is pseudo-philosophy,” he says. “The goal of philosophy is enlightened citizens, who take standpoints that are based on reason.”


Overestimation

This urge towards civilization is still a bit too much for some philosophers. “More deep thinking can’t do any harm, but philosophers have also done a lot of damage to the world with their doctrines,” said Verbrugge. “And anyway, I don’t even think that philosophers are capable of civilizing the Netherlands. You're lucky if people absorb a bit of what you say, and if you’re able to translate that into a concrete political vision.”

Of course, philosophy’s popularity is relative. Four thousand people a year going to the ISVW is about the same number who go to church every week in a mid-sized provincial town, or who go to a museum every day, to name just two other examples of places where reflection and civilization take place. The 3.5 percent of total non-fiction sales that philosophy books represent (not including cooking, travel and hobby books) has been stable for years. As Verbrugge says, “That’s not enough to mobilize the population. That would be a serious overestimation of what philosophy can do.”

Someone who agrees with Verbrugge is Henk Oosterling, a philosopher at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. “That kind of civilizing mission is much too modernist for me,” he says. “Dutch philosophy is very much alive, and great things are taking place at the ISVW, but it’s by no means universal. Who goes there? People with money. All of these philosophers live in Amsterdam and preach to the converted. Like the Night of Philosophy, for example; I think it’s pure entertainment. And I think the idea of a ‘civilizing offensive’ is nonsense.”

Achterhuis is modest about his mission. “When I’m giving a lecture, there aren’t many people in the audience who vote for the anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. I’m mainly speaking to a highly educated audience. But it’s not my mission as the ‘Thinker of the Fatherland’ to give my opinions to the whole world. I'm just a social philosopher who’s trying to understand the world, and to help others do the same. If I’m talking about euthanasia, I don’t say what I think about it, but instead I’ll refer to Thomas More and why he wanted to kill the elderly, to place the discussion in a broader context.”

And that’s a good thing, says Oosterling. Philosophers, in his opinion, shouldn’t be involved in the meaning of life. “Values arise within a society. If you were raped by a drunken father and then started philosophizing, that would lead to something very different than if you grew up quietly in a happy family.” But that doesn’t mean that philosophy can’t do a very good job of helping people learn how to live together. “I see it as a tool, as a skill, to leave behind the hectic pace of life and then, after some reflection, to move forwards.”


'Skillcity'

This is why Oosterling has developed an educational program to help children become mentally resilient, via an organization he runs called Rotterdam Vakmanstad (‘Skillcity’). This program has been running for several years in one of the Netherlands’ poorest neighborhoods, the Rotterdam district of Bloemhof. Oosterling believes that the program has already helped the children become more confident, resilient and intelligent. In the program, the children take a number of courses that teach them to relate to each other and to their environment: gardening, cooking, judo, and: philosophy.

“I want to teach children how to discuss without arguing, and I want to teach them to think critically,” said Leonie Van Wees, who leads some of the philosophy classes at this school. She has a small class today, with thirteen 10-year-olds. None of them has a Dutch name, but they genuinely enjoy philosophizing.

“Today I want to talk about Erasmus,” she says. The class knows that name. “That's a bridge!” “No, it’s a university!” Van Wees explains that Erasmus was a famous philosopher from Rotterdam. She shows a short film that includes a rap about Erasmus. He thought that people should read the Bible in their own language, so that they could think about it themselves. He also believed that you had to learn good manners, including table manners, and that you had to accept others.

“Which of Erasmus’s ideas do you agree with?” asks Van Wees.
“The idea that you should give your own opinion,” answers Okan.
“And why is that important?”
“Because otherwise, you have to say yes if someone tells you to do something,” says Ayoub. “And that makes life boring.”
“But if someone is older than you are, then you can’t always give your opinion,” says Shenill. “You have to respect that.”
“I don’t agree with Shenill,” said Duncan. “You can have your own opinion, but just convey it in a certain way.”
“But you can also have respect for someone and still give your opinion,” says Ayoub.

The children continue philosophizing like this for another hour, under the teacher’s guidance. Some discussions eventually wind up in “Only Allah knows that,” but Van Wees thinks they’re getting better and better at having discussions without quarreling.

And in this way, these children are unwittingly continuing a centuries-old tradition: learning how to debate in a very small country inhabited by many people who sometimes have very annoying opinions. And that’s something that all philosophers, with or without a civilizing mission, would agree on: philosophy is an excellent way of supporting this process.
But, the children discover together, Erasmus was wrong about one thing: if you order chicken strips at Kentucky Fried Chicken, his table manners won’t help you, because you don’t get a knife and fork there. But fine, philosophers can’t know everything.

Author: Frank Mulder
Translation: Douglas Heingartner

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