28 April 2017 • by Youri van Vliet
Marli Huijer on her time as Philosophy Laureate of the Netherlands: ‘You need courage’
After spending two years as Philosopher Laureate of the Netherlands, Marli Huijer, Head of the Philosophy & Professional Practice Research Group, recently passed the baton to René ten Bos. She takes a look back on her time as a public philosopher with H|NIEUWS.
When Marli presented herself to the general public as the new Philosopher Laureate, it started off a little unconventionally. This was because on 13 March 2015 the Philosopher Laureate appeared on the Dutch television programme De Wereld Draait Door (DWDD). And while Marli was introducing the concept of ‘interactive thinking’, she became the first ever guest on DWDD, to the great amusement of the audience and fellow-guest Marc-Marie Huijbregts, to sit on the lap of presenter Matthijs van Nieuwkerk: ‘Now we have a totally different type of contact to when I was sitting over there [at the other end of the table], explained Marli, casually adding that she thought that Matthijs was ‘a very nice man’.
‘I swing back and forth between the “proactive thinking” of René Gude [the second Philosopher Laureate] and the “counterintuitive thinking” of Hans Achterhuis[the first Philosopher Laureate ]. (…). Which one is the most suitable depends on the moment and situation. The danger of only using joint reflection is that the thoughts do not develop any further and everyone will think the same thing. However, counterintuitive thinking is not without risks either. Anyone such as Achterhuis who transforms getting the wrong end of the stick into “thinking against his intuition”, is eventually always right, noted journalist Sjoerd de Jong in the NRC Handelsblad on 12 February 2012: Anyone who thinks against his intuition for long enough will invariably take a proactive approach to thinking in a good moment.’ From Marli’s book Leve de publieksfilosofie! (Long live public philosophy!) in which she looks back on her time as Philosopher Laureate of the Netherlands.
According to Marli, the remit of the Philosopher Laureate – namely to get the entire country to experience the pleasure of philosophy, so that eventually everyone says ‘Philosophy, well that’s useful’ – is going ‘quite well’. She also acknowledged in the same show that the public media has a huge reach, far greater than she does when she gives a talk to thirty or forty people in a cramped room. Van Nieuwkerk ended the interview with the words: ‘It was a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to seeing you again.’ However, Marli would never return.
What most people did not know at the time is that she was actually due to make her appearance two weeks earlier on this popular programme broadcast by VARA, but was dropped at the last moment.
‘The pressure to make a good impression on DWDD as the latest and first woman Philosopher Laureate was great. (…) The day before this was announced, the editor called me to say that I would be appearing on the programme that evening. However, there was a small proviso, namely that I might be dropped during the broadcast for a minister who normally would never have wanted to appear on the programme. Now all of a sudden he wanted to appear. Half an hour before the programme started, before my turn, the minister walked in.’ From: Long live public philosophy!
The minister in question was the Minister of Finance, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, from the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), who wanted to explain his ‘scuffle’ with his Greek colleague Yanis Varoufakis. Although DWDD invited Marli onto the programme several other times, she eventually decided to hold off: ‘The flexible way of inviting people onto the programme with the last-minute risk that you would not appear did not combine well with my commitments at the university and the university of applied sciences,’ she said. ‘Furthermore, my intention with “interactive thinking” was literally to give shape to thinking among students, cultures, different social classes or even among people on the train.’
Even though Marli may perhaps not be appearing again on DWDD, for two years she did work around seventy hours a week to bring philosophy to the public in other ways. For instance, she gave over one hundred talks (on average one per week) throughout the entire country, travelled to dozens of radio shows (which are Marli’s favourite media – unless the programmes were in the middle of the night – because you can take discussions to a higher level), she made around ten television appearances (including one in Germany), wrote numerous columns and opinion pieces (including, for instance, for the Moslimkrant, the Dutch Humanist Association and Filosofie Magazine), gave dozens of interviews and advised ministries and the Dutch Royal Family among others. You also need to bear in mind that this list is only a fraction of the requests that came in.
‘When I was asked whether I wanted to become the Philosopher Laureate of the Netherlands, I immediately realised that it would have a huge impact,’ said Marli. ‘Not just on my life, but on my partner’s life too. The first thing I did was ask him how he felt about it. But my husband instantly said: “Just do it”. He is supportive like that. For instance, “he has me to thank” that we have not been to the cinema or the theatre for two years.’
When posed the question about whether all of these activities had made her a rich woman, Marli replied that this was not the case. ‘With the extra money that I earn, I pay my assistant who coordinates all of the requests and my web designer who looks after my website. I already consider myself a rich person. When I was a small child, I saw that all of the material things such as cars or televisions make absolutely no difference to a person’s happiness. That is why if I earn more than I need, I give a talk for free.’
‘Among the many impressive events during my time as Philosopher Laureate was an appearance at the Sailor’s Church in Oudeschild on the island of Texel. I was invited to give the fourth Rede van Texel lecture, which was on refugees and those that stay behind. (…) The Mayor gave the introduction, after which I ascended to the pulpit, which dates back to 1650. The little church was full. (…) My position that offering shelter to refugees benefits people who are prepared to invest over the long-term in their local area and political community was very well received. At the end of the talk, I was given a horn by the Mayor that had been specially engraved for the occasion.’ From: Long live public philosophy!
Serving a wide audience is one thing, but the Philosopher Laureate is also expected to have an ‘opinion’ on current affairs. In Marli’s case, this took the form of a controversial manifesto on the tragedy involving refugees which appeared on the front page of the newspaper Trouw on 30 March 2016. A month later she debated this with Professor Paul Scheffer at THUAS.
The manifesto was a response to the deal between the EU and Turkey, where in Marli’s view, Europe was paying off its responsibility for refugees from Syria. Together with the Professor of Ethics, she picked up her pen to argue for an open attitude toward refugees.
Marli still remembers the phone call from her son three days after publication: ‘I’m really proud of you, Mum. But… did you realise before that so much of this would come back to haunt you? Weren’t you afraid?’
What had happened? After the publication of the manifesto, presenter Hanneke Groenteman talked enthusiastically about it in the evening on DWDD. It was then picked up by GeenStijl and hundreds of often anonymous and angry comments appeared on Trouw’s website. Columnists such as Elma Drayer, Sylvain Ephimenco and Max Pam put pen to paper in turn to reproach the authors for holding an unworldly view. She received angry messages in her inbox and eventually even the editor-in-chief of Trouw distanced himself several times from the manifesto.
According to Marli, this is something that comes with the territory if you go against a policy that political leaders and many citizens think is right. ‘Looking back at my time as Philosopher Laureate, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the most important quality for a public philosopher is courage.’
‘Although the manifesto did not lead to a turn-around of the EU-Turkey deal, there was every reason to raise this issue. (…) the number of refugees who lost their lives last year in the Mediterranean Sea reached a record high of five thousand, according to the UNHCR. Furthermore, the return of refugees from Europe is being processed so slowly that tens of thousands of refugees spent winter in wretched conditions in overcrowded Greek camps. Only lip service has been paid to the promise of accepting certain selected refugees. Basically, I still haven’t finished talking or thinking about this issue.’ From: Long live public philosophy!
Marli recently passed the baton to her successor, René ten Bos. Although she is hugely grateful for the experience, she feels that after two years it is also good to take a step back. ‘I became a grandmother a few months ago and I will be really pleased to have more of my weekends free again so that I can babysit for my grandchild.’
How does she assess her original remit, namely to show people that philosophy matters? ‘I can see that public philosophy is becoming ever more popular, because universities, for instance, are constantly becoming more aware of the social role of philosophy. The frequently expressed criticism that public philosophy is no more than selling snippets of common garden truths has been replaced by a pragmatic willingness to examine how philosophy can be used in society and the skills that should be provided to students to make that happen.’
Furthermore, she will be able to continue working on this task, as the Netherlands Philosopher Laureate adventure has also led to her appointment as a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam.