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"A monster of a book, almost incomprehensible"

"A monster of a book, almost incomprehensible"

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Ties van de Werff inspired by Jürgen Habermas

“It was 2002, I was twenty years old and studying Health Sciences, Policy and Care Management. I had a tremendous hunger for other knowledge, read a lot of anti-globalist literature. Someone, I believe it was lecturer Jan van der Made, recommended Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Theory of Communicative Action) by Jürgen Habermas (born in 1929), the German philosopher, sociologist and prominent member of the Frankfurter Schule. A monster of a book, really bulky, almost incomprehensible. I borrowed the translation by Harry Kunneman from the library in Randwijck, it hadn’t been checked out of the library in thirteen years. I considered pinching it, but decided to copy it. I completely filled the margins of those photocopies with comments. I certainly didn’t understand more than half of it, but it was nevertheless perfect for what I was looking for at the time: depth and an all-embracing theory of society.”

Habermas was the first “serious” philosopher that Ties van de Werff read, who is now a philosopher himself and doing a PhD research project. “His work opened up a new world for me. I was completely overturned. I used his theory, which says that the system – politics, state, economy – is slowly but surely colonising the living environment of the ordinary man, for a really wild paper against globalisation and the free-market system that we were allowed to write for an elective course at Health Sciences. Finally, a paper instead of multiple-choice questions. I went all out.”

In the meantime, he is “not such a great fan of Habermas anymore”. But Habermas did show me the way. That is why he is my hero. Without him, I might now have had a management position in health care and been terribly unhappy. It was partly because of him that I subsequently studied Arts and Social Sciences, ended up amid humanist thinkers, phenomenology and eventually philosophy of mind: are we really all that rational and what role do emotions play? I am now doing research from a philosophical perspective into the role of neuroscience research in the social debate. An example is how knowledge about brains in puberty is used by educationalists to give parents advice on parenting. I look at the practical application of neurosciences in society. What is striking, is the fact that the results from brain research are not just presented as facts in the debate, but also seem to be answering moral questions: how should we parent? Facts and values are inextricably connected.”

Habermas focused on the public debate, on language, says Van de Werff, and Habermas also feels that scientists should take social responsibility. “He often took part in TV programmes and wrote a lot. I never met him. I realise that it could just as well have been another philosopher who showed me the way, Foucault or someone like that. But it was Habermas.”

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