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Uncertainty is good

Uncertainty is good

Required reading

Who: Rob de Vries, lecturer at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences

Book: Hamlet of William Shakespeare

Targeted: psychology students

“I’ve thought long and hard, and I have chosen three books that I want to recommend to my students. But as I must limit myself to one novel or a play and Plato’s Apology and Descartes’ Discourse on the Method are actually philosophy books, I choose Hamlet by William Shakespeare.” This recommendation comes from Rob de Vries, a lecturer at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences and winner of the 2007 University Education Prize. He is surrounded by boxes, because he is moving from Universiteitsingel 40 to the new psychology building in Randwijck. The majority of his ‘study books’ – some twenty boxes - will not be going with him because his new room only has space for a small bookshelf. His house has no room for them either. “The place is so full of books that, for the first time in my life, I have actually thrown out a few. The twenty boxes are now at a friend’s house.

“What do those three books have in common? In his Apology, Socrates argues that man is fallible and knows nothing. The gods, on the other hand, know everything. In his exciting book about his youth, Descartes tells us that when he completed his training he felt that he knew nothing. He goes in search of certainties and through reasoning arrives at ‘I think, therefore I am’. Hamlet too, doubts everything, hesitates and constantly asks himself questions. One night, he, Prince of Denmark, hears from the ghost of his departed father that his uncle Claudius killed his father. Is the ghost speaking the truth? Should he take revenge and kill his uncle?

Hamlet teaches students that, although we may know a lot, we don’t really know much about anything. There is a lot of uncertainty, and that is not so bad; it is even a necessity if you want to approach the world with an open mind. Shakespeare also shows that people are more complicated than psychology would like us to believe. There may be many discoveries, but this doesn't mean that we know more. In fact, they show how much we don’t know.”

De Vries is a reader, “it cannot be denied”; although fewer books pass through his hands than in the past. “I watch too much TV and read less quickly than in my younger days. Back then, I read two books of two to three hundred pages each day. I now get through about ten per month, a lot of philosophy, but also novels and Trivialliteratur. For example, I read all crime stories that are set in the Roman Empire. I have fits of reading. Some time ago everyone was going on about Harry Potter. I took three days off work and read the whole series.” And?  “Great.”

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