INTERVIEW PHILIPP BLOM
'Sometimes it seems like we are all sleepwalking'
According to historian and publicist Philipp Blom, it is high time for the world to wake up and do something about the refugee crisis, the climate problem and the changing democracy. 'Social scientists and humanities researchers must describe and interpret the changes. And they can play a role as citizens too.' An interview with one of the main speakers at Synergy 2019.
Philipp Blom (Hamburg, 1970) is a historian, novelist and translator. He grew up in Germany with a German father and a Dutch mother. Blom studied history, philosophy and Jewish Studies in Vienna and Oxford. In 1997, he gained his PhD from the University of Oxford for a thesis about Nietzsche and nationalism.
During his PhD research, Blom debuted as a writer with the book The Simmons papers (1995), he worked at a high school and was a journalist. Since 1997, Blom has written for newspapers and magazines in, for example, Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, the United States and the Netherlands. He also makes radio and television appearances. In the Netherlands, for example, Blom is known for his appearances in the political TV show Buitenhof and the philosophical programme Filosofisch Kwintet. On 7 February 2019, Blom is one of the main speakers at Synergy 2019, the congress for the social sciences and humanities.
In one of his recent books, Wat op het spel staat [What is at stake], Blom demonstrates that the world is at a historical turning point. In an era of refugee crises, climate problems, digitalisation, rising unemployment and changing democracy it is, according to Blom, more critical than ever that citizens stand up for the future. 'However', says Blom on the phone from Austria, 'sometimes it seems like we are all sleepwalking'. We see the tragedy unfolding before our eyes, but we do far too little about it.’
We are a part of nature
Blom draws parallels with the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the First World War. Both of these major events were foreseeable. According to Blom, the difference with these historical turning points is that thanks to science we are now in a much better position to know how we ought to deal with the problems. Blom: 'We should be taking the last step of the enlightenment. We need to view ourselves far more as a part of nature. We are not more important than ants and birds. We think that we rule the world, but that is not the case.’
'We should be taking the last step of the enlightenment.'
Blom refers in this context to Spinoza's book Ethica. In that book, Spinoza considers the position of people in the universe. Blom: 'What actions will we take or not take to ensure that we do not destroy ourselves? Because if we carry on like this, then humankind will not survive, but the ants and birds surely will.'
Science as a clarifier
That is all very well, but what has it got to do with scientists? What relevance could Blom’s doom scenarios possibly have for researchers from the social sciences and humanities? According to Blom, scientists can contribute to a better world in two ways. The first is, in their role as researchers, to carefully describe the changes in culture and society and to interpret these. And, secondly, to contribute to a better world as citizens. Blom: 'Fly less, eat less meat and make deliberate choices about what you do or do not purchase. In other words, change the pattern of your own life. And do not forget the elections and politicians. Political pressure is a strong tool. However, we need to get the ball rolling because time is running out.'
Since gaining his PhD in 1997, Blom is no longer a researcher at a university. If you were offered a professorship, then would you accept it? Blom: 'I like teaching and giving lectures. But I dislike the bureaucratic aspects of a university. In the Netherlands, you have the university professor who is relieved of bureaucratic responsibilities. Yes, such a position would interest me.'
More of a researcher than you might think
And research? Does Blom miss it? Blom: 'Now that is where you are wrong. I do a lot of research for my books and publications. And I use my sources responsibly. So in that sense, I am perhaps more of a researcher then you might think. But, yes, in some of my books, I write in a looser and more informal style, and I make use of a literary freedom that I would not have as a researcher.' Blom continues to think aloud: 'Nowadays, at many universities, intellectual freedom is not really encouraged, given all of the quantitative requirements concerning publications and impact factors. So in terms of intellectual freedom, I am probably more at home outside of a university.'
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