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Han Thomas Adriaenssen: Philosopher

'The best thing about lecturing is making challenging material as clear as possible.’

On a dark autumn morning we meet philosopher Han Thomas Adriaenssen. The attractive old building of the Faculty of Philosophy exudes an atmosphere in which you expect to encounter a group of seventeenth-century philosophers at any time.

Han Thomas Adriaenssen
Han Thomas Adriaenssen

Mediaeval philosophy

For Adriaenssen, it was clear from an early age that philosophy would be his thing. It was one of the subjects taught at his secondary school and he really enjoyed it. His interest in the philosophy of the Middle Ages and the Golden Age grew gradually. ‘As a student I assisted in a course unit on the Middle Ages. That was when it started to become interesting.’ This interest grew when he then followed a course unit on Thomas Aquinas. And the Golden Age? ‘I’ve always found it fascinating. Seventeenth-century philosophy has everything: ethics, philosophy of science, metaphysics. You don’t need to specialize because it has it all.’

Battling with old texts

After his studies academia called. ‘I always wanted that anyway. I love that battle with old philosophical texts. Sometimes you just know that a text isn’t true and try to discover the error. People in the Middle Ages struggled with the same issues as we do. They asked very specific questions, but we have many more resources and information available. They only had their reasoning powers, but despite their limited resources they still tried to come up with solutions.’ Adriaenssen is good at sharing his love of philosophy – this is clear from the fact that he has been elected Lecturer of the Year three times at the Faculty of Philosophy. His students describe him as a very enthusiastic lecturer who has a great deal of time for them. The best thing about lecturing, says Adriaenssen, is ‘making challenging material as clear as possible.’

Favourite philosophers

When asked who his favourite philosopher is Adriaenssen doesn’t need long to think. ‘For the Middle Ages that is Peter Olivi. He’s an exciting figure because he was so stubborn. He actually behaved like a bull in a china shop, but with good arguments. He was very good at pointing out his peers’ mistakes.’ And modern philosophers? ‘In general I have a weakness for philosophers who see problems but then get carried away solving them. You see that with the Frenchman Nicolas Malebranche, for instance, from the seventeenth century. His solutions are rather extreme. And I also have my favourite texts that always make me think: yes, that’s what makes it such a great subject. I have this with Van Ockam, for example. A very clever man.’

Golden Age

Adriaenssen recently successfully applied for a Veni research grant. He is going to use it in the next three years to write a book about Aristotelian philosophy. ‘The Golden Age had many successes, and all sorts of things were happening in the arts and scholarship at the time. New philosophers were rejecting the mediaeval worldview and wanted to start with a clean slate, but there were also those who wanted to hold on to Aristotelianism, traditional philosophy. And these conservatives were not stupid: they corresponded with the innovators and served them up all manner of challenging issues. They put them to the test. What I want to research now is whether and how the challenges that the conservative Aristotelians formulated influenced the new philosophers. What effects did this have?’


Adriaenssen’s working days are rarely the same. ‘It depends greatly on whether I’m in a teaching period or not. Sometimes I have periods in which I mainly read. Then I spend days writing. But one thing I do almost every day is read an old text, from the Middle Ages or the Golden Age.’ What is taking up most of his time now is completing a book on scepticism, a school of philosophy that is based on fostering doubt about inherited values. The seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes laid the foundations for scepticism. ‘My claim is that scepticism is not necessarily a seventeenth-century subject. It might appear modern, but I claim that many of the arguments that Descartes proposed can be found in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.’

Good argumentation

School pupils in pre-university education will also encounter scepticism in the next three years, because that is the topic of their final exams in philosophy. Adriaenssen has contributed to the teaching manual for this. He also teaches in schools every now and then. He enjoys this a lot. ‘Philosophy teaches school pupils good reasoning and argumentation skills at an early age. That we as philosophers can contribute to society in this way is great of course.’

Last modified:15 December 2015 4.21 p.m.
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