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Prof. Martin van Hees: ‘Watch out for the Zeitgeist’

01 December 2010

It is often said that with the disappearance of the major ideologies, all-encompassing social analyses have also vanished. Nothing could be further from the truth, states philosopher Martin van Hees. However, what has appeared in their place is not much better. Zeitgeist thinking is characterized by sweeping, badly supported claims that rapidly succeed each other. A recent example is the supposed revival of Fascism. Just this once Van Hees will indulge in Zeitgeist thinking himself in order to prove its existence.

Van Hees does not want to return to the times of the major ideologies, but he is irritated by the wild empirical speculations that have replaced them. They are ‘wild’ because of the far-reaching claims they make. Individualization, populism, neoliberalism, globalization, materialism – they are sweeping warnings that are not always based on facts, states Van Hees. ‘Just take the time to investigate whether we really are in, say, the clutches of materialism. Is there really more to it than just observing that the iPhone has changed our lives?’

Van Hees also encourages people to investigate what is actually desired. The major ideologies all comprised a clear image of what society would look like in an ideal world. Van Hees: ‘That norm-setting element, what things should be like, that’s what I can’t find in the claims nowadays. All they do is point out negative trends.’

From French-fry generation to greedy managers

Zeitgeist thinking is usually concerned with major social and political developments. However, these speculations don’t stop at our front doors. ‘Just take the qualifications being loaded onto our children – French-fry generation, channel surfing generation, backseat generation, ADHD generation.’

Van Hees understands why such claims are being made. ‘It’s nice to be able to use schemes through which the world can be explained.’ However, sweeping statements that are not well founded are also dangerous. ‘If you analyse the discussion on the incentive system in the financial sector in terms of increasing greed, neoliberalism and individualization, you automatically move towards a certain kind of policy. Managers are then dastardly egoists who need to be tackled. In that context embracing such poorly supported claims has direct consequences.’

Helpless victims

In addition, we regard ourselves too often as the helpless victims of anonymous powers, states Van Hees. He mentions one ‘unfortunate example’ of this way of thinking – the comparison made by Rob Riemen between the rise of Fascism and the PVV. According to Riemen, the popularity of Wilders is the logical political consequence of our current society. ‘We are inclined to think in terms of these huge outlines. It’s not about the content of the standpoints of the PVV, but about a general historical development of which these views form part. The result is both morally and politically objectionable’, says Van Hees. ‘After all, one does not engage in discussion with Fascists, and we therefore have no choice but to passively watch until this train, too, has passed by.’

Van Hees is in favour of changing from speculative analyses to ‘responsible, professional sociology’. But not without realizing that by expressing this opinion he is also guilty of what he has just condemned. ‘What I am now doing is exactly what Zeitgeist thinking is. I’m professing to espy a general trend about which we should be very concerned’, says Van Hees. ‘But I want to encourage the readers of the opinion pages in the newspapers to be sceptical when the next great claim about society ‘in general’ is made. Reality cannot easily be reduced to a few keywords.’

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Martin van Hees(1964) is professor of ethics and political theory. He studied philosophy and politics in Rotterdam, worked after that in Nijmegen and Enschede, and joined the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen in 1998. He has also been a guest professor in Germany and China.


Esther Hoorn, copyright librarian RUG (December 2, 2010 at 8:49 am)

I fully agree with the view of Martin van Hees. But I would like to raise a question on the role of scholars in public the public debate. Is it not also because journalists and amateur-bloggers take over the public debate, that a few simple keywords become this weeks buzzwords and hinder a more balanced debate? And ifso: if all scholarly output was freely available on the web, should that not help journalists and amateur-bloggers to point to relevant underlying discussions?
It is now the aim of NWO to get a change in publication model towards Open Access. Incentives are put into place to support scientists and scholars, who want to choose for open collaboration. Yet the present reward structure seems to hinder the shift toward Open Access. Scholars are required preferably to publish in high impact journals. At the same time the university pays 5 million euro a year to publishers to get access to scholarly literature at an exclusive base for students and researchers. Al over the world software and other instruments are developed to get new types of community based peer productions, metrics and a level playing field for Open Access publishing. Would it not be a valuable contribution to this debate against the Zeitgeist, that also scholars can pay their due in the public debate by taking up Open Access.

Regine Reincke (December 2, 2010 at 18:00 pm)

Van Hees puts forward an interesting clash. According to him, a return to a ‘decent form of sociology’ might rescue us from ‘anonymous powers’ that have taken control of what people are inclined to think. But sociology (yes, even sociology) is still for the happy few who actually know what it is about, and the ‘anonymous powers’ (on their perceived anonymity, see below) will literally not allow time and space for ‘decent forms of sociology’. This has little to do with sociologists themselves, who are very aware of the importance of taking part in the intellectual debate as one of their many duties, and would be eager to take up this challenge (cf. numerous interviews on sociology in the public sphere with the Dutch Godfather of Sociology, Abram De Swaan). In my opinion, it has to do with the different role the media (both in print and online) has been given over the last decades.

Last modified:04 January 2018 3.16 p.m.
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