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Honorary doctor Philipp Blom: an off-road historian

20 May 2019
Philipp Blom

Before we met, historian and philosopher Philipp Blom was told that he would be interviewed about his work and mission. Work okay, but a mission? ‘I don’t have one,’ says Philipp Blom on the phone from Vienna in fluent Dutch. ‘I’m curious and I like to tell stories and convince people about things that I think are important. Like climate change, for example.’ But you could say that is a mission, right? ‘No,’ he assures me. ‘History is just such a fantastic discipline – and important, because it has a bearing on life today. I like to find patterns in history and to investigate whether there are any constants that apply not only to the Middle Ages or the seventeenth century, but to human existence in general.’

Text: Bert Platzer. This article has been taken from our alumni magazine Broerstraat 5.

Public intellectual

Blom has his fingers in many pies: he writes books (non-fiction, novels, essays), is a journalist, makes radio and television programmes and in the summer of 2018, was a regular guest on the television show ‘Het Filosofisch Kwintet’, produced by Human. He, too, has lost track a little. ‘It’s difficult to say what my job actually is. I do a lot, but it’s all connected to a certain perspective on the world and an attempt to communicate, also with people outside my own field of expertise.’ As such, the University of Groningen is awarding him an honorary doctorate because he is ‘a textbook example of a critical “public intellectual”, which is exactly what we need in this day and age’ – as well as because of his international reputation. Born in Hamburg, he studied Philosophy and Judaism in Vienna, obtained his PhD in Oxford and has since worked in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the US.

Climate change

In recent years, Blom has been thrust into the spotlight following the 2017 publication of two of his books, Nature’s Mutiny and Was auf dem Spiel steht. In one book, he describes the far-reaching consequences of the Little Ice Age in the seventeenth century – not only for nature and agriculture, but also for the economy and society – and in the other, he describes the expected impact of digitization and climate change on today’s society. Current climate change will create areas around the equator with very limited water resources. As such, fertile agricultural areas are expected to shift hundreds of kilometres, which will result in wars and tens of millions of migrants fleeing, Blom argues. ‘A minority of these migrants – but still millions – will make their way to Europe. The most optimistic solution is for people to elect governments who are prepared to embark on a green revolution. But it is just as likely that powerful men will be elected who say that a certain group of people must leave for things to get better. We have seen this happen so many times throughout history. There’s a good chance that this will happen again within the next 10 to 20 years. It’s not a science fiction scenario.’

Little German girl

As far as the theme for this year’s UG anniversary celebrations is concerned, Blom thinks that we will have to wait and see what remains of human rights and, by extension, inclusiveness in the future. Speaking of inclusiveness: one of the reasons that Blom is delighted to receive his honorary doctorate regards his mother. She came to the Netherlands in 1948, but as a little German girl, her experience of the country ‘was not altogether pleasant’, as Blom diplomatically puts it. ‘My mother is no longer alive, but she would be pleased to see a Dutch university giving her son an honorary doctorate.’ Blom also appreciates being recognized by the academic world. ‘I am a bit of an off-road historian, but I try to keep my work pure, in line with academic standards. So it’s nice that others recognize that there is substance to it and that it is not just a kind of journalism.’

Video: Why the UG awarded an honorary doctorate to Philipp Blom

Last modified:17 June 2019 09.41 a.m.
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