In her younger years, Pauline Kleingeld was curious about the backgrounds of the many religious communities in her home town. Today, she is one of the world’s most renowned researchers on the philosophy of Kant. Her Spinoza Prize comes just at the right moment, as she is completing an important phase in her research, and brings her ultimate dream a big step closer.
Text: Eelco Salverda, Photo's: Reyer Boxem
It is a cloudy afternoon when the brand-new Spinoza Prizewinner arrives at the interview location on her racing bike. ‘I usually commute by train and my trips to Groningen are tightly scheduled,’ she says, ‘but right now, I am not feeling very comfortable on public transport.’ Kleingeld spends part of her time living in Groningen, where she was appointed to an Endowed Chair as Professor of Ethics and its History in 2011. She is still grateful to the University for this: ‘I finally received more time to spend on research.’ This research has now awarded her the Spinoza Prize, opening yet more opportunities.
‘Fantastic!’ Kleingeld’s eyes shine and she smiles when she starts talking about the moment when she heard that she had been awarded the Spinoza Prize. She feels grateful for this recognition of her work. ‘The initial surprise was followed by a great feeling of calm. I have a clear picture of what I want to do, and now I can do it all without having to worry about grant applications. This will keep me going for a while, with a group of people that I myself can appoint.’
Kleingeld is the second researcher at the Faculty of Philosophy of the UG to receive the Spinoza Prize in a short space of time – her colleague Lodi Nauta, Dean of the Faculty, was awarded the same honour in 2016. This makes the recognition even more special. ‘Research in the medical and exact sciences provides directly demonstrable breakthroughs. The humanities have more difficulty in this respect. Debunking a classic objection against Kant will not immediately make a major headline in a newspaper’s science supplement, and that is understandable. You may think that you have constructed a solid argument, but getting your peers to accept it will take at least five or ten years. The persuasive power of your arguments will first have to be assessed through debates in the field.’
Even though Kleingeld enjoyed the exact sciences, she deliberately chose a different career path. ‘I have always been fascinated by ideas, by arguments, without even truly realizing it. I lived in a town with twelve different church communities and I was curious about what went on inside them. So I decided to study Theology.’ She was introduced to philosophy during her studies and after she graduated, she continued on to a degree programme in Philosophy. In her first article, published in the student magazine, she agitated against a sexist professor. This was an eye-opener. ‘I suddenly realized: “philosophy isn’t just interesting, it’s actually useful!” Because that’s what philosophy can do for us: dissect arguments, debunk incorrect lines of reasoning and influence standpoints.’
Kleingeld is a renowned expert on Immanuel Kant, whom she has been studying for decades. Kant was the Enlightenment philosopher who gave us ideas about freedom, equality and universal human dignity. He is also regarded as the spiritual father of institutions such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. On the other hand, philosophers also claim that although his ideas are good, his argumentation is flawed. Kleingeld first studied Kant’s political philosophy, after which she started looking at his ethics. This led her to a remarkable conclusion: Kant had been misunderstood all those years.
Kleingeld noticed that Kant’s ethical work was riddled with terms from his political philosophy, which she was already very familiar with – terms like autonomy, moral legislation and freedom. ‘That’s when I realized that his ethics should be read in a completely different way, because his terminology means something different from what we have always assumed. And then when you read the texts, his arguments turn out to be much more convincing. We should remember that Kant taught lectures in political philosophy in the morning and worked on his ethics for the rest of the day. Those two elements must be linked, given that he uses the same terms in both.’ This must have been Kleingeld’s own Eureka moment. ‘Nobody had ever linked those political philosophy lectures with his ethics before. I felt like a detective who discovered a new trail that opens up a new avenue towards a solution.’
Freedom, equality, dignity – it is impossible these days not to connect these terms with the coronavirus. Do any elements of Kant’s philosophy reappear in how the coronavirus pandemic is being tackled? ‘Absolutely,’ Kleingeld responds. ‘Take, for example, the discussion about herd immunity in the Netherlands. At the very start of the pandemic, herd immunity was proposed as an aim. However, this made it sound as if some individuals would be sacrificed for the greater good. The idea that this is not allowed is very much in line with Kantian ethics. Every human being counts and we will not sacrifice anyone. Protests emerged, after which herd immunity became a possible outcome rather than an aim in itself.’ But we still have a long way to go, Kleingeld predicts. ‘I hope that the Kantian ideal of global justice will also reappear when it is time to distribute vaccines.’
Pauline Kleingeld has nearly completed her study of Kant’s ethics. ‘In a few weeks, I will finalize my last paper in a long series, about Kant’s argumentation on free will. So the Spinoza Prize is perfectly timed, as I am about to clear my decks and get ready to take the next step!’ This next step will consist of finding out whether she can further develop Kantian ethics into a contemporary ethical theory that provides a philosophical underpinning for moral universalism. Does entering a new phase change her work? Will the researcher transition from studying theories to creating them? Kleingeld briefly hesitates. ‘Well, doing research is also creating. But yes, you could argue that thus far, I have mainly been in discussion with old theories, and now I will start the debate with new ones.’ She is very eager to start working with a team that she herself can compile. ‘You can achieve so much more with a group of people that have a variety of different perspectives. It’s great. I am finally arriving at the station that I have always wanted to reach.’ From here, she will transfer onto another train, on the way to her final destination: developing a moral theory inspired by Kant.
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