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Dialogue with people, dialogue with nature

24 January 2023

He has a PhD in logic, with a focus on computing science, and studied and taught at Stanford University. He is now in Groningen, exploring how dialogue can bridge the gap in society: Marc Pauly, researcher in the Faculty of Philosophy, did not take the direct route. His mission is crystal clear: to generate a greater understanding between people, and between people and nature.

Text: Thomas Vos, Corporate Communication UG / Photos: Henk Veenstra

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Marc Pauly

Gathering knowledge

Although academia has been his home for many years now, Marc Pauly still has that thirst for knowledge. He sees knowledge as a way of helping society, whether this involves safety and nuisance in a neighbourhood in Groningen, or the way that we are treating nature in 2023. Philosophical theory provides an important lead.

Wisdom is something you work towards

‘I prefer not to call myself a philosopher. I’d rather say that I work in a Faculty of Philosophy. I certainly love philosophy, but being a philosopher is more of a work-in-progress than a goal that one can achieve,’ says Pauly from his office on the attic floor of the Faculty building on Oude Boteringestraat, in the city centre. The sounds of the carillon in the Academy tower can be heard in the background.

Interdisciplinary degree programme

Philosophy is just one of Pauly’s fields. Even when choosing his Bachelor’s degree programme, Pauly did not want to tie himself to just one field of science. He opted for Symbolic Systems at Stanford University in the USA, a programme that combined computer science, psychology, and philosophy: ‘I specialized in logic within the programme, which is part maths, part philosophy.’

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‘I suppose you could say I moved from computer software to social software. Think elections, referenda. As people, we make use of algorithms, as it were, to organize society. So I asked myself: how do we do this?'

Social software

However, his interests changed along the way. Pauly: ‘I suppose you could say I moved from computer software to social software. Think elections, referenda. As people, we make use of algorithms, as it were, to organize society. So I asked myself: how do we do this? Focusing on this aspect made me feel as if my work was useful, particularly in view of the countless problems troubling society. Science doesn’t always have to be applied, but I do think that we have a certain responsibility towards citizens.’ Pauly arrived in Groningen in 2008. The logic side of his work all but disappeared, as the focus of his work turned to socio-political philosophy. He definitely feels at home at the UG: ‘I love being able to combine research with the practical field.’

A novelty in the Netherlands

Soon after his arrival, Pauly set to work on a deliberative survey about safety and nuisance in the Groningen neighbourhood of De Wijert. At the time, this was a novelty in the Netherlands. Surveys like this work by choosing a random sample of people, who are then primed with information about various aspects of a topic. They then make a choice, generating a representative result. After selection rounds and interviews held in De Wijert, 100 residents were invited to a special meeting, where they were split into groups to discuss proposals to increase safety and reduce nuisance in the neighbourhood. In this way, residents jointly formed a more moderate opinion about how to approach safety and nuisance, while referenda often have an opposite, polarizing effect. Pauly: ‘I was happy with this first survey. It was then applied in other contexts, such as the Municipality of Groningen’s policy on poverty.’

Martin Buber

Even now, if you Google Marc Pauly, you are almost certain to come across a Jewish-Austrian-Israeli philosopher called Martin Buber. His theory concerns the dialogue between people. Buber's theory distinguishes between two matters: First, the I-It relationship, based on the view of other human beings as people with objective features, such as hair colour, gender, or age. Then there is the I-Thou relationship, in which the objective features of the other person are largely insignificant. Pauly: ‘The I-Thou relationship is about concrete encounters, without qualifications or objectification. Encounters like this do not need to have a goal.’

I-It

During his lifetime, Buber saw the I-It relationship gradually taking a more central role in society. This is perhaps logical: people want to stay in control and need clear goals, such as securing enough food. Pauly thinks that this objectifying relationship has become even more prominent: ‘You see it in the way society is organized. The bureaucratic system, for example. There is less attention for personal I-Thou encounters.’

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‘The contradictions in society are immense. We need to bridge this gap, and the I-Thou relationship is good place to start. It’s about real meetings between two human beings, meetings that bring people closer together.’

Societal contradictions

But there is definitely a lead in there, says Pauly: ‘The contradictions in society are immense. We need to bridge this gap, and the I-Thou relationship is good place to start. It’s about real meetings between two human beings, meetings that bring people closer together.’ This was the starting point for Pauly’s deliberative survey in De Wijert.

Living with nature

Nowadays, Pauly does not only apply Buber’s theory to encounters between people, but also to the relationship between humans and nature: ‘If you see a tree, you can look at it objectively by considering the chemical processes taking place, the species, whatever. But you could also see it as an encounter with another living being, which is what native inhabitants have been doing for thousands of years and features in all kinds of religions. We don’t have encounters like this in our modern society. But by adopting this approach to nature, we could change the way that we treat nature.’ Of course the big question is: how? Pauly admits that he has no simple answer to this. But he can see that a lot of good work is being carried out, such as the Bosbeweging, which offers courses on ‘surviving alongside nature’. He himself has initiated an Honours College Summer School about the philosophy of nature. Pauly takes his students into the depths of the Drenthe countryside and encourages them to reflect on their relationship with the natural world. The students are in awe, which feeds into Pauly’s natural enthusiasm: ‘Although I enjoy writing a good theoretical paper, nothing beats hearing how amazing and inspiring the students find the Summer School.’

Future

Pauly wants to continue along the same path for the time being. But he also has a secret ambition: to bring about synthesis between the philosophy of Buber and his long-term love, logic. Pauly: ‘I know it can’t be done, because logic is highly I-It. But I’m not ready to let it go yet. I’m still looking for more building blocks for citizen participation, and I think logic could be a useful tool.’ So isn’t he the right person for this synthesis? Pauly: ‘Who knows? I’ll certainly bear it in mind.’ As befits a good philosopher, even if this isn’t how he sees himself.

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Marc Pauly

Last modified:23 January 2023 11.53 a.m.
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