Etienne Vermeersch, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ghent, retired in October 1997. Rather than marking the end of his professorship with the traditional liber amicorum, his colleagues Johan Braeckman and Hugo van den Enden arranged for the publication of thirteen of his most important articles in From Antigone to Dolly. Forty Years of Critical Thinking (Van Antigone tot Dolly. 40 jaar kritisch denken, 1997). This reader provides an extraordinary insight into Vermeersch' philosophy and ethical thinking. It was a felicitous decision on the part of his colleagues, for it meant that we were once again confronted with, or possibly introduced to, this philosopher's uncompromising and militant work.
Etienne Vermeersch (1934-) is both unique and typical of a generation of Catholic Flemings, who broke with their faith and the Church during their student years, but never abandoned the deeper humanistic commitment of their evangelically inspired youth. After finishing secondary school in Bruges, in 1953 Vermeersch entered the Jesuit order as a novice, studying not only spirituality but also Classical Philology, and with great success. By the time he came to round off these studies with a licentiate dissertation on Death and the Deceased in Aischylos (Dood en doden bij Aischulos) six years later, he was absolutely convinced that religious doctrines (such as the Christian belief in life after death) were nothing more than rationalisations of customs, and he was ready to start a new life. From then on his entire academic career can be seen as a logically conducted search for the rational and scientific bases of philosophical beliefs and ethical behaviour.
Chronologically speaking, his life's work can be divided into three main areas of interest: investigation of the historical and social role of Western science, the development of an eco-philosophical theory and the relevance of a rational view of the bio-ethical problems of our time. As these three areas of study are obviously intrinsically linked, this chronology cannot be understood in an absolute sense, and at regular intervals Vermeersch came out with publications and viewpoints that to some extent qualify this thematic division.
Despite his strongly scientific approach, Etienne Vermeersch became a well-known media figure. Never one to avoid controversy, this often caused him to clash with people who felt threatened in their beliefs by his often radical pronouncements. Flanders simply does not have the Anglo-Saxon tradition of fierce but respectful scientific debate, in which a distinction is drawn between ideas and the people who uphold them. This, however, did not prevent Vermeersch continuing to express his respect for his former fellow believers and, later for example, the adherents of ‘paranormal’ theories, even though he did not agree with their views in the slightest.
Scientifically speaking, Vermeersch, who is thoroughly familiar with the thinking of men like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and his academic mentor Leo Apostel, conducted a series of detailed studies of scientific thinking from Antiquity to the Renaissance in an attempt to understand why it was not till the seventeenth century that we could speak of an experimental science in the modern sense of the term. This led Vermeersch to the logical conclusion that the traditional distinction between the natural sciences and the ‘woollier’ sciences does not in fact hold water, because both schools share the same rational and experimental approach. Vermeersch stands by the view that people should not and, indeed, cannot be driven to their salvation, not even when the ecological catastrophe is drawing closer; rather, he believes, we must try to convince them rationally as sensible beings. Hence, his very clearly written, eco-philosophical essay The Eyes of the Panda (De ogen van de panda), which established his reputation among the general public as an environmental philosopher. The essay is founded on an analysis of the ‘wtk’ Order, the spiral of ‘Wetenschap’ (‘Science’), ‘Techniek’ (‘Technique’) and ‘Kapitalisme’ (‘Capitalism’), which first began to establish its hold on Western Europe and North America at the end of the sixteenth century and then spread at an ever faster pace to the whole world. The consequences of this successful model have become increasingly problematic, so that our future society is indeed threatened by a possible catastrophe, a fatal development which is not the work of anonymous or irrational forces, but of specific people and organisations. We can no longer curb this development by making changes in one or two areas; rather we must tackle the whole existing order as such on an international scale. This presupposes a ‘revolutionary’ change in mentality, which the majority of the population - and not just a small group of scientists and philosophers - must embrace. In common with Thomas Robert Malthus, Vermeersch is convinced that we cannot allow the unbridled increase in population to continue, and with Thomas Aquinas he makes a plea for ‘shared justice’ which must be extended to all those alive today and to future generations. The fact that he falls back on the evangelical parable of the Good Samaritan, who crosses ethnic and religious borders to help those in need, is a typical example of the way he manages to integrate all the most valuable elements of our civilisation into his thinking.
The price of media fame is a simplified image, on the basis of which the spectator speedily allocates a celebrity to a particular ideological camp. In the case of Vermeersch, such an image does not tally in the least because in each of the polemical, often emotional confrontations on bio-ethical questions Vermeersch displays a very balanced attitude. He is well aware, for example, that the undogmatic opponents of his rationalistic and humanistic defence of the right to euthanasia are in practice prepared to go to great lengths on behalf of terminally-ill patients. The same applies to his remarkably prudent standpoint in relation to medical experiments on people and animals, whereby he never actually abandons the principle of man's right to selfdetermination or the fundamental superiority of man over animal. He bases his argument on ‘the crucial hypothesis vis-à-vis suffering’, the link between the capacity to suffer and consciousness. Logically this implies that we should draw a distinction between the level of consciousness of the various sorts of animal, which we are morally obliged to take into consideration in those cases where, according to current scientific opinion, experiments on animals are still unavoidable. And those experiments are not acceptable when experimenting for purely economic reasons, as in the case of the cosmetics industry.
‘Those who sleep withdraw into their own world, those who are awake live in a communal world’. With this quote from Heraclitus, Vermeersch illustrates his condemnation of the academic ivory tower as an appropriate biotope for scientists.
It is to Vermeersch' credit that, firstly, he is never prepared to abandon common sense and, secondly, that he always insists upon examining complex philosophical, social and ethical problems in a scientifically sound and complex manner and identifying their practical consequences. At a time when it is fashionable to snipe at enlightened thinking, Vermeersch urges us above all not to underestimate our reason nor to distrust it too readily. That way we will soon discover that we can speak with a high level of probability about much more than we generally assume.
It is still too soon to claim that this self-willed and socially committed representative of Neopositivism will be the last of the Flemish rationalists. Let us pray that this is not the case. However, it is late enough to hope that with the current confusion of minds, Etienne Vermeersch' activity and influence will stimulate us long enough to resist the increasing lure of the new irrationalism.
translated by Allison Mouthaan