Science

Spinoza Prize for Lodi Nauta

‘Knowledge equals happiness’

As far as Spinoza Prize winner and philosopher Lodi Nauta is concerned, science is mainly about curiosity. In his case, that means curiosity for the history of philosophy. And he refused to apologise for that.
By Christien Boomsma / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Spinoza prizewinning philosopher Lodi Nauta almost became a biologist. Bird-watching was his first love. But he missed the cultural component.

He found his calling in Spinoza, Kant, Darwin, and Hume. ‘We are standing on the shoulders of those giants.’

The history of ideas is important, he feels. ‘As an individual, you know how earlier experiences shaped you into who you are now. The same goes for an entire era, for humanity as a collective, right now.’

Nauta is mainly interested in borders and periods in history where there was a shift in thinking. He specialised in studying fifteenth century humanism.

These humanists posited that the abstract language of medieval scholars was not suited to describing reality. The realisation that language colours reality, therefore, is not a modern insight.

He considers his Spinoza Prize a boost to the classical humanities, which are suffering under the increasing emphasis on valorisation. ‘It’s about altruistic interests and how enriching they can be.’

Reading time: 9 minutes (1,472 words)

Lodi Nauta was almost lost to his profession. The RUG professor of history of philosophy, faculty dean, VIDI and VICI laureate, KNAW member, definitive authority in the field of humanism and the man who won a Spinoza Prize this year originally wanted to be a biologist.

Twitching

He quite enjoyed his Latin classes, the Greek tragedies and Plato’s philosophy in high school, but his greatest passion was bird-watching. ‘I’ve been an enthusiastic bird-watcher since I was ten years old’, he says. ‘I still do it. Whenever I get the time, I go to the Lauwersmeer area or the Eemshaven to go twitching. All I need is one sound to know which bird made it. You gain so much knowledge, which really enriches life.’ A long silence follows, then he says, ‘knowledge equals happiness.’

He started studying biology mainly to learn a lot more about birds, but quickly realised something was missing. ‘I missed the cultural component.’

And so he finished his first year, decided to start studying the arts – where he thought he could combine his love for language, history and philosophy – then ended up in a second propaedeutic phase in philosophy, and he was sold. ‘I thought: this is it’, says Nauta. ‘This is what I want to do.’

Shoulders of giants

He was especially fascinated by the history of philosophy, taught to him by his great mentor John North – a man of knowledge and erudition. How did those great thinkers from the past who were curious to know people’s thoughts on body and soul, science, ethics interpret reality with the knowledge they had? Spinoza, Kant, Darwin, Hume: you name it. ‘We are standing on the shoulders of those giants.’

Thank god. Because if he had not done that, we would have known considerably less about the roots of our Western world view, the norms and ideals we talk about so much but only properly understand half the time. We may have the tendency to see things such as democracy, the constitutional state and freedom as universal values, but those ideas were not simply made up. ‘They have a genesis. Each country, each generation, should realise the importance of the past. It shapes us. As an individual, you know how earlier experiences shaped you into who you are now. The same goes for an entire era, for humanity as a collective, right now.’

Nauta is mainly interested in the breaking points, those periods in history where there was a shift in thinking, such as the twelfth century, when Greek science returned to Europe via the Arabs and travelling intellectuals started teaching classes. Or the Renaissance, when humanists started criticising the medieval worldview, and the Enlightenment, which is still seen as the beginning of the modern age. ‘That’s where the roots of our current values lie.’

You gain so much knowledge, which really enriches life

Lodi Nauta tells his story from his spacious office in the Philosophical Institute at the Oude Boteringestraat. His wide open windows – it is a warm week – afford a view of the old courtyard. Large bookshelves line the walls, containing the collected works of another one of those giants, Erasmus – in Latin, of course. The beautiful edition of the complete works of the fifteenth century humanist Lorenzo Valla catch the eye. Nauta has written several award-winning books about him.

Proud and grateful

‘We shouldn’t forget how important our intellectual heritage truly is’, he says. ‘Everyone is aware of the importance of our cultural heritage and how we should dust of our Rembrandt paintings every once in a while, and how we should continue to do research, and how those things are part of our culture and our traditions. But the same goes for the great thinkers who shaped our traditions. When you dive deeper into that, when you research how our knowledge and values slowly grew over time, that also leads to a certain perspective on ourselves.’

Nauta is quite good at putting himself into perspective. It only takes us a short time talking to him to find out how humble he is. The fact that he won the most prestigious science prize in the Netherlands and has 2.5 million euros to spend as he wishes only makes him ‘proud and grateful’. He emphatically considers it a prize for his profession and a boost to the classic humanities, which are suffering under the increasing emphasis on leading sectors and valorisation. ‘Research financier NWO even makes you write a paragraph about valorisation in your research proposal. Especially the humanities have to bend over backwards for this.’

Language is not a neutral medium. It colours how you see reality as well

That does not mean, however, that fundamental research and reflection of our values are not important, only that you cannot easily pinpoint that importance. But it is telling that in times where the state’s legal order is under pressure, history is the first thing to be twisted around in order to emphasise the great past and, if necessary, to invent an identity. ‘It’s important to realise that history isn’t finished yet, and that a lot of history is still alive in the present. We need people to keep that past alive and to study it.’

Enrichment

And he is one of those people. But – and this is an important point to him – he is not here to re-emphasise the point of his research. ‘That would be like falling into the trap of justification after all. It’s defensive.’ Fundamental research such as his is driven by personal curiosity, by a ‘need to understand how things work’. ‘It’s about altruistic interests, and how enriching they can be – which coincidentally is also what bird-watching is all about.’

One of these enrichments is the realisation that language does not just describe reality, but also shapes it. And that is not a modern linguistic insight. The fifteenth century humanists such as Valla were already critical of the abstract ‘jargon’ used by medieval scholars, posits Nauta. ‘In their eyes, it was insufficient to describe reality. They realised that language is not a neutral medium. It also colours how you see reality.’

These days, it is no different, explains Nauta. ‘Think of a term like ‘learning profits’, which is used in education. When you start using a word like that, you run the risk of seeing education as something that can ‘turn a profit’. Language also socialises, of course: you can include people with it, but you can also exclude them. It’s a powerful tool. ‘

Groningen

Nauta studied in Groningen and worked in Groningen. He left for England for a year and then Italy for six months, but always returned to the same old spot. Was he ever tempted to leave the RUG? He admits he could have. The opportunity arose several times. ‘But I’m really enjoying my time here. I think Groningen is amazing, the quality of life here is unbelievable. Not to mention the birds, and the skies of the Ommelanden.’

I think Groningen is amazing, the quality of life here is unbelievable

And after being awarded the Spinoza Prize, which he gets to collect in September, he will have complete intellectual freedom to boot. For a while, he will not have to worry about where his next subsidy will come from. Nauta does not know exactly what he will do with the 2.5 million euros, but he does have a few ideas.

He wants to bring top scientists to Groningen as visiting professors. He wants to gather a team to write a textbook about the history of philosophy. ‘And I want to publish previously unpublished material by important philosophers.’ But the most important thing that he will do first is hire people. ‘I want to start a research group, so we can continue to fill in the map of the enormous history of philosophy.’

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