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Word of the day: interesse (interest)

‘What kind of philosopher are you?’ Theo Maassen asked René Gude, the one-legged philosopher and thinker of the fatherland (Denker des Vaderlands). Last Friday night 24 January 2014 I was watching the popular VPRO television series ‘ 24 uur met…’ (24 hours with…). Its formula is simple: ‘Eén interviewer, één gast, één etmaal, één ruimte.’ The one interviewer, comedian Theo Maassen, spent one natural day in one isolated space with his one guest René Gude. Excellent programme for students of Dutch!

interesseSo what kind of philosopher are you? Maassen asked Gude who had lost his leg because of cancer. And Gude answered that he had never tried to come up with new ideas, because, he said, there is so much useful philosophy already.

Near the end of the programme Gude was thumbing through his favourite etymological book ‘Origins’ and he stumbled across the word ‘interest’.

INTERESSE is a key word, he explained in the fire and heat of his arguments (I love ardent thinkers!). INTERESSE goes back to the Latin words: ‘inter’ (between) and ‘esse’ (to be). He pointed at Theo Maassen and said: ‘Jij bent een zijnde en ik ben een zijnde (You are a “being” and I am a “being”). So ‘interesse’ means what there is between the two of us. We both know what it is that concerns us, what interests us. If one of us backs away, it is gone. It is only there if the two of us do something with it. That is what is most important of all.’

And Theo Maassen agreed, complaining how annoyed he was there is so much disinterest and indifference in the world. The opposite of INTERESSE is: indifference and indifference, as the 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant said, is the mother of chaos and night (Indifferentismus, Mutter des Chaos und der Nacht).

So what is this nausea, this indifference in Dutch? The word is ONVERSCHILLIGHEID. VERSCHIL (a ‘het-woord’) means ‘difference’. Funny, in Dutch you call someone ‘onverschillig’ (indifferent) but not ‘verschillig’ (different).

I am straying off the narrow path of INTERESSE. A synonym is BELANGSTELLING. And this word goes back to the medieval word BELANG meaning ‘profit’ or ‘gain’. So BELANGSTELLEN, the verb, means, ‘take gain’.

INTERESSE, a philosophical word, meaning the something that is between us and that will eventually be of profit to each of us. Strange, that INTERESSE (according to Nicoline van der Sijs) is a relatively recent addition to the Dutch language. It was imported from German and recorded for the first time in 1913! So let’s celebrate the 101st anniversary of Dutch INTERESSE!

INTERESSE in filosofie? Are you interested in philosophy? ‘Philosopher laureate’ René Gude claims that philosophy is ‘het verlangen naar wijsheid en wijsheid is niet anders dan kennis waar je iets mee kunt.’ (Philosophy is the desire for wisdom and wisdom is nothing else but knowledge that is useful to you.)

The Dutch have a huge interest in philosophy. Courses in philosophy are well attended, philosophical cafes are crowded, the Month of Philosophy with its Night of Philosophy (usually in April) attracts lots of people and Dutch philosophy books sell quite well. The greatest philosophical export items (since the Middle Ages) are Desiderius Erasmus and Baruch Spinoza, both born and bred in the Netherlands.

Why is philosophy so popular in the Netherlands? Why are there so many amateur philosophers? American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (famous for her essay on the necessity of the humanities ‘Not for Profit’) is frustrated with the United States and says:

‘The Netherlands has a tremendous public culture of philosophy. … It’s because there are TV programmes on philosophy, things involving not just political philosophy, but things like the emotions, the mind, and so on. …One just has to cultivate that over a long period of time; the journalists, the media all have to play a role.’ (read more)

Maybe its popularity has something to do with our history, our smallness and the national character of the Dutch. Whatever reason you may come up with in your philosophy, I don’t know of any other nation that has a philosopher laureate, do you?

The current ‘Denker des Vaderlands’ is René Gude. He was born in Indonesian Surabaya, 2 March 1957, was editor of Philosophy Magazine and a philosophy teacher at the International School of Philosophy in Leusden for a long time.

‘Philosopher Laureate’ or ‘Thinker of the Fatherland’ are not official titles, however. The honorary title was invented by newspaper Trouw, Philosophy Magazine and the Foundation for the Month of Philosophy. A ‘philosopher laureate’ is someone who is expected to reflect philosophically on news topics.