On 6 September 2014, in the central auditorium of Antwerp University, within biking distance of my home, the School voor Comparatieve Filosofie Antwerpen (no translation needed; in puristic Dutch the middle terms would have been “Vergelijkende Wijsbegeerte”) celebrated its 25th jubilee. Its founding president was Ulrich Libbrecht, now 86, who spoke at the function. He was my thesis promotor and main professor in Sinology. The School’s present president is Patricia Konings, who was a fellow student of mine. We graduated in 1989, just when our promotor founded the School. I myself have given a number of lectures at the School; and know many of the lecturers and former and present students. So I had ample reason to attend.
It must have been when I was doing my thesis, i.e. when the professor was laying the groundwork for the School, that he related his experiences at the conference on Comparative Philosophy in Hawaii. Richard Rorty and other big names in Western philosophy dismissed the whole idea. Indeed, that was and still largely remains the standard viewpoint in Western philosophy circles: that, as we learned in our course of Fundamental Philosophy, “the Orient has ideas, has wisdom, but not what we understand as philosophy”, and therefore no meaningful comparison can be made. Worse, at the conference, lectures by Asian speakers were treated as coffee-breaks. So, that was the mentality the fledgling School was up against. Everybody talks about globalization, but the globalization of thought is taking off only very slowly.
The show started with Feniks Taiko, a handful of Flemings playing the Japanese drums. To my surprise, Grete Moortgat, whom I had also known as a student, had found a lifelong vocation as leader of this band. Very exciting. Later on, the afternoon was punctuated by the very European folk band Faran Flad, featuring Erwin Libbrecht, the founder’s son.
The welcome word was pronounced by Georges Bogaerts, co-founder and secretary since the beginning, who gave a survey of the genesis and history of the School. Briefly, it has been flourishing since the beginning, and even took the turn of Professor Libbrecht’s retirement successfully. Per course day, there are some 200 students; 90 at the start.
The next speech was given by Dra. Konings, who highlighted the positive role the School had played in the lives of its students and the need for such a globally-oriented thought centre. She emphasized the School motto Ego Mundi Civis, “I am a citizen of the world”. She also thanked the School’s anonymous sponsors, for there is no form of financing by the state. She offered a Japanese acorn tree to Prof. Libbrecht, who lives in the hilly countryside, still works in his large garden, and at one time was a leading pioneer of the ecologist movement in our country.
Leading Flemish philosopher Guido Van Heeswijck spoke about “The uselessness of Comparative Philosophy”. Useless, but a privilege. The word school comes from scholè, “leisure”, and it is the domain of “a scholar and a gentleman”. This is not the school our politicians have in mind as a preparation for the labour market. The School is really for pleasure, useless. There are, in English, two types of researchers: “scholars” vs. “scientists”. Philosophy is for mankind what water is for the fish. Ideas are never innocent, for they change the world. Breaking out of the dogmatic sleep creates uncertainty, “the certainty of uncertainty”. He quoted Libbrecht as desiring in philosophy more Reine Luft, “pure air”. The School contrasted with the average University, which is too much of a Procrustean bed of usefulness.
Finally, playwright Peter De Graef brought a monologue. Of the many profound topics touched upon in a light manner, I recall the first impressions of the meditator. He is bound to ask himself, not as a deep metaphysical question but as an immediate self-doubt: “What am I doing here?” And that question is the beginning of all wisdom.
The aged professor himself took the stage to relate, with his usual humour, a lot of detail about the founding of the school. In this process, the crucial moment turning a plan into a viable institution was when he appointed Georges and his wife Katrien Haeck, then yoga practitioners in Sint-Niklaas, as the practical executors of his vision. Georges once negotiated with then Culture Minister Joke Schauvlieghe, with Georges concluding that the School would prefer its independence to state support annex state control: “We don’t need your money.” Libbrecht then told the story of Yu the Great, one of the legendary founding emperors of China, who developed dykes and other controls for the flood-infested valley of the Yellow River. The people who put into practice the techniques he had developed, explained: “We learned it not from Yu but from the water.” In Libbrecht’s experience, tangible reality easily trumps all philosophies.
Among his major influences he mentioned the late Leo Apostel, philosopher at Ghent University, non-religious thinker and pioneer of the notion of “non-religious spirituality”. In his path-breaking work on “worldviews” as well as elsewhere, he emphasized that we must think structurally. In the postmodernist age, it came to be said that “philosophy is but a literary genre”, all subjective and relative. Against this tendency, Apostel and Libbrecht have always stood firm in applying the exact methods of the sciences to their philosophical researches. Anyone who has studied Libbrecht’s model for comparing philosophies across cultures won’t be surprised by his profession of trust in the physical sciences. Incidentally, my favourite course with him was History of the Sciences in China.
Libbrecht has to spend three afternoons a week lying down tied to machines for his kidney dialysis. In a sense, he is grateful for this plight, for it forces him to do nothing and contemplate. In so doing, he had devised a new book, De Bricoleur en de Dummies (“The Handyman and the Dummies”, the “philosopher-handyman” being himself according to established philosophy professors, and the dummies being the young generations), already out, and even a subsequent one still in the manuscript stage. Thereby hangs a tale. When I reviewed his magnum opus, the four-volume Dutch-language work Inleiding tot de Comparatieve Filosofie, (“Introduction to Comparative Philosophy”) he was already past 70, and I called it “probably his intellectual testament”. But in subsequent years he kept on churning out book after book. His municipality, Kluisbergen, organized a big celebration for his 80th birthday, where I acquired a copy of his latest, Met Dank aan het Leven (“With Gratitude to Life”), which he told me he intended to be really his last. I gave it to my mother, equally born in 1928, who liked it a lot. But now it turns out he has held his peace long enough. Earlier this year, his book about non-religious spirituality came out: Adieu à Dieu (“A Farewell to God”). And today I learned I will have to read two more books. Scripta manent (“the written word stays”), they say, but apparently, scriptor manet as well.
Then again, Libbrecht spoke in a carefree manner about his death, which at his age must be considered impending. To those who considered him indispensable, he assured that the graveyard is full of such indispensable people. He saw for himself a remaining task of handelen, lachen en zwijgen (“ doing, laughing and keeping silent”, after Peter Sloterdijk). He wanted to remain active till the very end; he valued laughing as that which distinguishes man among the animals, more than thought; and after a life in philology, he had found that “the great thing about knowing many languages, is that you dispose of many ways to hold your silence”. He ended with a line of the medieval poetess Hadewych: vaart wel ende levet scone, “fare well and live in beauty”.