Rob van Gerwen, Zullen We Contact Houden: Hoe we de geest uit ons wereldbeeld verwijderen, Zoetermeer: Klement, 2018, 256 pages.
Review by Ward Huetink, Radboud University Nijmegen.
Today, investigations into the nature and impact of the effects of technological and scientific progress on individuals and society are numerous. Van Gerwen’s book Zullen We Contact Houden: Hoe we de geest ons wereldbeeld verwijderen (Let’s Keep In Touch: How we abolish the mind from our world picture, all translations are my own) is a recent contribution to this field of research from a philosophical perspective.
In the course of the ten chapters of this self-described ‘manifesto’, Van Gerwen develops an ethical argument against what he calls the ‘dementification’ of our lifeworld. With the concept of dementification, Van Gerwen designates the processes by which we slowly but surely disregard our own subjectivity as a fundamental part of the world we live in. He draws an analogy between this modern phenomenon and an individual suffering from dementia. There is nothing wrong with the objective perception of someone suffering from dementia; he is able to see a woman entering the room. But what is preventing him from recognizing her as his daughter is not a lack of objective facts, but rather the subjective reality of shared, subjective memory, of him taking care of her as she grew up. Thus, supplementary objective information – think of some device, a chip maybe, instructing him that this woman is his daughter, her name is Ada, she is 45 years old, etc. – will not resolve the lack of the subjective certainty of the memories of her that he has lost, and which constituted their relation as father and daughter.
In line with other investigations into modernity – think of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Dijksterhuis’ The Mechanization of The World Picture – Van Gerwen’s account starts out from the Enlightenment. The emerging mechanistic sciences focus on observation and experimentation, but because of this they heavily favour objective, observable properties. How things feel, why things are important to us – these questions lie beyond the range of scientific explanation. Van Gerwen’s main thesis is that objective properties of the world are necessary for our subjective experience, but not sufficient. But because of the integration of the scientific view in our view on the world, and the technological and digital developments resulting from it, our subjectivity is seen as redundant and has become increasingly neglected in our culture. This, Van Gerwen argues, is the most pressing problem of our time, even more so than “world hunger or the gap between the rich and poor”. (p. viii)
Chapters 2 to 5, the first half of the book, can be seen as an argumentation for, and illustration of, the reality of this increasing neglect. These chapters respectively concern the internet, our conception of knowledge, debates on human finitude and mortality, and, lastly, presence in public space. For each of these domains Van Gerwen brings to attention how the role of our subjectivity is being diminished. For example, the internet provides knowledge and communication – but this communication revolves around the absence of those involved from a shared situation, and is often sent to nobody in particular or unwanted by the receiver, simply guided by algorithms to maximize clicks and views. At the same time, the superficial urgency of texting back distracts us from the (public) environment we are actually engaged in. The facts we look up on Google are exempt of a subjective learning process, including doing our own research and making mistakes. In debates on the prolongation of human life, questions concerning our subjective constitution, such as the quality of life, implications for our motivation and sense of urgency, and the general desirability of a society in which every death becomes a suicide, are of secondary importance.
Whereas the first half of the book emphasized the reality of dementification, the second part of the book defends the importance of subjectivity in fundamental aspects of our lives. In chapter 6 to 9, Van Gerwen addresses more traditional philosophical topics such as philosophy of perception, philosophy of mind and ontology. He argues that we do not perceive the world merely ‘thin’, as a set of objective properties – size, weight, figure – but rather ‘thick’: full of potential actions, moral requirements, memories and imaginations, chaos and values. These thick subjective properties are indeed dependent on objective factors – say, the matter that constitutes them – but cannot be reduced to these. Thick perception is what enables us to act in the world, interact with others and engage in meaningful relations. Moreover, these subjective structures must be seen as a real part of the world, as they are, or can be, shared. Just as we can recognize and agree on whether a painting is jolly or frightening, we can judge actions to be good or bad and recognize how someone feels or when they need our help. We need these subjective judgements to interact and function as persons in this world. Thus, the increasing neglect of subjectivity will prove disastrous for our human lives.
Overall, the book is well written and accessible to a wide audience interested in philosophy of modern society. Zullen We Contact Houden does not necessarily require a background in philosophy to be understood, which is a merit of Van Gerwen’s comprehensive structure and clear style of writing, without too much jargon or too lengthy sentences. The book contains a lot of examples from everyday experience and references to art and literature, as well as images and pictures to illustrate his arguments, which is a refreshing touch in a philosophical work. Throughout his book, Van Gerwen refers to a variety of philosophers and artists, ranging from Plato to Lanier, from Hume to Adorno and from Spielberg to Kafka. This eclectic crowd is rich and stimulating, but because of the sheer amount these references at times feel redundant. And since the philosophers mentioned are in most cases not discussed extensively, the references can feel like convenient name drops for the author to emphasize or situate his argument. Another stylistic remark concerns Van Gerwen’s use of rhetorical questions. Some pages contain as much as 10 of these, which at times gives a lax impression. If the author discussed these questions seriously and in more detail, his argument would be more persuasive.
The structure of the book works gradually from relatable experiences and observations towards more abstract philosophical topics such as philosophy of mind, perception, aesthetics and ontology. But as this second part of the book, from chapter 6 onward, takes up as much space as the first, it feels like the fundamental philosophical presuppositions of Van Gerwen’s argument do not get the attention they need or deserve. The most philosophically problematic claims are made in this second half, so from an academic perspective the book would have benefitted from a condensation of the earlier, illustrative chapters to leave more room for the later part. Especially chapters 7 and 8, on the mind and ontology, would have benefitted from a more thorough philosophical analysis. In chapter 7, for example, Van Gerwen argues against Cartesianism and reductive materialism, and opponents will object that these are not the most relevant nor most powerful positions that can be raised against Van Gerwen. Subjective realism, as discussed in chapter 8, is a considerably more complicated position than Van Gerwen’s book implies.
The most substantive contribution of this book is that it gives a new interpretation of that what is being lost in our technological and digital era. Dementification, as the fleeting regard to the importance of subjectivity in the ways we are in the world, can be seen as a revision or specification of the concept of ‘disenchantment’, which has been traditionally used to characterize the detrimental effects of scientific development. By redirecting attention to the fundamental importance of subjective experience, and the ways it is repressed in modern theory as well as practice, Zullen We Contact Houden makes a strong moral appeal to think carefully before we proceed.
All in all, Van Gerwen’s book is an original contribution to the philosophy of modernity. Many of the topics he discusses are relevant and urgent. From self-driving cars, the internet and cosmetic surgery to the prolongation of life, the importance of art and the domination of scientism, this book addresses contemporary pressing problems. Although the book could have benefitted from minor structural and stylistic improvements, Van Gerwen provides a refreshing and philosophically challenging ethical argument for turning our attention to our subjective experience of the world and our life in it, in a pleasant and comprehensive style.