The irony here is that, unlike nearly all
other students, I come from a communist background, which I gave up
for moral and intellectual reasons when I was 20, and the irony is
that, again unlike nearly all other students, my main philosophical
inspirations come from the Cambridge of 1910-1930, the time of Russell, Whitehead, Johnson, Broad, Keynes and Ramsey.
2. My background: But let me
first explain a little more about my background - even though I am
afraid this is very difficult to understand if you don't have it.
My parents and grandparents were
communists - which in their case meant that they were sincere,
courageous and thinking persons who were much appalled by the steep
decline of civilization in the 1930ies.
They were intelligent - indeed more
intelligent than most academics I have met in my life - but they were
not learned, which indeed it was impossible to become, for them, in
their time, with their background and the proletarian life they were
forced to live.
In the second World War, both of my
parents went into the resistance against fascism, and so did my
father's father. Both my father and his father were arrested in the
summer of 1941 by the Gestapo. Their crimes were being members of the
communist party and being co-organizers of the 1941 February-strike,
which is the only occasion at which civilians in a country occupied by
the Nazis went on strike to protest against the treatment of the
My father and grandfather were sent to
a concentration-camp, were my grandfather was murdered. My father
survived, but was effected for life. Readers who want to know why this
is so, should read Eugen Kogon's "The SS-State" and
Semprun's "Literature or Life" ("L'ecriture ou la
vie"), both of which have the distinction of having been written
by survivors of German concentration-camps.
3. The reality of socialism:
However, my parents did not talk much about the war (for reasons
Semprun explains fairly well: such matters as my father survived can
hardly be faced, explained and understood by most adults, let alone
Instead, they furthered the cause of
the communist party, hoping for a better, more just world. In the
sixties my father got a small pension since he was too ill to work,
and shifted his attention to the design of an exhibition about the
dangers of fascism.
Part of what motivated my father was
that until well into the seventies, everything about WW II was hushed
up, denied, "forgotten and forgiven", not talked about etc.
except in sanctimonious and totally incredible yearly 'official
commemorations' - and it clearly seemed to him, rightly so as far as I
am concerned, that those who had survived or were born later simply
chose to neglect the deaths and deeds of many of the best and most
courageous people of his generation.
Also, he much feared the rebirth of
fascism, and wanted to warn others for its dangers by showing clearly
what factually had happened in Hitler's concentration-camps, and what
had motivated these camps. In the sixties and seventies I was
more skeptical about his belief in the rebirth of fascism than I am
now, in part because I lacked his experiences and in part because I
rightly disagreed with his political diagnosis (which was until he
died mostly Marxist).
Now I am much less skeptical about
this possibility, in part on the basis of my own experiences, and in
part because I have arrived at a - comparatively - realistic and
pessimistic account of what
human beings are, on average.
And the danger is not so much of
literal fascism (though even that may happen) but of some sort of
totalitarianism, which in fact is the dominant form of government even
in democracies (as under democracies the burocracy - "quatrieme
etat" - in fact exercises most of the power and in fact is mostly
beyond - practicable - control by either civilians or courts).
4. German camps of various kinds:
My father was until the late 60ies the man who taught Marxist
philosophy to the members of the Dutch Communist Party in Amsterdam.
Hence I was exposed in my youth to the books of Marx, Engels, Lenin
and Stalin in my father's bookcase, and to many books about
concentration-camps, fascism etc.
I discussed much with my father,
though not often about the camps, which he found nearly impossible to
talk about, and mostly about current politics. Until I was 14, I
tended to mostly agree - and I also tended to be more interested in
biology than other matters. Part of what I tended to agree with,
having hardly any points of reference of my own, was that the
socialism of the Soviet Union and its satellites, although far from
perfect, at least was a better and more just social system than the
capitalism I grew up in (where indeed I saw old women in the early
fifties search through rubble for food, for lack of money to buy it).
Then something happened to upset my
faith and pull my attention towards philosophy.
In 1964, when I had just turned 14,
but was still a child, I was sent with 12 other children to a
pioneer-camp in the German Democratic Republic - the pioneers being
the Communist Youth Organization in all Socialist countries, somewhat
comparable to atheist scouts. My parents stayed at home, and I went on
holiday to Real Socialism by myself, accompanied only by 11 children
of my age and a female leader of 19.
We ended up in the Wilhelm Pieck camp
close to the Polish border - which turned out to be run on the lines
of a military camp, including daily meeting were the flag was greeted
military style, and some 10 year old was supposed to step, goose step
fashion, out of the line-up to comment on the latest Wisdom of Our
Dear Comrade Leonid Brezhnev.
It - and much else I won't enter into
at this place - struck me as mostly insane, perverse, ugly, stupid and
totally unreasonable. However, no one else was thus struck: After all,
there was a lake in which one could swim; one could play football and
ping pong; one could learn to shoot and march like soldiers; all the
leaders told us everything was fine, socialist, humanist, and
And I was not so much chosen but
assigned the post as Spokesman of the Dutch Delegation in the Council
of the Camp, since my German was much better than that of the others
in my group, and this mock-democratic game was part and parcel of the
Within two weeks I had managed to
declare publicly in that Council that what was going on in the Wilhelm
Pieck Socialist Holiday Camp for Pioneers struck me as .... "fascistische
Schweinerei" (fascist bullshit); to refuse to withdraw or modify
this statement; and to step into a rusty nail and end up with blood
poisoning in hospital.
5. Discriminated for my opinions:
The leadership of the camp wanted to remove me from Socialist
Paradise. That is: They wanted to kick me out of the German Democratic
Republic as an undesirable alien, and took steps to do so by informing
he East German Communist Party and my father.
So my father was phoned from East
Germany with the news that the Communist Party wanted to return his
14-year old son as an undesirable alien as soon as I was fit enough to
be discharged from the hospital.
Precisely what was said, discussed and
arranged I don't know. What I do know is that my father had spent time
in the concentration-camp Sachsenhausen with many of the then leaders
of the German Democratic Republic and had indeed met them several
times after the war as well, in the 1950ies and early 60ies.
Hence I was not ousted from the German
Democratic Republic in 1964, but ordinarily returned to my scandalized
parents (who got considerably less scandalized when they started to
understand that what I objected to was the military totalitarianism
practiced in the Pioneer Camp, which both of my parents indeed
themselves found at least irksome if not despicable).
6. Philosophy as a serious call:
So that's why my attention was drawn to philosophy, when I was 14.
After that, it went rapidly downhill
with me, as far as my father and mother were concerned: I first
started reading Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin (finding the latter
two, and especially the last, rather dumb), then expanded to
sociological texts, then more or less by accident, through a text of
the Dutch writer W.F. Hermans, read Wittgenstein's Tractatus when I
was 17, and starting thence finally found Russell's writings and the
Cambridge philosophers mentioned above, somewhere between 1969 and
1971, who I found and find upon the whole the most sensible 20th
I was then - and still am - most
interested in mathematical logic, in part because I saw it was at the
foundation of all knowledge, and in part because I used to discuss
much in my teens and generally won, and knew this was not due to my
knowledge but to my using logical reasoning - about which I found it
paradoxical that I could use it very well indeed, but found it very
hard to clearly explain and motivate.
7. Other spurs towards philosophy:
Some philosophers - Socrates, Aquinas, Pascal, Descartes, Buddha, to
name some - claim to have experienced special states of consciousness
or special experiences.
This also holds for me, in that as a
child I very intensely thought about philosophical problems, because
they very much puzzled me, and because I had several odd and intense
experiences of which I will now sketch the two most memorable ones, of
which I still have very clear memories.
A. The animation of objects:
When I was 3, I played with the furniture, turned over a chair, and
then suddenly asked myself: "Would the chair like to be lying on
its side, with its legs turned up in the air?". This puzzled me
considerably, because I was quite aware that it might be the case,
somehow, and that asking myself this question was odd.
B. The existence of the external
world: When I was 4 or 5 I went to school by myself while it
rained a lot, and was waiting to cross the street when a tram rounded
the corner and came into vision - at which point I thought something
like: "Everything I see may be not really there - no tram, no
rain, no street: only my experiences".
Both were striking, peculiar and
strong experiences, unlike ordinary ones, which indeed I don't recall,
and both puzzled me a lot, because I was aware that these were very
general problems one might answer in various ways. (I did decide them
common sensically, in the end, knowing these were decisions on my
There were other spurs towards
philosophy, but in fact from the time I could read, I was most
interested in biology especially birds rather than contemplating
However, I discussed a lot with my
communist parents and when I was 9 got involved in the first genuine
philosophical discussion with my father, who at the time glorified in
the first Sputnik (which to him appeared to be a triumph of
socialism), and exclaimed "men can fly and soon will travel into
space!"- only to be met by my 9-year old resolute "No: men
cannot fly: planes fly, and men may be in them".
In the end, my father agreed a lot was
to be said for my point of view (after we had discussed fleas
travelling on dogs and the like), and indeed some of the things I do
owe to my upbringing are the fearless questioning of absolutely
everything and everyone, and the notion that all subjects may be
8. A lot more could be written, but in
part it is on this site, in some shape or