‘Theologians and other fuzzy people’: two 20th-century Dutch novelists on the sciences and humanities

by Jeroen Bouterse

Willem Frederik Hermans

For better or worse, Dutch 20th-century postwar literature comes with a canon of three authors: Gerard Reve, Harry Mulisch, and W.F. Hermans. There, you learned something today. Other than this factoid, however, this post is not going to be a lecture about the landscape of Dutch literature, or even the literary qualities of these authors. I am introducing them because I am going to use two of them, and one in particular, to illustrate a point about discourse involving the landscape of science – that is, the distinction between the sciences and humanities.

The notion of a separation between the sciences and humanities usually revolves (again, for better or worse) around C.P. Snow’s famous Rede lecture. In this lecture, Snow tentatively suggests that what he calls the ‘scientific culture’ is probably more left-wing than the ‘literary culture’, as well as more progressive (scientists “have the future in their bones”). In his time, he saw his technocratic ideals represented best by the Labour party, to which he served as scientific advisor. In the 1970s, however, Snow (as chronicled by historian Guy Ortolano)[1] would drift away from the Labour party, and express himself in increasingly negative terms about all the nonsense one had to put up with as a liberal these days. Before his death in 1980, he expressed his sympathy for neo-conservative ideas.

According to Ortolano, Snow was one of multiple Anglophone intellectuals who reconsidered their political alignments in the 1970s. Nor does this necessarily imply that Snow betrayed or radically revised his own previous opinions. These, it seems, remained technocratic and meritocratic, and precisely therefore problematic in the face of a more egalitarian and anti-elitist ‘New Left’.

‘Left’ and ‘right’ are big and blunt terms, not devoid of information but risky, especially when projecting them several decades back onto the past. Then again, in social discourse the vaguer terms often do the heavier lifting. What is more, binary oppositions, especially involving porous concepts, are easily connected to each other: tough versus soft, realist versus optimist, conservative versus progressive, right versus left. Seeing when those alignments between big and broad categories change can be illuminating, as I hope to show by zooming in on the relation of one specific pair of categories to ‘left’ and ‘right’-wing politics: the sciences and humanities.

Speaking of binary oppositions: enter Mulisch and Hermans. Two novelists who, in the words of one biographer, “differed as day and night” in their personalities as well as their opinions about more or less everything.[2]

Hermans was a pessimist, whose nihilistic views about human knowledge and the limits to human agency pertained to all domains of life, including the natural sciences. Hermans himself was a physical geographer, and apparently under no illusions about the field: his novel Beyond Sleep (1966) about a geologist searching for meteors in the northern parts of Norway, relentlessly confronts the main character with the limits to his existence and his scientific endeavors. His expedition gets hopelessly mired in implausible hypotheses, rain and mosquitos, as well as in his own personal incompetence.

Nihilism like this can well be an equalizing force: judged by harsh enough standards, we are all more or less equally puny. Whenever Hermans thinks about science as a whole, this is indeed his take: progress is illusory, academics in every stage of their career are often awful people, their creative work is mostly useless, and if there are differences between fields, they are differences of degree; thus, one of his geologist characters ponders that it would be even worse to have an aptitude only for pointless subjects such as Greek.

So yes, everything is varying gradations of horrible and meaningless everywhere. Until, that is, radical thinkers start actually spelling out the implications of such egalitarianism. Apart from his fiction, Hermans keeps publishing essays on a range of topics including philosophy of science. In one of these, he signals his alarm with Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science seriously pondering the idea that in the world of knowledge anything goes. Hermans reflexively responds (1977) by drawing a contrast between

“studies that teach tangible expertise, proficiency, sometimes even artisanal skill [on the one hand], and others that merely spit out some factoids, that go in one ear and out the other.”[3]

There is a contrast between sciences with results that stick, and others that “are completely reinvented from time to time by some inventive chatterer”.[4] If you are under any uncertainty about where Hermans draws the boundary line between these useful and useless studies, let me help you out. In an essay on Karl Popper (1981), Hermans elaborates on the distinction between the ‘exact’, ‘hard’ or ‘real’ sciences on the one hand, and on the other “the ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ (humanities) etc., which can therefore not be considered as real sciences.”[5]

Hermans has his own particular way of rationalizing this unbridgeable gap between real sciences and humanities: it is that the natural sciences always have full access to their object (nature), while the historian, as the paradigmatic humanistic scholar, by definition has none, since the past is not present. Another but overlapping binary distinction is between sciences that occupy themselves with what is, and those that busy themselves with what would be desirable.[6] There is

“a tragic gap between searching for the exact truth, and the demands of society. The fundamental value-independence of the exact sciences on the one hand, and the normative character of all reflections that pertain to human actions on the other.”[7]

Adding up these distinctions, the humanities barely begin to exist for Hermans: science will be natural science or it will not be at all. Social science is by definition an impossibility, and any researcher that pretends to study human society ‘scientifically’ is promising the impossible and therefore a fraud.

This brings us to Marxism.

Hermans was a staunch anti-communist. Politically, to give just one example, he casually brushed off criticism after shocking Dutch polite society for breaking a cultural boycott of South Africa in the last years of Apartheid, claiming laws against interracial marriage were hardly ever enforced anyway “except against communists, but them I do not pity at all.”[8] (I have not checked the factual veracity of his claims.) Intellectually, he was also a staunch anti-Marxist. Marxism as an ideology was all the more dangerous because it purported to be scientific, a “natural science of human society, nothing less”.[9]

Mulisch, on the other hand, co-wrote the libretto for an opera about Che Guevara, and wrote a book about the Cuban revolution, even sending a signed copy to Fidel Castro in which he complimented him with the “leap forward” Cuba had made under his leadership.[10] Of course, this doesn’t tell us everything about his attitudes towards left-wing politics and ideas throughout his career, but it puts him into a rather sharp contrast with Hermans.

In 1969 a Dutch magazine had the good sense to put the two gentlemen in a room together, and type out the resulting conversation. With impressive self-confidence the writers debated the whole of culture and history; and sure enough, their conversation moved naturally from their views on the use of the protest movements and revolutions of their day to the sciences and humanities.

HERMANS: “[…] It has always been the same. The same fiddling, which after all leads to nothing and no end. […] Things do change. But all societal change is caused, to put it bluntly, by new inventions, not by ex-Spanish [civil war] fighters or provos [a Dutch protest movement].”

[…] MULISCH: “If you ask me what I find more important, the industrial revolution or the French revolution, I say the French. That had nothing to do with machines or sciences. I think it’s more important how people relate to each other and how they want to get through life together, than the invention of such an amazing machine.”

HERMANS: “That’s because you don’t see things clearly. The French revolution was possible because the beginnings of the industrial revolution were already underway. I think it is like this: all social change results from technological changes. Anything the revolutionaries add to this – real [humanities] people by the way – is more suffering and bloodshed, more waste of people and resources.”

It is Hermans here who suggests a connection between political radicalism and the humanities. The term he uses is “alpha people”. In the Netherlands, to spit out another factoid, “alpha” and “beta” are common terms for the humanities and the sciences respectively. This goes back, I believe, to a 1876 law which split pre-university secondary education into an “alpha” track (with more attention to history and classical languages), and a “beta” track (which also taught mathematics, physics and chemistry). Anyway.

 MULISCH: “They add the necessary revolution.”

HERMANS: “[Humanists] are doomed, just like religion is doomed. The major pest of Western society is the persisting influence of theologians and other fuzzy people.”

[…] MULISCH: “If I look at what happens at the universities, my impression is that it is rather the [scientists] who are doomed.”

HERMANS: “That is the huge mistake. That is why this whole academic revolution has to fade away or lead to a split in the universities. The last thing is the most likely one. For the [sciences] and medicine, this whole revolution is of no consequence. […]”

We move quickly from revolutionary bloodshed to ‘theologians and other fuzzy people’ to the imperturbability of the sciences in the face of the late-1960s counterculture movement. I will not defend all these jumps as logical, but they do spring from a clear intuition that Hermans develops in his later essays: that the human world is not an object of scientific knowledge. Without reference to Snow’s ‘two cultures’ (and with different intentions), he injects into the discussion a distinction between two kinds of people: level-headed and clear thinking realists on the one hand, with a healthy skepticism about the benefits of social activism stemming from their insight in the difference between science and rhetoric; and hot-headed revolutionaries on the other hand, whose combination of fuzziness, overconfidence and wishful thinking about the human condition makes them of a kind with religious zealots.

Mulisch calls him out on this:

HERMANS: “I am not religious and do not follow any pseudo-religion, such as Marx or Marcuse. […]”

MULISCH: “I do not suffer from such religious trauma. Not, at least, to such an extent that I look upon Marx as a pseudo-religion, in order to release myself from my duty to illuminate something with my work.”

HERMANS: “That’s not the issue. The issue is that Christianity and Marxism both base themselves on completely insecure things. On moral values that are uncertain.”

Whoever talks about society or human values with the same confidence, in the same mode in which a scientist talks about nature, is severely mistaken: “human society is not a steam engine”. The accusation is aimed at Mulisch as much as at Marx.

Religion, radical ideology, left-wing activism and the humanities are all connected. The precise links between all these evils are a matter of Hermans’ individual philosophy or worldview, and they are all informed by his particular brand of pessimism and fatalism, which in his literary work infects every aspect of human life. Still, I believe that many of his assumptions are not figments of his individual imagination; they reflect a broader reaction to progressive or radical left opinions of the day.

In this reaction, the humanities find themselves at risk of being identified as anti-science. The reason is not that they actually are anti-science, but that there is a chain of reasoning that connects left-wing activism and social optimism to one side of a presumed distinction between, for lack of a better word, two cultures. A distinction which is in turn presumed to have an academic counterpart. Since the exact sciences are immune to nonsense, it must be the humanities that are the natural home of pseudo-religion and higher superstition.

These and similar associations would stick, especially after two cultures rhetoric escalated in the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s. In the Anglophone world, science warriors would often refer to Snow as a prophet of the chasm they saw gaping in the academy. But though Snow might have agreed with their assessment of the New Left, when he criticized ‘literary culture’ in 1959 he criticized its lack of social optimism, not its excess. Far from being an extension or a confirmation of Snow’s categories, the 60s and 70s transformed discourse concerning the sciences and humanities, for better or worse. The reasons had little to do with actual scholarship and much more with sweeping cultural divisions. In the debate between Hermans and Mulisch, we can already see this dynamic at work.


[1] Guy Ortolano, ‘Breaking Ranks: C.P. Snow and the Crisis of Mid-Century Liberalism, 1930-1980’, Interdisciplinary Science Review 41.2-3 (2016) 118-132.

[2] Willem Otterspeer, De zanger van de wrok (2016) 815.

[3] ‘De pet van Feyerabend’ (1977), Collected Works XIV: 265.

[4] Ibid., 267.

[5] Collected works XIII: 617.

[6] CW XIV: 267.

[7] CW XIII: 621

[8] Interview (quote around 6:40)

[9] CW XIII: 624.

[10] Interview fragment