Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor in the Philosophy section, as well as endowed professor of Political Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Twente. I head an NWO Vidi project on ‘Moral Emotions and Risk Politics’.
Tell us about your personal life
We have two children, a son and a daughter. My husband comes from the United States and I was born in Germany in 1970, and I came to the Netherlands after secondary school in 1990. I first studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht and then went on to study Philosophy and Political Science, both at the University of Amsterdam, before obtaining my PhD in Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam in 2002.
What is your favourite hobby?
I love being outdoors: cycling, walking, running. Unfortunately my children are less enthusiastic, so I try to take them everywhere by bike and I try to find a moment for myself every day to get a breath of fresh air. I enjoy reading and immersing myself in developments in the area of art and design. Music is very important to me, especially classical music, and has been ever since I was young. Recently, I took up playing the piano. Unfortunately, with two young children and two professorships I do not have much time to visit cultural events, although my husband and I do regularly attend local small-scale concerts.
What was the highlight of your career?
The moments when the next career dream was realised. These are primarily those moments when I became a PhD student at VU University Amsterdam, my job at TU Delft, my Veni and Vidi grants from the NWO and my appointment as AVL Professor at TU Delft.
What is your greatest challenge at the moment?
Being able to retain talented people. There are so many talented young academics, but it is difficult to offer them career perspectives at present. But the young talents of today are the university's future.
I come from an engineering family on my father's side and a doctor's family on my mother's side. I was therefore fed technology and science as a child, whereby my own interest was primarily directed towards mathematics and logic. My greatest passion, however, lay in art and philosophy, and therefore I went to study these after secondary school. When I was in the final stage of my PhD dissertation on the principles of ethics at the VU, I applied for a vacancy for an assistant professor of Ethics and Technology at TU Delft. So in my own way, I ended up working in technology after all, even though it might be from an ethical perspective. The text advertising the vacancy asked, ‘are you looking for academic and social challenge?’ For me, that still sums up the essence of my work at TU Delft. The academic bar is very high at TU Delft. Yet at the same time, research at TU Delft focuses on pressing social issues that require specific answers and applications. In my research into risk emotions, I develop new theoretical approaches for really specific case studies such as nuclear energy and climate change, continuing to build critically on the work of philosophers, psychologists and social scientists.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
My work at TU Delft is really varied and offers ample opportunity for creativity and analysis, but also for social involvement. Therefore, everything comes together for me.
What is your best characteristic?
I am apparently enthusiastic, optimistic and empathetic. That is very useful when carrying out my research, for persevering when things do not work out (which is inherent with academic work) and while supervising PhD students and other younger staff members.
What is your worst characteristic?
I am rather a control freak and find it difficult to wait patiently.
What subject do you think should be high on the political agenda?
Attention to emotions in all sorts of public debates, whether it concerns high-risk technologies or in dealing with the financial crisis. Moral arguments and the underlying emotions should be taken a lot more seriously. Emotions are often currently seen as the villain in social debates. Emotions are either ignored in favour of technocratic approaches, or they are seen as the finishing point of a discussion, because the so-called ‘irrational-emotional’ public cannot be reasoned with. In my work, I actually argue that emotions should really be the starting point of discussions, since they point out to us morally important considerations. This approach can lead to more fruitful debates and at the same time to greater understanding between parties.
Your source of inspiration?
My friends, family, colleagues and PhD students. Academics and philosophers whose work I admire and which I consider as a gauge for what I want to achieve, and of course the substantive ideas that I draw from their work. When I am cycling or walking, ideas and insights often fall into place. I get other insights while I am actually writing and wrestling with a line of thought. That might be when I am seated at my desk, but I have also occasionally had a breakthrough while writing a paper when I was in the waiting-room of a train station. I have always really enjoyed reading and writing in the train or in a café while life flows past me and I am able to focus completely on a particular line of thought.
Your life philosophy?
It is often said that pessimists are more realistic than optimists. But of course that is because pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimism is a necessary, although an insufficient, precondition for achieving your goals; in addition, you also need luck and perseverance. That means more risk (and emotion!), but is the only way to make your dreams come true.