Professor Johan Siebers is passionate about intellectual cultures and how they thrive through language, communication, and ideas. A healthy society is one in which academics can be free to participate, engage and do what they need to do. His concern is also with the ethical, existential, ontological, metaphysical, and sometimes also the religious and spiritual aspects of communication, whether as an individual grappling with a text, an interpersonal conversation between two people, many rivalling groups or an entire society: “I try to develop an understanding of the fact that when we communicate with each other, we always anticipate something. Communication and anticipation belong together and can be a source of life and creativity. I can sum it up in a statement by the American communication philosopher, Walter Owen, who said: ‘I speak because I have hope in others.’ Much of the work I’ve been doing until now has been a kind of extended meditation and elaboration of that phrase. That speaking and hoping are somehow deeply connected.”
His doctoral work centred on Whitehead and metaphysics, but he can converse about anything from analytical to metaphysical to womanist philosophies. If driven to articulate something, he will engage deeply with it, so in conversation he talks about Ernst Bloch’s preoccupation with the Islamic philosopher Avicenna, his own with the Jewish scholar Martin Buber, atheism, temporal belongings, religion and ethics, political philosophies and ideologies, the misunderstanding of Islam by the West, driven all the while with the matter of engaging with all that enriches, troubles and foregrounds the 21st-century philosophical landscape.
Siebers was born and raised in the Netherlands to teachers from a lineage of notable educators and professionals. He recalled his grandfather, headmaster of a primary school, who instilled a love of learning for its own sake. Siebers says, “I discovered then a magical moment, when I realised that you can actually put things into words. I was always a reflective child, talking and thinking about the big questions… I discovered that there is a way to learn how to live with these questions and thoughts and that it was called philosophy, so I decided to study philosophy. But philosophy, for me, was always about words, about what to say in the face of existence.” He enrolled in the philosophy and linguistics programme and graduated with distinction in the philosophy of language, from Radboud University in the Netherlands, under Professor Pieter Seuren, a well-known Dutch linguist and semanticist. “I eventually went in a different direction, but he was a huge influence on me, on how to be a scholar. How could you be serious about your intellectual work and at the same time be a human being and be interested in relating to people and making your ideas and knowledge useful for them? That became my inspiration.” He completed his doctorate at Leiden University, where he remained as a researcher in the Philosophy Department until 1999.
After a decade working out of academia for Royal Dutch Shell, developing sustainable and inclusive communication environments, learning about the forces that influence society and writing future scenarios, he left the Netherlands for England. Siebers taught for a number of years at the University of Central Lancashire, before moving to Middlesex University in 2013, where he is now Professor of Philosophy of Language and Communication. He has also been Research Centre Director of the Bloch Centre for German Thought at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he has been an honorary fellow since 2005. When Brexit occurred, he was very upset. He and his wife had brought their young children to London with an idea of Europe “they’re not part of the EU anymore.” but he still thinks of England and London as his home. “I imagined that I would, at some point, maybe move back to my country, but perhaps that won’t be the case.”
Siebers has been involved with Cara since 2020, volunteering as a mentor on two different research projects involving communication. The first, led by Syrian colleagues Dr Ahmad Korabi and Dr Husam Alsaad, explores young people, political cultures, awareness, and consciousness in northern Syria. Siebers joined Dr Maggie Grant from Stirling University, as the team’s co-mentors and they worked together for a year.
“Ahmed finally came over from Turkey, supported by Cara. He spent time at Middlesex and then in Stirling with Maggie. That was a wonderful time. We organised joint seminars, drafted articles, and presented research. It was good for our Syrian colleagues to get first-hand experience of working face-to-face, which had been stymied because of the pandemic. There is nothing like face-to-face contact. And you get so much more out of a collaboration.”
Siebers speaks about their findings. “Young people, much like their peers in other countries, had little to no faith or interest in the political process and political institutions. They were unaware of internationally sponsored attempts to reconcile rival factions or of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s work, pointing to a deficit in political capital.” He found it philosophically interesting and applicable to a broader context. Trust amongst youth has been eroded at a fundamental level, making him wonder if something novel was in the process of being born. “Rather than succumbing to nihilism the young respondents seemed hopeful, determined to create a new future in an equitable world, largely circumventing politics. There was also a return to Islamic roots in line with or running parallel to the idea of a liberation or a more humane world. The West has a hard time understanding that the appeal to religion here aligns with progressive forces rather than more reactionary ones.”
The second Cara Syria Programme research project in which Siebers is involved is looking at the impact of the war on the Syrian novel, a collaboration with five Cara Syria Programme Fellows: Huseyin Esved, Husam Alsaad, Ahmet Dervis Muezzin, Maher Jesry and Akeel Shawakh Mohamad: “There is a huge appreciation of the importance of the written word and of the spiritual significance of the act of writing,” he explains, “We have seen some awesome examples of Syrian writers speaking out courageously, also in situations where there might be significant repercussions for them and their families.” The team is still doing the analysis but has already found that novels written after the start of the war are more factual, journalistic, and less imaginative. It has unearthed the underside of a long-silenced society. “The language is also coarser with certain topics, such as sexuality and gender questions, that used to be considered absolute taboo not only in social conversation but also in literary writing before the war, now featuring more prominently.” It’s a project that gives a lot to think because the team see how destructive forces can also be immensely liberating.
Having worked on both projects, he thinks it would be interesting to contrast the themes and cynicism of the novels with the hopeful tendencies and refrain of possibility from the youth interviewed for the first study. Although in both, there was a desire for a peaceful life and a disdain for political systems that are unable to provide the ideas and visions needed to create a humane world. “War has always been part of human history,” Siebers says, “but societies should now be ready to say that we are done with it.” For him, the suffering caused by the Syrian Civil War makes it unforgivable to even prepare for war or to have or train or equip an army. “The best way to kill hope in a generation is to start a war because that creates so much trauma. A whole generation is saddled with something they can never really come to terms with or understand.”
He talks of the lost generation of young people whose hopes and dreams have been shattered. Millions of whom were displaced, detained, killed, or forced into a war they didn’t want to fight, and of their bravest activists who remain missing. In years to come, he envisions a new community in Syria that will have drawn on all its cultural, intellectual, religious and political capital to understand the changes wrought by war; it’s a project of engagement that constitutional reform on its own will not be able to sort. “It has been a real eye-opener to understand that many of their problems are deeply connected to their colonial history.”
Both Cara Syria Programme projects have deepened his sense of the place of academia in society, and the importance of scholarship. Working with Cara has been an extremely rewarding experience. “This is my first extended experience of working with people whose lives have been completely uprooted by war and conflict, and who still partly live in that world. I have been impressed by the equanimity that they bring to bear on their work, and where they find it within themselves, despite it all, to focus on their work because they realise that that is where they can do something that will have a material impact. It’s wonderful to work with people you don’t know, in disciplines you’re unfamiliar with, and to have human contact with someone from a very different culture, situation, and circumstance.”