A department under siege: How Philosophy at Stellenbosch was split in order to survive

Anton A Van Niekerk


This article discusses the extraordinary history of the teaching of philosophy at Stellenbosch University, with a particular focus on the events that led to the split of the department in 1967, and its later reunification in the late 1980’s. The tensions that characterised these events, ultimately leading to the split of the department, were informed by resistance on the part of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) clergy, embodied by the supervisory body (‘kuratorium’) presiding over what would later become the faculty of theology of the Stellenbosch University, to the seemingly unorthodox and controversial interpretations of religious doctrine by a lecturer within the department of philosophy, Dr JJ Degenaar. The eventual solution to these differences was the initial creation of two ‘streams’ in the department of philosophy, one of which would be political philosophy taught by Degenaar, and ultimately the creation of a separate department of political philosophy, headed by Degenaar. The article also deals with the process of re-unification of the two departments in the late 1980’s. Several insights can be gleaned from an analysis of these events. Firstly, they reveal the extent to which the DRC curatory was able to influence academic affairs at that time, as well as to the extent to which Stellenbosch University allowed its institutional autonomy to be compromised. Secondly, they show how a certain model of religious experience and faith that was quite prominent in DRC circles in the late nineteenth century, was systematically overtaken by another model in the course of the early twentieth century. Finally, they show that within the two departments, a healthy culture of not only respect and collegiality, but also continued philosophical and political debate, was maintained throughout the 20 years of formal (30 years of effective) separation, thus illustrating the value of dialogue over intellectual immobility.


Philosophy; Stellenbosch University; curatory of the Kweekskool; im/mortality of the soul; Johan Degenaar; JF (Freddie) Kirsten

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17570/stj.2017.v3n1.a21


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