Johan Degenaar 1997


The career of Johan Degenaar, Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch, is without doubt one of the most remarkable and probably one of the most influen­tial of any South African philosopher to date. His impressive body of writings, comprising 12 books, 3 published lecture series and nearly 150 contri­butions to collective works, scholarly journals and semi-popular magazines, established him not only as a powerful and highly original thinker in his own right, but also as a pioneer figure in intro­ducing a wide variety of philosophical schools of thought and concepts to the philosophical and wider academic discussion in South Africa. The accessible and challenging nature of his work, his exceptional literary flair and his adeptness at applying new philosophical ideas and constructs to topical issues, ranging from religion, politics and education to literature, art and culture, made him a source of inspiration for a whole generation of aca­demics who have since done important work in the fields of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Degenaar was born on 7 March 1926 and grew up in Ladysmith, Natal. Trained as a philosopher at Stellenbosch University where he obtained his Master's degree with distinction in 1948, he continued his studies in Groningen from 1949 - 1950 under the tutorship of the internationally renowned Helmuth Plessner and Gerhard van de Leeuw. He received his doctorate from the University of Stellenbosch in 1951 with a dissertation on the nature of philosophy under the promotership of Professor JF Kirsten.

Degenaar started teaching at Stellenbosch University in 1949 and it soon became apparent that the philosophical community in South Africa had gained an important new voice. Particularly influential during the fifties and early sixties were his now legendary honours courses on the enigmatic Danish thinker, S0ren Kierkegaard, which, together with his writings on Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, made a major contribution in acquainting South Africans with the world of Existentialism and Phenomenology. During the fifties he also began to engross himself in the pro­blem of secularization, as it was put on the philo­sophical and theological agenda by the remarkable prison correspondence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, mar­tyred by the Nazis. Degenaar's published work in his field culminated in his controversial book, Die steiflikheid van die siel, of 1963 which was followed by Evolusie en Christendom (1965), Die wereld van Albert Camus (1966) and Sekularisasie (1967). He had earlier published Eksistensie en Gestalte (1962).

Degenaar was awarded the Ernest Oppenheimer Trust Grant in 1961 and furthered his studies in existential phenomenology under CA van Peursen in Leyden. He also had sabbatical leave in 1969, during which time he worked at Oxford in close collaboration with leading analytic philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle, AJ Ayer, RM Hare and Rom Harre. His growing interest in analytical phil­osophy is evident from his penetrating investi­gations during the late sixties and early seventies, into the use of religious, anthropological and politi­c al concepts, applying the tools of linguistic analysis. At a time when the philosophical scene in South Africa was characterised by a seemingly insurmountable divide between Continental and Anglo-Saxon Philosophy, Degenaar in his writings not only displayed his adroitness in both modes of thought, but also demonstrated the tangent points between phenomenological and linguistic analysis and how these methodologies can be applied philo­sophically to supplement rather than to contradict each other.

His promotion to Professor and Head of the newly established Department of Political Philosophy at Stellenbosch University in 1969, by and large chan­nelled Degenaar's interests to issues in political and social philosophy during the seventies. He did seminal work on the concept of ideology and his contributions on Afrikaner nationalism and Marxism-Leninism in particular provoked wide interest and debate. His writings during this time are characterized by subtle analyses and un­compromising denunciations of the apartheid ideology, and by an ongoing intellectual assess­ment of the idea of a plural democracy and its viability in the South African context. He was also responsible for some of the most penetrating interpretations of prominent Afrikaner political thinkers, such as NP van Wyk Louw, AP Treurnicht and Gerri! Viljoen. Other themes that enjoyed prominence in his work, apart from pluralism, nationalism and Afrikaner thought, were structural violence, ethnicity and issues related to political theology and the socio-political context of Christianity. Following on his earlier Op weg na 'n nuwe politieke lewenshouding (1963), his major political writings were published in Beweging Uitwaarts (with WA de Klerk and Martin Versveld) (1969), Moraliteit en Politiek (1976), Voortbestaan in geregtiglzeid (1980), The Roots of Nationalism (1982), Keuse vir die Afrikaner (1982) and Marxism-Leninism and its implications for Southern Africa (1982).

Always the engaged intellectual, preoccupied with living issues close at home, Degenaar nevertheless was a frequent traveller abroad and maintained close contact with a diverse company of inter­national scholars. During 1974/75 he visited West Germany at the invitation of the Deutsclzer Akadelllisclzer Austausclzdienst (DAAD) where he studied with Helmuth Gollwitzer at the Free University of Berlin and with Georg Picht at the University of Heidelberg. He returned to Europe in 1977, devoting his sabbatical in Amsterdam to political ethics and the analysis of negative political concepts. He visited the United States of America during 1979 on an International Visitor Grant of the US Government. In 1983 he did extended research in the USA on paradigms of understanding in historiography and literary theory, and collaborated with world-renowned scholars such as Michael Riffaterre, Geoffrey Hartman, Northrop Frye and Richard Rorty in presenting a summer course on 'Modern Literary Theory' at the prestigious North-western University in Evanston, Chicago. During 1989 Degenaar visited the Soviet Union as a member of an IDASA delegation on invitation by the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee based in Moscow. On sabbatical in 1990 he did research at universities in Germany and England as part of an international project on 'Concepts of Nation building with special reference to South Africa'.

During the eighties and while continuing to write on political issues, Degenaar's interest gradually shifted in the direction of aesthetics and literary theory. Many people will insist that it is in this field that he made his most original philosophical con­tribution. He was, to a very large extent, respon­sible for introducing the thought of Jacques Derrida and the whole deconstructivist/ postmodernist movement to the philosophical and literary discus­sion in South Africa. Some of this work is captured in Art and the meaning of life (1986), a Summer School lecture series published by the Department of Extramural Studies at the University of Cape Town. UCT previously also published his highly popular lecture series on Ideologies: ways of looking at South Africa (1982) and Death of God: a secular view of religion (1984). Degenaar's most recent research deals with models of nation building and cultural diversity. As reflected in The myth of a South African nation (IDASA, Occasional Papers, No 40, 1991), his latest work not only records the changing political realities in the country, but also indicates the new intellectual challenges facing all those concerned with the future of plural democracy and the advancement of an open and free society in South Africa.

Degenaar was awarded the Stals Prize for Philosophy by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns in 1984. His sixtieth birthday was commemorated by the publication of a volume of essays in his honour, In Gesprek: opstele vir Johan Degenaar, edited by Andre du Toil (1986). An edition of the South African Journal of Philosophy (vol 10, No 3), of which he was an Editorial Board member for many years, was also published in his honour and contained, amongst others, contributions from eminent philosophers such as CA van Peursen and Richard Rorty.

Degenaar retired in 1991. He remains philosophically active, however, and continues to lecture and publish.

Johan Degenaar is not only an exceptionally in­fluential figure because of his writings. His influ­ence also stems from what and who he is as a per­son, colleague and teacher. To properly account for his status in South Africa's philosophical and broader intellectual community, Degenaar the man cannot be separated from his work.

In the story of the response of South African in­tellectuals to apartheid, Degenaar's name and example will always be of paramount importance. In the battle against apartheid, during which he was often ostracized and vilified as a traitor by fel­low Afrikaners, he became the living embodiment of intellectual honesty and moral integrity. For his students and other admirers, he was the symbol of the responsible intellectual during a time of in­tellectual stagnation and political folly.

Even more important than his role as an intellectual, however, was his role as an educator. Degenaar is arguably one of the last remnants of an increasingly endangered species: truly Socratic thinkers. For him, philosophy starts where it started for Socrates: the experience of wonder, not only in an intellectual, but first and foremost in an existen­tial sense. For Degenaar, the question is more important than the answer. What he knows, is, in his own estimate, always of less importance than what he can find out with partners in discussion; the discussion, the dialogue in itself is more import­ant than any claims to know ledge. True to the Socratic dictum that 'the unexamined life is not worth living', Degenaar educated a whole generation of (especially Afrikaner) students to re­examine their dogmatically held beliefs, to open their minds to alternative viewpoints and to engage in free and honest debate.

Because of the originality and scope of his contri­bution to philosophy, his wide-ranging influence on political and religious thought, literary and aes­thetic theory and public discourse in South Africa and his exemplary moral integrity as an intel­lectual, Johan Degenaar is eminently deserving of an honorary doctorate. In a life and work devoted to the intellectual pursuit of the conditions for our 'voortbestaan in geregtigheid' in this country, this remarkable, highly respected and well-loved per­son exemplifies the pertinent values that also inform and inspire our transformation as a University: scholarly excellence, academic freedom, democracy, justice and social responsiveness.