With outreach we usually mean, reaching out to the world outside the university, to practice, as nicely exemplified by this piece of art created by Wiebke Siem,  which I encountered in the museum of contemporary art (‘Kunsthalle’) in Bielefeld, Germany.

Reaching out implies sharing our knowledge with the outside world, in the hope it can be of use, for creating a better world. Somehow, however, this seems to be rather dissatisfying and one-sided. Are we only reaching out? What about the outside world reaching out to us?… sharing their knowledge and needs with us? Shouldn’t we together be working on the current problems in society? Shouldn’t we be in continuous dialogue with the world outside the ivory tower of science? So to quote a saying by Francois Gautier: ‘Many live in the ivory tower called reality; they never venture on the open sea of thought’.

We live in a society with a deep division of labour. This separates us from others. And that is also good. It implies that we do in what we are best and we refrain from doing things we are not good at. We leave that to others, and if we need those other things we ask them. We trust we can count on them. We would reach out to them… But we also live together in one society and share the common problems and concerns and all need to live our life. This brings us together again. We cannot do without each other. Reaching out to get the help we need, and reaching out to provide the service we can give. Reaching out is bridging differences.

But it is easy to observe the others, and maybe also to know better than the others from our armchair within our own field of specialisation and from within the ivory tower of science, and leave the practical doing and changing the world to others.

Do not misunderstand me here, the ivory tower, the splendid isolation, of thinking, reflecting and doing rigorous scientific research is of great value and indeed deserves to be seen as made of such a precious material. The scientific progress this division of labour produced is without a doubt and should be carefully cherished and fostered. But the distance and separation created by this division of labour also create a bias, a distortion, and oversimplification of the real practice out there. The art of reaching out is bridging the rather abstract concepts and principles of science to the pragmatic realities of everyday life. Reaching out by denouncing what might be wrong out there and by providing help and advice to improve practice, makes science highly political. And that is good because only then science is of any use. But being a good scientist does not make us good practitioners. We need to bridge these differences from both sides, and come closer ‘together again’ as our prime minister, during the current Covid-19 crisis is claiming.

To get a better scientific understanding of practice again, the currently topical ‘practice theory approach’ as we have endorsed already for quite some time in our Department in Nijmegen might be helpful, as a further development of less comprehensive and more reductionist models of critique and intervention.

Figure: Practice Theory approach according to Shove and Schatzki

Within the scientific community, we have a similar kind of division of labour, and there are many different approaches competing with each other. We, therefore, do not just need to reach out and bridge differences towards the world outside, but also within our own scientific community. But the current university system focussing exclusively on individual performance is not an invitation to move beyond one’s own productive comfort zone, is not an invitation to build bridges beyond one’s own scope and filed, and does not support the curiosity in the other and the unknown. On the contrary, it supports competition, and differentiation and profiling one’s self by distancing and critiquing the others. Some even believe that this leads to better science. How ignorant can one be…?

Yes, critique is essential in finding a better solution, but at the same time, as Georg Hegel and Axel Honneth are teaching us, recognition of the other are fundamental for building bridges. This does imply that consensus can be anticipated and is feasible, but it implies that the other is taken seriously and is respected, that one is willing to take notice and not to condemn beforehand. Recognition is the basis of trust (Geneland & Deranty, 2016).

While Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes assume an ontology in which individuals are egocentrically interested in extending their individual power, on the basis of which it seems rational to use the supra-individual power of the state to pacify the war of all against all, and while Immanuel Kant assumed an ontology in which individual subjects, ethically restrict themselves for the sake of living together with other individual subjects,  Georg Hegel, George Herbert Mead and Axel Honneth, in contrast, endorse an ontology of intersubjectivity, on the basis of which a relational individual subjectivity can emerge. This latter ontology implies that in all differences a communal interest and common ground can be discovered, which as a conditio humana is the foundation on which all bridges are built. In this way Axel Honneth turns the logics of our social life around: Not the civil order emerges out of a natural order of each individual against each other individual, but individual diversity emerges out of a preceding solidaristic consciousness. It also turns around the motto on the state seal of the United States ‘E Pluribus Unum’ in ‘Ex Uno, Plures’, so changing ‘Out of many, one’ into ‘Out of the one, many’. First, the unity of a democratic and social background culture should be established before a peaceful pluralism can emerge (Heins, 2019, p. 692).

In a very similar way also Georg Simmel describes the nature of society as based on the fundamental intersubjectivity of our consciousness, or an original connection between the subjects, or in the words of Martin Heidegger, on an ontological ‘Zuhandensein’ (readiness-to hand), in which the other is already part of our being in the world (‘Dasein’). It becomes the moral driving force for moving beyond one’s own interests and convictions and to search for the other, the driving force behind building bridges. Bridges wich do connect and relate but not necessarily imply that one crosses the bridge to unite with the other. It is this kind of basic relationality which allows us also our own position and identity in this relationship. Our current experiences with social distancing instead of with building bridges because of the Covid-19 crises also let us feel the importance of this very fundamental dimension of sociality.

For me this is a fascinating insight, for which, I believe, there is a lot to say. I recognise many aspects of my own thinking which fascinated and intrigued me. For example, there is the obvious relationship to Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Rationality, which has been a source of inspiration to me, but which also posed a number of still unsolved critical questions, like ‘why should we engage in communicating at all?’, which is, of course, a killer question for his whole theoretical framework, but which could find its answer in the social ontology of Axel Honneth. Furthermore, I see many commonalities with another of my personal sources of inspiration, namely in the work of Helmuth Plessner, who in his philosophical anthropology (2019) also assumes that we as human beings are eccentrically positioned, and therefore already beyond ourselves and with the generalised other. The comparative zoologist Adolf Portman (1990) with his phenomenological biological investigations comes to the conclusion, that the essence of life, in general, is to be found in the performativity, and therefore in the relationality of every form of life (Kleisner, 2008). A stream of thought with many sources and roots, and certainly worth following further.

How this could translate into practical research questions in the field of Geography is nicely demonstrated by Eberhard Rothfuß (2017 and in a more elaborate way in 2012).

These tatters of thought or ‘think pieces’ are, of course, still a stub, which needs to be discussed, elaborated and further developed. But that is exactly how this post is meant, as an invitation to co-tinking, building bridges, and reaching out.


Dörfler, T. (2001): Das Subjekt zwischen Identität und Differenz. Zur Begründungslogik bei Habermas, Lacan, Foucault [The Subject between Identity and Difference. The logics of Habermas, Lacan, Foucault]. Ars Una, Neuried

Geneland, K. & Deranty, J.-Ph. (eds.) (2016) Recognition or Disagreement. A critical encounter on the politics of freedom, equality, and identity. Columbia University Press, New York.

Heins, V. (2019) Kultureller Pluralismus und Kritische Theorie. Von Adorno bis Honneth [Cultural pluralism and critical theory. From Adorno to Honneth]. In: Bohmann, U. & Sörensen, P. (eds.) Kritische Theorie der Politik [Critical Political Theory]. Suhrkamp, Berlin, pp. 674-695.

Honneth, A.  (2004) Recognition and Justice: Outline of a Plural Theory of Justice. Acta
Sociologica. 47, pp. 351–364.

Kleisner, K. (2008) The Semantic Morphology of Adolf Portmann: A Starting Point for the Biosemiotics of Organic Form? Biosemiotics. 1, pp. 207–219.

Plessner, H. (2019) Levels of Organic Life and the Human: An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology. Fordham University Press, New York.

Portmann, A. (1990) Essays in philosophical zoology by Adolf Portmann. The living form and seeing eye.
Edwin Mellen, Lewiston.

Rothfuß, E. (2012) Exklusion im Zentrum. Die brasilianische Favela zwischen Stigmatisierung
und Widerständigkeit [Exclusion in the centre. The Brazilian favela between stigmatization
and resistance], Transcript, Bielefeld.

Rothfuß, E. (2017) On a Paradox of Urban Inequality: The Brazilian Favela between Spatial Visibility and Social Invisibility In: Hahn, B. & Schmidt, K. (eds.) Inequality in America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. – Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg, pp. 93-112.