Our Certainties and Doubts

In our current ego centred society, it seems important to have a strong profile, otherwise, one is not seen nor heard. One needs to be convinced of oneself and maybe even a bit narcissistic to appear front stage. But with 7.8 billion ‘egos’ on this globe in 2021 it is quite an effort to stick your head out, and to be someone and to survive in the struggle for attention. It was already Georg Simmel (1903) in his famous essay on the “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, who noted that on the one side, the dense and anonymous urban life creates the liberty to be who one likes to be and to not be pigeonholed by the rigid structures of a closed community, but that on the other side of that same coin, one needs to put a lot of effort in gaining a recognised position and identity in these same anonymous urban settings. These kinds of urban conditions seem now to have become ‘planetary’, and in our daily life, we seek our own place and identity, our own certainty of who we are and what we stand for,  while at the same time we try to avoid being pinpointed and fixed, and we try to overcome our current situation and envision an alternative future. We thus also question and doubt our current position. We are torn between our assumed certainties and hopeful doubts.

I, myself never had the self-confidence of a strong ego, and always felt the doubts and the struggle for recognition. Having lived at many different places, where one, over and over again, needed to find one’s own position again, and maybe as a side-effect, I also was lacking the expressive eloquence to state the ideas I stand for loud and clear, the constant struggle for who-we-are became very apparent to me. Although science and an academic career was never my pre-set goal, when it by coincidence happened to me, also legitimised my doubts and my continuous search for my own convictions. In science, it is our profession to always ask critical questions and to scrutinise all presupposed certainties. Science is not about finding final answers, but about continuously posing questions. This also resounds in the, for me so inspiring, philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner, who states that we cannot essentialise who we as human being, or as a single person are. We are the undetermined being (homo absconditus), and as a consequence, we continuously need to (re-)create ourselves. But of course one cannot profile oneself without an audience. Who we are is, therefore, not the result of a lonely creative act, but of creative inter-actions, it is a social construction, it is ‘teamwork’. Who we are, what we know, and what we stand for is created in interaction and in team-work. We never do this alone. This also coined my vision on the development of scientific knowledge in general. The core of what we do as scientists is to express to our audience what we claim to know and invite others to scrutinise these claims and come up with better and new ideas. Although we are very aware of all the shortcomings of the current scientific institutions and practices in this respect, it is still the core of knowledge production. Based on these ideas, it might not be surprising that also the Theory of Communicative Rationalisation of Jürgen Habermas (1985), and similar later ideas, such as those of Axel Honneth et al. (2017), have been a source for inspiration for me. But since doubt is also inherent in the social construction of knowledge, also the enemies of these ideas became dear to me, and helped me to understand my own position, and to also discover the shortcomings of my own and their tentative ‘truths’. The continuous struggle and partly even conflict is the core of the production of knowledge and wisdom (see also the work of my colleagues at our own Department: Landau, 2019 and van Leeuwen, 2007). This is also well reflected in the following quote of the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung:

But current times are rather refractory to this scientific process of jointly making sense of the world around us. The individualisation in the assessment of our scientific production denies the social- and team efforts involved. The exaggerated celebrity and ‘excellence’ culture around certain ‘stars’ in science suppress the productive force of doubts and critique. The publish or perish culture forces scientists to stay within the comfortable and well-established mainstreams of thought instead of delving into more marginal critical approaches. Of course, being critical is not necessarily better than being mainstream, but it is the debate between them, which should be the core of our scientific endeavours. Relativisation and scrutinisation of our own and other’s position are not appreciated. Being a critical mind, even within an academic setting does not contribute to our career. University administrations rather prefer tame and easy-going functionaries, who do not ask uneasy questions. What is true for academia is also true in general in society and in governance. Also there we do not seem to cherish the doubt and debate, or openness and recognition of others, sufficiently. Simple undisputed truths and ‘leaders’ who forcefully express and apply these truths are called for by many populist movements. Former US President Donald Trump fulfilled that role with fervour, while Barack Obama, as expressed in his latest book, was blamed to be hesitant and doubting. Robert Putnam in his famous book with the title Bowling Alone, addresses how in society one increasingly seems to lose the ability to engage with political inter-action and debate, to engage in the dialectics of certainty and doubt. To reinstall or revive our ability to find wisdom in the social interaction and scientific debate is however more than re-creating a community of equally minded people as an immunised comfort zone, within which we can find confirmation of what we already thought to know.  As Helmuth Plessner argues in his The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism (1999), it demands to actively engage with the ‘other’ with the ‘unknown’ and ‘uncertain’ and to actively position one-self and one’s convictions in between certainty and doubt. Of course we can also interpret the mutual identification and recognition of ourselves and our potential opponents as a kind of ‘knowledge’ community in which also disagreement may persist, but which nevertheless could lead each of us to new insights.


Habermas, J. (1985) The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, and Vol. 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Beacon, Boston.

Honneth, A.,  Rancière, J., Genel, K., & Deranty, J-Ph. (2017) Recognition or Disagreement. A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity. Columbia University Press, New York.

Krüger, H.P. (2019) Homo Absconditus: Helmuth Plessners Philosophische Anthropologie Im Vergleich. [Homo Absconditus: Helmuth Plessners philosophical anthropology in comparison]. de Gruyter, Berlin.

Landau, F. (2019) Agonistic Articulations in the ‘Creative’ City. Routledge, Abingdon.

Leeuwen B. van (2007) A Formal Recognition of Social Attachments: Expanding Axel Honneth’s Theory of Recognition. Inquiry. Vol. 50, No. 2, pp.  180-205.

Plessner, H. (1999 [1924]) The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism. Humanities Press, Amherst.

Putnam, R.D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Shuster, New York.

Simmel, G. (1976 [1903]) The Metropolis and Mental Life. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Free Press, New York.


What Groningen does with us and what we do with Groningen

In 1976 I started studying Geography at the University of Groningen. At that time we did not have a free choice where to study, as geography was a popular study programme, and there were not always sufficient free slots at the university of our preference. An allocation committee decided where you could go. I was sent to Groningen. In hindsight, I did not regret it, as Groningen as one of the more peripheral University Cities, also had a vibrant student life because students could not always afford to go to their parental home in the weekends. The ‘Pakhuis’ (Warehouse) was our favourite student pub for the weekends. Notwithstanding the not so fancy (but cheap) housing accommodation during my studies, we were happy with our newly gained autonomy. My first room somewhere around the Plantsoenstraat, at that time, had rather primitive sanitary facilities, with a separate toilet-building in the back garden. For a shower, we anyhow had to go to the university sports facilities. Soon I moved to downtown, in the red light district. My room was noisy and in the wintertime, I had to go to the university library to keep warm, which by the way, unintendedly was also profitable for my study results. Then we had the opportunity with some extra state subsidies to rent an apartment in a highrise building on the outskirts of the city in Vinkhuizen. For us, this was ‘luxury’, although on the ninth floor when the wind was sweeping over the flat Groninger countryside, the wind howled through the cracks, and the elevator always smelled of piss, and we had to queue up to make a telephone call at the only telephone booth in the street, in these very cheap low-end housing conditions.

Plantsoenstraat                    Lopende Diep                                    Aquamarijnstraat         Barmaheerd

Nevertheless, we had a great time, during which friendships for life were made. And the University also allowed us to discover and develop our interests. Groningen in my experience was and is a great place. A place where our formative years took place became very dear to us, and it still is, although I lived at many other places since then. Not just as a student city, but also in other respects, Groningen can be characterised by its typical atmosphere. It is almost the only bigger urban centre in the whole of the North of the Netherlands, and has the allure of a big city, in a part of the Netherlands, which is rather down to earth, and where people are usually characterised by their no-nonsense attitude. The historic centre with its many street cafés, and markets is iconic. The Grote Markt, where we remember the flower seller, James Squarrosa (Jaap Bloemendaal), nicknamed, ‘the oracle of Andijk’, standing on the back of his truck, yelling that you cannot leave without taking a few of his plants and flowers for almost nothing. And when you believed you were satisfied, he always added another plant to it. He was a weekly returning phenomenon, which you would never again forget. But also the vegetable market where my wife would explore al stands to find where the salad was the cheapest because we had to live with a single student allowance.  And in the city hall on the ‘Grote Markt’ we also married, a bit low profile, in a hippy fashion at those days, having our wedding dinner on the pancake ship in one of the canals of Groningen. Groningen has changed much since then. Many parts of the city have been revitalised and refurbished. Groningen also added to its diverse hipster-like offerings along the Folkingestraat, which in the past had been more or less a  no-go area, and created a totally new atmosphere, which is so nicely described and celebrated in the love song for Groningen by the cabaretier Janneke Jager (click on the picture to hear her song (in Dutch)). And this brings me to the topic I wanted to raise here. Because, what creates an urban atmosphere? What is an urban atmosphere? Is it an attribute of the place or is it an attribute of our subjective experience, infused by our memories, nostalgia and habitus? Who creates or causes these atmospheres?

An urban atmosphere is certainly not just a set of functional properties, which we can rationally appreciate or criticise. An atmosphere is a feeling, an affective aspect of a place. It is the emotion which a place evokes if we think of it or remember it? Or is it the emotion we experience if we immerse in it and are directly encountering it at that moment? Urban atmospheres are a central concept in placemaking and place experience. They refer to ‘a class of experiences that occur before and alongside the formation of subjectivity, across human and non-human materialities, and in-between subject/object distinctions’ (Anderson, 2009, p. 78).

Conceptually and theoretically this concept draws on the new phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz (2019), and on the further development of these ideas by Gernot Böhme (2014), and has been applied also to the city of Groningen by the German Geographer Jürgen Hasse, one of our recent Alexander von Humboldt Lecturers at the Radboud University.

Prof. Jürgen Hasse develops a methodology to investigate urban atmospheres, which he describes as ‘micrology’ but which is sometimes also denoted as ‘phenomenography’ (De Matteis, Bille, Griffero & Jelić, 2019). In a nutshell, Hasse (2012) describes urban atmospheres as belonging ‘to the life of the city like its traffic flows, they come and go with the situational change of the urban. They are different in this location than in any other, they spontaneously emerge out of the presence of things and the dynamics of life or are the object of deliberate production. They have their own significance in the lives of people as well as in the unique character and history of a place. Where they are produced according to a systemic calculation and interest, they fulfil functions as affective dispositions in an ideological, economic or political context’ (pp. 11-12).

Urban atmospheres, therefore, are emotional experiences of the human surroundings; are dependent on how we live these places, and how we actively perform these places. They do not just have passive semiotic meanings which just need to be discovered or ‘read’, but are continuously creating meanings through the performative stream of human dynamics. Urban Atmospheres can not be reduced to specific aspects, but need to be seen as wholes in between subject and object, as ‘in-between spaces’.

Urban Atmospheres are situations, which consist of the things that are, of problematisations of what is, and of programmes for realising what is not yet. In this respect, one can also distinguish between individual personal situations and more collectively shared situations. Atmospheres are not just created by human interventions but as well by the emerging phenomena of nature. Atmospheres have the power of indentedly or unintendedly affecting what happens and what takes place. Atmospheres are not just things, which are there and which might be transformed but cannot really disappear, but are ‘half-things’, which might be linked to things, but which are much more volatile in their performance and in the way they are experienced. Atmospheres are communicated and experiences through our different bodily senses, which then are re-combined into a ‘synesthetic’ holistic impression. The concept of Urban Atmospheres also re-covers the importance of emotions and affects, which in the course of the modernistic and rational project, seems to have gone lost and in this way also allows a critique of one-dimensional economics of aesthetics but also allows access to the constructive dimension of atmospheres.

Usually, Atmospheres are distinguished from Moods. Atmospheres are seen as a-specific and a-personal reality, while moods are seen as personal and individual and therefore also more specific feelings of being in this world, and of being related to this world. Moods create a disposition of the self and create the sensibility for the experience of urban atmospheres. ‘Whether we can and want to feel at home in the urban space of a city is never solely dependent on the urban atmospheres of that city, but also on personal moods, i.e. the affective relationship to living in the city in general and to living in that specific city at that moment in time, in particular’ (Hasse, 2012, p. 20).

In this respect, I see some similarities between the concept of an Urban Atmosphere, and what one could describe with Piere Bourdieu as the affective dimension of a “Field”, while the concept of a Mood could then be parallelled with the affective dimension of our ‘Habitus’, although one might object that Bourdieu sees Habitus as a much more structural personal disposition, while Hasse sees Mood as a much more volatile and momentary personal disposition. But for understanding the difference between Mood and Atmosphere this might nevertheless be helpful, in my view.

Furthermore, Hasse pragmatically describes Urban Atmospheres along several sensible dimensions, like:

  • The built infrastructure
  • The smell
  • The light and shade
  • The soundscape
  • The feeling of the ‘air’
  • The rhythms and movements
  • The looks and sights
  • The habitus and the way people dress
  • The presence of nature and other life forms (animals)
  • The ‘family of things’ as media for distinctions

In this way, he comes up with a lively and very detailed scientific, analytic and synesthetic description of the places Janneke Jager sings about in her above-mentioned love song for Groningen. It shows what geographical science can contribute to understanding the role of the affective dimensions of places in our daily lives.

If you click on the image below, the original text (in German) will appear. In you prefer a (quick and dirty) translation in English, click here.

We sometimes only become aware of the special effects of urban atmospheres, when they abruptly change. Some weeks ago a newspaper article (in Dutch) in NRC-Handelsblad described the Vismarkt in Groningen in Covid-19 lockdown times. This makes us aware of the quality of urban life which is all of the sudden missing, but which we otherwise seemed to take for granted.

The affective and emotional elements of space determine where we feel at home and part of the local community, where we feel attracted and thrilled by the experience of the ‘strange’ places we visit, how we can make places hospitable for ‘strangers’, how places can provoke us to think differently, where ‘diversity’ or an elan for hopeful change is ‘in the air’, what characterises ‘no-go’ places or inspiring and creative places, where we feel the respect for historical and cultural heritage, or where we feel the disgust for evil pasts, and to which places we feel attached, or with which we can identify. These feelings are the hidden but essential drivers of our everyday doings, maybe much more so than our rational thinking.


Anderson, B. (2009) Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society. Vol 2, No. 2, pp. 77-81.

Böhme, G. (2014) The theory of atmospheres and its applications. Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts. pp. 93-100.

De Matteis, F., Bille, M., Griffero, T. & Jelić, A. (2019) Phenomenographies: Describing the plurality of atmospheric worlds. Ambiances. Vol. 5, pp. 1-22.

Hasse, J. (2018) Märkte und ihre Atmosphären. Micrologien räumlichen Erlebens. [Markets and their Atmospheres. Micrologies of spatial experiencing.] Vol. 2, Karl Alber, Freiburg.

Hasse, J. (2012) Atmosphären der Stadt. Aufgespürte Räume. [Atmospheres of the City. Felt spaces.] Jovis, Berlin.

Schmitz, H. (2019) New Phenomenology: A Brief Introduction. Mimesis, Milano.