Receiving the award specifically for merits associated with the University’s third core duty is not a given. I arrived at the University in 2000 to study theoretical philosophy, focusing especially in my first years on the rather abstract ideas of 20th-century German philosophy. However, to me philosophy above all represented the central virtues of academic research: it demonstrated the significance of abstract thought and conceptual precision, as well as the need to delve as far as possible into one’s own preconceptions.
In 2009, I accepted the position of a doctoral researcher at the doctoral school in European studies, where I also completed my doctoral thesis. In the past decade in particular, I have turned my focus increasingly towards multidisciplinary European studies – a tradition that, incidentally, is one of the focus areas of our University’s collaboration in the Una Europa alliance.
However, as this award is presented for efforts to disseminate scholarly knowledge, I wish to say something about the matter.
Public engagement, also known as the third core duty of Finnish universities, is usually put into practice via two routes. Either researchers make interesting discoveries that find their way to the public through traditional or newer media outlets, such as podcasts, or researchers’ expertise is needed to describe occurrences or developments that have public significance. Even though I myself have written Finnish-language non-fiction books, my public engagement efforts fall more clearly into the latter category. Underlying these efforts have been, above all, the European crises of the past decade: the eurozone crisis and the resulting upheavals within the political sphere, Brexit, the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic on EU policy, and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. These are not topics I would have chosen had I free rein, but in these my understanding of the dynamics and history of European politics has proved useful, at least to a certain degree.
I am well aware of the criticism associated with commenting on current political events. Researchers easily become reactive opinion dispensers, with limited ability to define the agenda, the framing, of public discourse. In certain cases, such as those 30-second interview clips on TV news, you just have to accept the role of the resident expert. The structure of public discourse differs from that of academic research: often, it lacks the scope to explain theoretical traditions or methodological starting points.
And yet, the added value generated by researchers is not limited to subject-specific knowledge, but the virtues represented by academic research: reliability, criticism, conceptual precision and independence from individual interest groups. Another central virtue is the inclusivity engendered by academia, the awareness that researchers’ views stem from practices of thought and action that have been shaped as part of the academic community.
As you may have noticed, I did not include objectivity in the list. This is not because I do not consider this notion important. However, the closer we get to societal reality, which is defined by historical and cultural factors – factors in which questions pertaining to the relationship between individuals, communities and institutions are open – the one-sided ideal of objectiveness becomes problematic. Consider, for example, the events of the past year. Regarding Russia’s war of aggression, it is considerably more productive to talk about long- and short-term explanations, separating material reasons from ideological ones, than to talk about objective truth. This opens up various models of explanation, narratives and perspectives, as well as putting established truths to the test. Researchers are required to have literacy specific to public discourse: they have to be able to see which interpretations have solidified into seemingly objective truths that permit no other understanding.
The demand for objectivity is essentially linked to the development of modern culture. Since the late 19th century, if not earlier, we have lived in a strongly bipolar reality that distinguishes between facts and opinions or values. However, the development of modern public life has been significantly influenced by a third category – what philosophers from Immanuel Kant onwards have been analysing through the concept of judgement. At its core, this is the idea that norms or values affecting society are not purely subjective opinions, nor are they ‘hard’ facts as described by the natural sciences. They are, instead, principles that support the community itself, a kind of extended consciousness, or sensus communis. I believe that the societal mission of academic research constitutes, in essence, pointing out the circumstances where the community cannot live up to its own values – for instance, when European migration control results in the drowning of hundreds of people in the Mediterranean. In such situations, researchers are not only expressing their opinions; they are exposing the gap between ideals and institutions.
Societal impact is closely linked to the national languages of Finland. Recently, discussion has been particularly focused on the status of Finnish. Some people are unconcerned about the disappearance of the Finnish language, while others see it as settling into a purely vernacular role. It may be that the discussion on the status of Finnish in science and research is too broad and does not take into consideration differences between, for example, Finnish constitutional research and atmospheric science – in these fields, Finnish understandably has a different status.
At the risk of seeming clannish, I would like to emphasise that our national languages continue to play an important role in the interplay between scholarship and society. In the field of foreign policy, for example, a particular precision and analytical nature is required of concepts, in whose protection the scholarly community has traditionally played an important part. Concepts such as neutrality and non-alignment are associated with meanings that can only be understood on the basis of Finland’s foreign policy and its actual history. The same applies to European politics. It is essential to understand how apparently unambiguous notions, such as freedom, responsibility or solidarity, evoke very different conceptions, semantic fields and memory content depending on the national context.
Western science was born in antiquity as an essentially public activity linked to the critical examination of preconceptions that have an impact on society. I am happy that the University of Helsinki and its researchers continue to reflect this mission. Here at the City Centre Campus, it is elevated not only by traditional media appearances, but also by the strong blog and podcast culture of researchers as well as arenas for disseminating knowledge such as Think Corner. I wish all the best for these efforts. Thank you once again for the recognition.