A complex life well lived
Paul Cilliers, who died on July 31, was a true Renaissance man - enthusiastic teacher, accomplished musician (on the French horn), adventurous cook, eager reviewer of novels, certified engineer and professor of philosophy.
His passing, at just 54, leaves an enormous gap in the lives of his family, students and colleagues and in the institutions and ideas for which he cared - Stellenbosch University, the university’s Centre for Studies in Complexity and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (Stias).
The young Cilliers
He was born in Vereeniging and raised in a Dutch Reformed family. His father was a dominee in the church, serving a congregation in Katlehong on the East Rand.
After matriculating from Afrikaans Hoërskool Germiston, the young Cilliers won an Anglo American scholarship to study electronic engineering at Stellenbosch.
As he later confessed, he survived both high school and his successful undergraduate years by reading and listening to music.
As a student, a chance meeting found him in legendary Stellenbosch philosopher Johan Degenaar’s lectures. This sparked the realisation that his first choice of career had been wrong - perhaps philosophy was his true calling. So, while working as a research engineer at the Institute for Maritime Technology, he enrolled as a first-year philosophy student through Unisa, successfully graduating with a BA.
His postgraduate work was at Stellenbosch under Degenaar’s supervision. It was not an easy time for him - he had to drive every day from Stellenbosch to his day job in distant Simon’s Town.
In 1994, 14 years after he first decided to study philosophy, a PhD in hand, he was appointed lecturer in the Stellenbosch department.
A stellar career
A stellar career followed. Its measurement is found in an individually authored book, three edited volumes, 35 peer-reviewed articles and 29 chapters that reveal myriad points of conceptual entry into the tortured, soggy interface between science, society and global change.
His oeuvre reveals an interesting paradox and says something about the man and the scholar: although widely read in philosophy and well drilled in the “hard sciences” represented by engineering, Cilliers was intellectually drawn to the postmodern, the work of Jacques Derrida in particular.
Keeping his work grounded
But the two issues that kept his work both grounded and relevant were the philosophy of science and, more prosaically, the issue of sustainability. He greatly valued the idea that philosophy was of practical value, saying that, as a philosopher, he gave society each day something more practical than he had in the 16 years he had spent as an engineer.
Both groundedness and relevance pointed him in the direction of complexity theory, which had been the topic of his PhD thesis and which would dictate his institution-building. In 2009, with his close friend and collaborator, the Stellenbosch biochemist Jannie Hofmeyr, Cilliers established the Centre for Studies in Complexity at Stellenbosch University, currently located in the Wallenberg Centre at Stias.
A truly cross- and interdisciplinary project, the centre draws together academics and students in ongoing, theoretically informed exchanges on a variety of challenges facing the modern world. But the centre, too, has reached beyond the university walls towards the issue that had kept Cilliers both grounded and ethically focused - sustainability.
A string of awards
In 2006 Cilliers directly followed Hofmeyr as the recipient of the country’s highest academic accolade, a Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship. It came after a string of awards and grants both nationally and from Stellenbosch. He used the Oppenheimer Fellowship to take up a visiting professorship at the Universiteit voor Humanistiek (UvH) in Utrecht, the Netherlands.
The UvH returned the compliment by appointing Cilliers as a distinguished visiting professor in its graduate school, honouring his “outstanding scientific work on the domain of critical complexity theory”. This certainly recognised his achievements, but it was also a signal that the best work was still to come.
To spend an evening with Cilliers and his wife, Sandra, was sheer delight: the conversation could run the full range from food to Freud to feminism. Between the aroma and the laughter, however, Cilliers’s inquiry was incessant, his interest in the complexity of life endless and his connections ceaseless.
Who else could have illustrated a dense point around meaning and the power of words by juxtaposing culinary zeal and an early training in quite the way Cilliers did in his acclaimed book, Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems.
“A Boeing engine is complicated,” he wrote, “but a good mayonnaise is complex.”
Paul Cilliers: born December 25 1956, died July 31 2011