The popular researcher

What does it mean to be human? Since his student days at Aarhus University, Svend Brinkmann has explored this question, in both academic and popular contexts. Meet the psychology professor who said no to Vild med Dans, even though he was tempted. And who finds it difficult to say whether he can imagine returning to AU.

[Translate to English:] Svend Brinkmann
”During my time as a student, we had a great deal of freedom and responsibility to organise our own student lives. I don’t think students would accept this today, and perhaps they shouldn’t. Even so, I feel somewhat nostalgic for the way we used to study. There needs to be a balance, because some students cannot navigate it all themselves. But we also risk doing the students a disservice if we assume they cannot cope with being thrown in at the deep end”, says Svend Brinkmann. Photo: Joachim Ladefoged
[Translate to English:] Svend Brinkmann i universitetsparken
A young Svend Brinkmann in the University Park in 2003. This photo is from an article in AU’s then university paper “Information and Debate”, in which the PhD student Svend Brinkmann discussed the book “Det meningsfulde liv” [”The meaningful life”], the writing of which he initiated with Master of Arts Cecilie Eriksen (right). Photo: Hans Plauborg

Svend Brinkmann had his first taste of celebrity when he was a PhD student at Aarhus University at the end of the 2000s. Whilst at the Steno Museum with his small children, watching the slow swing of Foucault’s pendulum in the museum foyer, another museum visitor tapped him on the shoulder and asked for a selfie.

“I was totally shocked. Both about the selfie, because smart phones were still quite new back then, but also because he wanted to have a selfie with ME. At that time, I had only published a single book, which was about the American philosopher John Dewey, and he must have seen my small photo on the inside of the dust jacket, says Svend Brinkmann, who went on to tell his equally surprised friends about the incident.

Since then, requests for selfies have become part of everyday life for Svend Brinkmann, who, in addition to his academic job as a professor of general psychology at Aalborg University, is a highly in-demand lecturer, radio host and author of more than 20 books. 

Crowded room in Gellerup Park
Svend Brinkmann’s time at Aarhus University began in 1995 on the philosophy programme. The young student, who was fascinated by the big questions of life, moved into a 6m2 room in Gellerup Park, which, for the first few weeks, he shared with two school friends from Herning, who hadn’t managed to find housing. One slept under the desk and the other in the pull-out drawer under the bed. Once Svend Brinkmann was finally alone, he had the peace to immerse himself in the main works of Plato and Aristotle. Some of the other philosophy students met at university to read these texts together, but not Svend Brinkmann:

“For me, reading and writing has always been something I’ve done on my own”, he says.

But he played an active role in student social life and was co-organiser of the philosophy Thursday bar. Most of the work consisted of dragging crates of beer into the classroom, which then transformed into a bar. Svend Brinkmann was happy in philosophy.

Two Bachelor’s degrees
But soon the doubt set in. What could he actually do with a Master’s in philosophy? What would it all lead to? Svend Brinkmann began to have sleepless nights in his room in Brabrand.

“I was worried about being unemployed. I’m actually a bit embarrassed that I thought that way, but I did. And then I had the idea of transferring to psychology: It is similar to philosophy, but it has better job prospects”, he says.

In 1997, Svend Brinkmann acted on his idea and changed to psychology, and it was in this subject he received a PhD degree in 2006. Yet he never completely left philosophy.

“I work at the interface of philosophy and psychology and draw on both fields. Philosophy is a fantastic subject that goes back a long way, and philosophical questions can be applied to all the sciences. At the same time, it suits me that I don’t work with pure philosophy but that I use philosophy in different contexts”, he says.

Alongside his psychology degree, Svend Brinkmann also completed his philosophy studies – with money from his own pocket. He is thus one of the few people to have two Bachelor’s degrees. 

“I am from Herning. We finish what we start”, he says.

Being human is more than having a brain
The recurring question in Svend Brinkmann’s research and public activity is what it means to be human.

“I have a kind of creed from an American psychology textbook from the 1950s, which states: “All human beings are like all other human beings, like some other human beings, and like no other human beings.” This is a philosophical claim, but it is also a good starting point for psychology. We all belong to the same species and to a variety of communities – but we are also individuals. It’s exciting to explore these different aspects of ourselves. Is there something universal about being human? I think so”, says Svend Brinkmann.

The thing we share is that we are not just part of a causal network, and we are not just a biological organism. The human being is a person with inherent worth and the capacity to act.

“Psychologists should bear this in mind, so that we don’t just reduce people to a brain,” he says.

Dannelse is under pressure
Svend Brinkmann is currently very interested in the term “dannelse” (a type of education perhaps best described as ‘character formation’ or ‘Bildung’), which is connected to what it is to be human. Along with professor Lene Tanggaard and associate professor Thomas Aastrup Rømer, he has recently published the anthology “Sidste chance – nye perspektiver på dannelse” [”Last chance – new perspectives on dannelse”].

“Dannelse is about becoming a better version of ourselves and realising what unites us as humans. In this way, dannelse offers a contrast to self-realisation and self-development, which focus on how a person can become a better version of him- or herself as an individual. We must regain the belief that there is a general humanity that is worth realising despite all our human mistakes and deficiencies” he says, and he points out that universities have an important role to play in this context:

“One of the tasks of the university is to help educate well-rounded individuals and not simply production units designed to optimise the country’s gross domestic product. Universities should help people acquire knowledge of the society, the culture and the history they are a part of – in order for society to progress and develop. The humanities have a particular responsibility in this regard, which is why it’s unfortunate that humanities subjects continue to be cut back. Dannelse is under pressure”, says Svend Brinkmann.

Thinks before he speaks
Svend Brinkmann has been part of public debate for many years. Every time he speaks in the media, he considers his role:

“Whenever I talk about research projects I’m involved in, I’m very careful to express myself on the basis of what the research shows and what we still need to investigate, etc. In these situations, I don’t just say whatever I feel like saying. Well, I hope I don’t – I do in some situations, haha!”, says Svend Brinkmann and continues:

“At the same time, I have also been given a role as what is sometimes rather grandly referred to as a “public intellectual”. In this capacity, I can take part in political and ethical debates about life issues understood more widely, and I have a freer role. I can discuss how we should live our lives as human beings without constantly being met with, “Yes, but, have you conducted research on that?”, he says.

As such, Svend Brinkmann presents his ideas to the public in two ways: As a researcher and as a public intellectual. He is aware that most people know him best in the latter role. But he maintains his role as a researcher, which he had first. The other came later.

“I think that both roles are legitimate, and I can tell when I’m in one role and when I’m in the other. I actually think that most of the audience can too”. 

No to Vild med Dans
Since the selfie in the Steno Museum, interest in Svend Brinkmann has exploded, but Brinkmann himself finds it rather strange that he has become a celebrity:

“I didn’t become a researcher to be famous. Then I would have chosen something else. I am just so lucky, you could say, that I am interested in the general, existential questions that concern many people. So when I talk and write about them, several people are keen to hear what I have to say”, he says and continues:

“It may not look like it, but I say no to many, many things. Reality TV, survival programmes and the like. I am really happy to take part in TV and Radio programmes when they are about philosophy and psychology, but not when they are about me as a private person. Of course, it’s not always easy to draw such a clear distinction, but I try to follow this principle. It’s for this reason that I said no to Vild med Dans, for example. After all, this has nothing to do with my area of expertise, even though I’m sure it would be fun to learn to dance”, he says. 

Aalborg University or Aarhus University?
Svend Brinkmann is a professor at Aalborg University, who were quick to offer him a professorship back in 2009. He is very fond of both Aalborg University and Aarhus University, and he tries to avoid answering questions about whether he can imagine returning to AU:

“I have lots of good memories from Aarhus University, both as a student and as a teacher. I could feel the presence of history when I first stepped into the university in 1995, and when the then senior associate professor Hans Fink welcomed us with the words, “Here we are all students”. I hope that students today can also feel the presence of history when they start at AU. I have no plans to change jobs. But, of course, not much can beat working in AU’s yellow buildings with a view of the University Park.

Svend Brinkmann

  • Born in 1975 in Herning
  • Lives in Randers, married and father of three
  • BA in philosophy 1999, BSc in psychology 2000, MSc in psychology 2002, and PhD in psychology 2006. All at Aarhus University.
  • Since 2009, professor in general psychology at Aalborg University. Has just completed a five-year research project on grief following the addition of “complicated grief reaction” to the list of psychiatric diagnoses
  • Author of more than 20 books, including “Stand Firm”, “The Joy of Missing Out” “Vi er det liv, vi lever” [”We are the life we live”], “Mit år med Gud” [”My year with God”] and the children’s book “Svend Brinkmann fortæller om livet, døden og jagten på sandheden” [”Svend Brinkmann talks about life, death and the search for truth”].
  • Highly in-demand lecturer
  • Has hosted the radio programme “Brinkmanns briks” on DR P1
  • Co-writer of the comedy programme GURU on DR along with the musician Simon Kvamm.
  • Member of the Danish Council of Ethics