Tilburg Law School

In Memoriam Willem Witteveen

Willem had enormously looked forward to the trip to Indonesia. It was finally about to happen, after a two-year delay. Willem Witteveen, his wife Lidwien Heerkens, and their daughter Marit are no longer with us. Their son and brother Freek remains behind.

Since 1990, Willem Witteveen had worked as a professor at Tilburg Law School, first occupying the chair of Jurisprudence. Later on, the title of his chair evolved to reflect both his person and his passions: Legal Theory and Rhetoric.

Willem’s academic work, however diverse, can be understood as a search for order in the law; an order that was not always present, as Willem knew all too well. His unique intellect worked in original and associative ways. He had a knack for letting you look in a different way at what you thought you saw. Reading a text written by Willem brought you a step forward. In a recent contribution on Global Law to the Tilburg Law Review, he drew attention, in his typical way, to an age-old dilemma: how do you, as a lawyer full of ideals, prevent that you become overwhelmed by helplessness? How do you uphold the values of a democratic state under the rule of law when you are confronted with the dark side of globalization? This type of question was at the heart of his academic practice: Willem was determined to help the next generation in the balancing act required to bolster the practical principles of the democratic constitutional state. The power of philosophy and literature as direct sources of inspiration and the responsibility to future generations were central to this endeavor. In these contexts, he wielded a pen that was both exceptionally powerful and sensitive. His writings were full of literary and cultural metaphors; one of the terms he coined was ‘house of the constitutional state.’ With unexpected examples, he engaged his students, whom, above all, he wanted to train in the art of argumentation and debate. In the words of one student, Professor Witteveen’s lectures often had something magical about them. He was committed to his doctoral students and meant a lot to them. Bringing out the best in people, young people especially, may not have been his conscious objective but, partly for this very reason, this was something he fully achieved.

He was passionately committed to the Law School and the university community. He was a member of the Law School’s Research Assessment Committee and of the Cambridge Global Law Series committee, the initiator and chairman of the Montesquieu Lecture Series working group, chair of the Department of Jurisprudence and Legal History, co-initiator of the Center for Legislative Studies, spiritual father and founding dean of what is now University College Tilburg, and one of the intellectual driving forces behind the Research Master as well as the Global Law initiatives of Tilburg Law School.

Willem’s active engagement in society is reflected first and foremost by his membership of the Dutch Senate, from 1999 to 2007 and again since early 2013. In addition, he was active for the Academische Boekengids, Socialisme & Democratie, Nexus, the Nederlands Juristenblad, and RegelMaat, in which he wrote a column called ‘Nomoi’ for many years. His last book, De wet als kunstwerk, which he had finished just before his holiday, is partly based on his numerous contributions as part of this column and has two subtitles: ‘A different philosophy of law’ and, liberally translated, ‘How philosophers engage our legislators in dialogue.’ A classical text from political theory is the point of departure for each exploration of what this text has meant over time and what it can still mean if translated into current legislative practice. As an advocate for the use of classical texts, Willem was also closely involved in the Dutch translation of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and the recently published Dutch translation of Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right.

Commemorating Willem Witteveen as an academic and emphasizing his importance for the Tilburg academic community alone would fail to do him justice. In his work, action, and attitude to colleagues, Willem’s personality shone through: reserved, not very loquacious, and yet always in search of the other: listening, advising, encouraging. Most of all, Willem had the ability to really touch people through his personality, his being. The nobility of his intellect was inextricably linked to his humanity, his mildness, his kindness. Not that Willem was someone to be pushed around, on the contrary. He firmly took position, but was forbearing all the same. The one characteristic threw the other in relief: such a talented thinker and yet so unassuming. Willem was a heartwarmingly multifaceted colleague. In our grief, we feel great gratitude towards him. What a mirror was held up to us, and how much will we miss his example.

On behalf of all colleagues,

Professor Corien Prins, Dean, Tilburg Law School

Professor Anne Meuwese, Head of the Department of Public Law, Jurisprudence & Legal History