Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Socialist philosopher and sociologist Dag Østerberg (1938-2017)
Nasir Khan, 22 March, 2017
Since 1960 Dag Østerberg had the distinction of being a leading social theoretician and a resourceful intellectual in Norway, who made lasting contributions especially in sociology and social philosophy. His death on 22 February 2017 removed a uniquely talented scholar from the social and academic life of Norway, but his books that represent his critical thinking and social concerns will continue to play a role and inspire students, researchers and others.
He earned his Ph.D. degree in sociology from the University of Oslo (UiO) in 1974 for his work on Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. From 1981 to 1991, he was a professor of sociology at UiO. For a few years he worked as an adjunct professor in music. But his passion was writing and he left such highly-coveted academic positions to concentrate on writing. The area of his authorship was extensive, covering political and social philosophy, sociology, history of ideas as well as musicology, art and classic literature. He wrote some 20 books and published numerous papers and articles on a wide range of issues in scholarly journals and periodicals.
Within the academic milieus in UiO logical positivism had gained much ground in the 1960s. Some prominent Norwegian philosophers held differing views about its role in the social sciences. Østerberg was of the view that social sciences cannot be objective in the sense the natural sciences are objective, but rather they had to be reflective and interpretive. At present, more people have come to accept this view of positivism in the age of postpositivism and postmodernism.
For most of his life, Østerberg was deeply attracted to the works of the influential French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He had a profound understanding of Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism. He translated and published three books dealing with Sartre’s works, and also wrote an authoritative biography Jean-Paul Sartre – Philosophy, Art, Politics, Private Life, which was published in 1993.
Since he started writing, he showed he had the ability to go to the core of the complex philosophical and sociological issues by analysing and synthesising them. As an intellectual he was a social critic in the radical leftist tradition. Having imbibed much of the critical sociological thought of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Østerberg approached Marx well-oriented with the European philosophical and cultural tradition.
We may ask when did Østerberg turn seriously to the works of Karl Marx? This question is lucidly summed up by Professor Per Otnes, a Marxist sociologist and a fellow-colleague of Østerberg when the latter taught in the department of sociology:
“There is, however, a telling appendix to a re-edition [Essays i samfunnsteori theory, Oslo: Pax,1975, p. 28] of this text, where Østerberg states that his command of Marxism as of 1967 was less than adequate. That signals a revised approach. Up to c. 1970 he remained, not unlike Bourdieu, something of a dialectic phenomenologist, influenced by Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others, but not yet influenced very much by Marx’s works. Sartre’s great Critique de la raison dialectique, only just out in 1960, was instrumental in bringing about the inclusion of (neo-)Marxism, to which his A Preface to Marx’s Capital (1972) testifies, summing up critically in no more than c. 60  pp. Marx’s c. 2,500.” 1
Beside Sartre, Østerberg’s discussion of sociological theories included the works of Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Pierre Bourdeau, and Karl Marx. He summarised the salient theories of such writers and offered his synthesis in his usual incisive manner.
He interpreted and defended the social and political thought of Marx. But he was not a dogmatic defender of Marx, as some Marx enthusiasts or disciples have been for more than a century. Primarily, he saw Marx as a social philosopher and an economist whose theories explored the contradictions of capitalism and showed the way to a better alternative that met the needs of the people on a wider scale. Even towards the end of his life, he continued to emphasise the importance of understanding the economic thought of Marx. This can be seen in his last book he wrote Fra Marx’ til nyere kapitalkritikk [From Marx’s to recent critique of capital] (2016).
As a writer, Østerberg’s language is clear, precise and has a natural flow. Ludwig Wittgenstein had said: What can be said at all can be said clearly. In Østerberg’s case that remark applies admirably well. Unlike some academic writers and authors who occasionally embellish their texts with some Latin terms or foreign words, he was a puritan in the use of his native language, Norwegian; he avoided the use of foreign words as far as he could. However, he had great mastery over English, German and French, but he was averse to the idea of bringing in any foreign words in his texts. He wrote mostly in Norwegian, except for one major work Metasociology: An Inquiry into the Origins and Validity of Social thought (1988). This remarkable volume shows his immense erudition and mastery of modern western social and political thought, whose reading will help English readers become acquainted with this great intellectual. Obviously, his use of his native language for most of his authorship has certainly enriched Norwegian. However, this has also limited the circulation of his books internationally because Norwegian is understood only in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
During his lifetime Østerberg had received a wide recognition in the Nordic sociology. He was regarded as a leading sociologist who contributed to the western sociological tradition. His books on sociology are popular among students and are included in the syllabuses. But he was not the type of person looking for reputation or acclaim. He was anti-hero, unassuming and followed a simple lifestyle.
Last but not least, I will mention him in a personal context. When I started research for my Ph.D. degree at UiO in 1985, he was my academic supervisor. He was the leading scholar of Marx and Marxist thought teaching as a professor of sociology at that time and I was lucky to have him supervise my work. In 1991, he graciously wrote a preface to my thesis Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings that was published in 1995. Our contact led to a lasting friendship that lasted over 30 years. The last time we met in Oslo was 2016. On that occasion he offered me a copy of his newly-published book Fra Marx’ til nyere kapitalkritikk.
1. Otnes, Per, Dag Østerberg: The Dialectic of Post-Positvism, Acta Sociologica March 2006 ◆ Vol 49(1): p. 22.