Text and photo: Laura Kaapro
On Taneli Kukkonen’s desktop lies a bent plywood object. Professor Kukkonen acquired it from Ikea Abu Dhabi.
"This was sold as a tablet computer holder", Kukkonen huffs, amused. "Don’t people need these for holding books open?"
Kukkonen certainly does. His office in the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University is lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. The book in the holder is an Arabic one, as are many others.
Kukkonen’s journey towards becoming a Professor of Philosophy began in a small municipal library in Lapinlahti, in Eastern Finland. There, at the age of 10, he found Finnish translations of Plato’s works.
"I read them and thought to myself: Socrates is so annoying and sarcastic. There’s a role model!", says Kukkonen, gleefully. "Basically, I wanted to become a wiseacre, not to become wise. In hindsight, not the best motivation for studying philosophy.”
In high school Kukkonen happened to come across a Finnish public broadcasting documentary about the revival of Islam in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
"Around that time, a more typical representation of Islam were the bad guys in Hollywood action movies. That documentary painted a very different picture of the religion."
Well, that was interesting, the young man thought, and decided to apply for studies in the University of Helsinki’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
It quickly became apparent to Kukkonen that European culture wasn’t the only one to possess philosophy. The young student decided to put his limited Arabic skills to use and started exploring Arabic philosophy.
"For a European, it's not nearly as foreign as, for example, Chinese philosophy", says Kukkonen. "Arabic philosophy builds on ancient Greek philosophy."
Kukkonen was then, and still is, fascinated with the fundamental questions posed by the Arabic philosophical tradition. These are questions about good life, the nature of scientific knowledge, and humanity’s place within the immense universe.
In his research work, besides expressly philosophical sources Kukkonen accesses religious tracts, historical texts, even poetry.
Recently, Kukkonen has begun to explore Sufism, the mystical movement of Islam.
"Self-examination and moral education are essential parts of Sufism", says Kukkonen. "The Sufi tradition is rich in philosophical materials, which is something that has not been sufficiently appreciated in the academic historiography of philosophy."
Up to half of Kukkonen’s working week relates to teaching.
"My research work enlivens teaching and vice versa: students' questions can inspire research."
Only four per cent of applicants are accepted to NYU Abu Dhabi. The students that are ultimately selected are, according to Kukkonen, extremely motivated and talented top performers, and they have great language skills.
NYU Abu Dhabi has about one thousand students from 110 different countries. The university offers bachelor's degrees. Students continue to master's and doctoral studies elsewhere.
Many of the young students receive scholarships from a foundation established by HE Shaykh Muhammad bin Zayed.
The Department of Philosophy in New York has been voted the best in the world, year after year. When the university decided to set up a campus in Abu Dhabi, they wanted the Philosophy department to have a distinctive profile.
"Here, we invest in research on global philosophy, and we study the dialogue between world's different philosophies", says Kukkonen, who has previously worked as a professor in Canada, Finland, and New Zealand.
Now, as the Head of the Philosophy program at NYU Abu Dhabi, Kukkonen is at the top post of his academic career.
"It’s a unique and inspiring place", Kukkonen praises the campus. "We are building this small yet global university together. The possibilities for crafting something new and unprecedented are superb."
Kukkonen aims high.
"I want to encourage young people to study the world’s cultures in depth, and help them understand that it is the best investment one can make in life."
Professor Kukkonen trusts that this kind of knowledge will enhance the quality of life for everyone on the planet.
"First of all, in the near future, we will be faced with some difficult conflicts. We have to think up deeper questions and develop more workable solutions. We have to learn to listen and to question."
Secondly, says Kukkonen, developed countries must turn the focus of consumption from goods to immaterial services.
"The Earth has its limits. A change is necessary."