Stellenbosch University mourns passing of top academic

“The sudden passing of Prof Paul Cilliers is a tremendous loss for Stellenbosch University. His knowledge of complex systems and his passion for his field of study, served as an inspiration to his students and his colleagues. Above all, he was has a thought leader who’s sharp insight will be remembered at Stellenbosch University for a long time. His death leaves a huge void.”

This is how Prof Russel Botman, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, describes the passing of Prof Paul Cilliers of the Department of Philosophy at the University. Prof Cilliers, a Professor in Complexity and Philosophy, died on Sunday – possibly of a brain aneurism. He was 55.

A celebration of his life is to be held in the Endler Hall of the Konservatorium in Victoria Street at 09:30 on Thursday 4 August 2011.

After having worked as a research engineer for over a decade, specialising in computer modelling and pattern recognition using neural networks, Professor Cilliers obtained his PhD in Philosophy (supervised by Johan Degenaar of Stellenbosch and Mary Hesse of Cambridge). He was appointed in SU’s Philosophy Department in 1994, he received the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award in 2007 (he spent a year at the Universiteit voor Humanistiek (UvH) in Utrecht, the Netherlands in 2008) and has been awarded an A-rating by the National Research Foundation in 2008. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa last year.

He was recently appointed as Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of UvH – bestowed on him, according to UvH, for his “outstanding scientific work in the domain of critical complexity thinking” and in view of the international acknowledgement that his scientific contributions enjoy. He would have lectured on and ad hoc basis at UvH for the next four years.

Together with Prof Jannie Hofmeyr of the Department of Biochemistry, Prof Cilliers was the joint project leader of SU’s Centre for Studies in Complexity (CSC). This interdisciplinary initiative was established in 2009 and forms part of SU’s HOPE Project, a university-wide programme through which the institution is using science to address some of the country’s and continent’s biggest challenges.

“Paul Cilliers was a remarkable Renaissance man and one of the most important academics and Afrikaner intellectuals that this country has produced. I had the privilege of knowing him for close on thirty years as friend, colleague and soul mate with a shared love of ideas, music, food, social interaction and a burning interest in complexity and complex systems,” Prof Hofmeyr said.

“Three years ago the University offered us the opportunity to realise our dream of a formal association across faculty borders with the creation of the Centre for Studies in Complexity where we have been able to grow as an axis, not only for students of both the humanities and the sciences, but also for academics and interested parties from a number of disciplines. Paul was a catalyst for this process and an inspiration to all of us involved.”

Prof Cilliers was the author of Complexity and Postmodernism. Understanding complex systems (1998, Routledge) which Prof Hofmeyr describes as a key text still used all over the world. Together with Ms Rika Preiser, also of the Centre for Studies in Complexity, he was the editor of Complexity, Difference, Identity. An ethical perspective (2010, Springer).

“In his great number of articles and chapters in books, he applied his deep insight on a wide variety of the problems of our modern world. Over the last few years, he focused his research on the ethical aspects of complexity, a topic that his students will now have to take further,” Prof Hofmeyr added.

“Paul was a family man, a lover of music, a fine cook, a wine expert, a reader with an appetite for books that I have never seen before, one of our foremost book critics and columnists. His passing is an immeasurable loss for the academic community, family and friends.”

He leaves his wife, Sandra, and two adult children.