Philosophers should also have accompanied us in the handling of the pandemic
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Philosophers should also have accompanied us in the handling of the pandemic

Monday, 19 July 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Credit: Jules Johnston

Conventional wisdom: it is nihilism that leads to a crisis, not the other way round.

Remember all the reproaches about our pre-pandemic habits – a lack of will to build more hospitals, a general carelessness toward the environment, an economic system run on foundations doomed to crumble. To declare a state of emergency is not a nihilistic act; it is a decision, a call for action; hence, it is meant to create responses, not obliterate them.

But what if it is the other way round… what if with every crisis comes inherently a sense of despair? Or rather… what if to be in a crisis in itself is despairing? Should we have ever declared ourselves living through a crisis?

There was a time when ‘the pandemic’ was not a pandemic – remember, it was the World Health Organization that declared it so on a specific day. Of course, it was a mere matter of scientific jargon, when an increase over a certain contagion threshold mandated us to dress a virus with the boxing gears our statistics thought it deserved.

But beyond semantics, the WHO declaration also meant a shift in discourse; that now, we are facing ‘a real threat’ or ‘something big’ – in short, that we may now roll down the white flag for we must all, together, enter a crisis.

Crisis, etymologically, comes from krinō… meaning to cut, to decide, to judge. Notice the trenching element of crisis: it is reality itself that is cut… options prior to a decision must be boiled down to a few. “Judging always concerns particulars and things close at hand,” Hannah Arendt once told us. In that sense, to be in a crisis is a bit like shooting oneself in the foot – literally, for only then can we judge it necessary to cut it out and rely on the rest of our limbs.

Reinhart Koselleck, another philosopher, found it telling that for the Hippocratic school in Ancient Greece crisis designated the alarming phase of an illness “in which the battle between life and death was definitively settled, in which the decision was due but not yet made.” Koselleck’s concern is precisely in the narrowing of options in the mind of the surgeon: no more experimenting with alternative medicine, we must operate.

A similar development surely occurred during the earlier stages of the pandemic, and though the process of delaying a crisis is by no means eternal, what is contingent and therefore subject to scrutiny is precisely that small window period between the beginning of trouble and the beginning of crisis. If that gap is narrower than it should have been in hindsight, if crisis is declared to soon, or declared at all, it is not strictly because of how serious a situation is than how serious we believe it can be.

We are in a projection, in a kind of race against a time we cannot predict… a race that nevertheless seems mandatory since the decision, to repeat Koselleck, “was due but not yet made” – meaning, there is ‘still enough time’ to change the verdict. Notice how, in our own race against the virus, we have often claimed that ‘there is still enough time to bend the curve.’

We run fast when the numbers are up, we jog slow when the numbers are down; but the race must continue either way because we have declared ourselves to be in a crisis and in no place but a crisis must the factor of Time turn so palpable and utilizable.

Yet time and nihilism come hand in hand, for the nihilist is he who hears the clock ticking… and therefore finds it pointless to block the blows of Kronos. To hear someone declare, in nihilistic fashion, ‘I am fed up of the pandemic; I am fed up of everything,’ is actually a critique of Time – for in the statement itself there is a hyperawareness of the ‘before, during, and after’ of the pandemic.

A crisis, once again, has to do with cutting; and when it is time that is split, it becomes felt, and therefore it can pass. Yet mankind, however civilized, is still attuned to timelessness – and no beast is nihilistic precisely because its desire to act is contingent not on time but on space.

The economists and psychologists and political scientists have spoken about looming disasters – nihilistic or not, it might be the philosophers who should have accompanied us in our handling of the pandemic.

Declaring a crisis, conceptually, is a bad investment – and existentially, it is a syringe of nihilism that we must counter with a refusal to cut or be cut, a renewed optimism toward ideas, not words or numbers, and a continued loyalty to the limitless nature of thinking and imagination.