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The Duty To Ignore Covid-19

By Charles Foster

This is a plea for a self-denying ordinance on the part of philosophers. Ignore Covid-19. It was important that you said what you have said about it, but the job is done. There is nothing more to say. And there are great dangers in continuing to comment. It gives the impression that there is only one issue in the world. But there are many others, and they need your attention. Just as cancer patients were left untreated because Covid closed hospitals, so important philosophical problems are left unaddressed, or viewed only through the distorting lens of Covid.

One of the few justifications for the existence of professional philosophers is that they can rise above chatter and fear and fashion. There’s a desperate desire to appear ‘relevant’, of course: funders and tenure panels demand it. That is a thoroughly good instinct: I’m not for a moment advocating that philosophers spend their lives on the syllable-by-syllable analysis of ludicrous abstractions. I would be happy if all funding in philosophy required the researcher to show that the work might help to understand or promote the Good Life – a notion (to be clear) to which many of the most arcane inquiries of analytical philosophy can contribute very significantly. My only point here is that the relevance of professional philosophers can now be demonstrated best by talking about things other than Covid: by reminding us that there are other things: by giving us not specific observations on Covid, but the perspective that will allow us to see it properly.

Whenever I give a talk or write an article these days, there’s a request for the ‘Covid angle’. By giving that angle, perhaps I’m helping the overall response to the pandemic to be more harmful than the virus. Much of the biological damage caused by the virus may be a result of a pathologically exaggerated immune response. The non-biological damage seems to have a similar aetiology. I’m tempted to respond petulantly by defriending everyone who signs off an email with ‘Stay Safe’, or who refers to these ‘unprecedented times’ or to the ‘new normal’. But that would be unkind and unphilosophical. Better to try to take people back to a garden in 5th century BC Athens, to eavesdrop on a measured conversation about what it means to live well – a conversation informed by, but undisturbed by, the clash of swords and the stalk of plague.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. This denial phase, of completely refocusing upon other interesting matters and totally ignoring a (possily formative for many) concern of this time could be seen as denying philosophy, robbing it of its immediate relevance or value, leaving it merely reflected within the written language used to elucidate those matters of the past ready for future analysis, (or current politics) Is it the work of the worlds of art or literature alone to [in]directly comment upon or reflect an ages concerns!

    In the same way that
    “Interesting ideas may therefore be invisible to those who are concerned with the relation between existing formalisms and ‘experience’ only”

    can result in;
    “Education… consist[s|ing] in seriously damaging our central nervous system and in eliminating reactions of which it was initially capable.”
    “Admitting such damage and the consequent lack of imagination is one thing. However, one should never go so far as to try to inflict it upon others in the guise of a philosophical dogma.”

    If freedom of thought is a basic part of the human condition, (it is part of its genesis is it not?) so a broader reading/study beyond the necessarily given becomes imperative if that freedom is to be maintained rather than chained to an others perceived future. A free mind is a fine thing, a freely exercised comprehension is a flower indeed.

  2. Ian: thank you.
    It would have wholly wrong for philosophers to ignore the pandemic. I said in the post that it was important that philosophers did comment. And they did: copiously and crucially. But what can they now add? I can imagine future developments in the pandemic that might justify philosophers picking up their pens again. But now? The ability to shut up and sit down when one has said one’s piece is a vital skill.

    1. Philosophers can, continue adding to their understanding of what is occurring.

      But it remains that expressions of freedom of thought and many correctly proffered ethical perspectives often become defeated by the language translation, which may be akin to the conceptual differences between:-

      pumping water downhill
      preaching national sentiment to the fishes from a bridge over the [frontier] river (old Portuguese saying);


      using the last eggs of the wild DoDo to make an omelet celebrating the DoDo’s existence
      using free range farmed eggs.

      As responses become curtailed by internally applied or existing external circumstance; and other manners. Yet yes, like the difference between a lecture hall and blog management we are in agreement it is time to cease.

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