Hot off the Press: The Gadamerian Mind & A Discount Code

The Gadamerian Mind, edited by Theodore George and Gert-Jan van der Heiden has now been published!  A brief description of the volume from Routledge’s website is listed below.  Our readers can receive a 20% discount by entering this code: FLY21.

Book Description

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) is one of the most important philosophers of the post-1945 era. His name has become all but synonymous with the philosophical study of hermeneutics, the field concerned with theories of understanding and interpretation and laid out in his landmark book, Truth and Method. Influential not only within continental philosophy, Gadamer’s thought has also made significant contributors to related fields such as religion, literary theory and education.

The Gadamerian Mind is a major survey of the fundamental aspects of Gadamer’s thought, with contributions from leading scholars of Gadamer and hermeneutics from around the world. Thirty-eight chapters are divided into six clear parts:


Key Concepts
Historical Influences
Contemporary Encounters
Beyond Philosophy
Legacies and Questions.

Although Gadamer’s work addresses a remarkable range of topics, careful consideration is given throughout the volume to consistent concerns that orient his thought. Important in this respect is his relation to philosophers in the Western tradition, from Plato to Heidegger.

An indispensable resource for anyone studying and researching Gadamer, hermeneutics and the history of twentieth-century philosophy, The Gadamerian Mind will also be of interest to those in related disciplines such as religion, literature, political theory and education.

New Publication Coming Soon: The Gadamerian Mind (Routledge)

Our readers will be interested in a new publication, The Gadamerian Mind, edited by Theodore George and Gert-Jan van der Heiden. The volume will be available for pre-order on August 25, 2021. A brief description of the volume from Routledge’s website is listed below. A preview of the proofs for Cynthia R. Nielsen’s chapter, “Gadamer on Play and the Play of Art,” can be found here.

Book Description

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) is one of the most important philosophers of the post-1945 era. His name has become all but synonymous with the philosophical study of hermeneutics, the field concerned with theories of understanding and interpretation and laid out in his landmark book, Truth and Method. Influential not only within continental philosophy, Gadamer’s thought has also made significant contributors to related fields such as religion, literary theory and education.

The Gadamerian Mind is a major survey of the fundamental aspects of Gadamer’s thought, with contributions from leading scholars of Gadamer and hermeneutics from around the world. Thirty-eight chapters are divided into six clear parts:


Key Concepts
Historical Influences
Contemporary Encounters
Beyond Philosophy
Legacies and Questions.

Although Gadamer’s work addresses a remarkable range of topics, careful consideration is given throughout the volume to consistent concerns that orient his thought. Important in this respect is his relation to philosophers in the Western tradition, from Plato to Heidegger.

An indispensable resource for anyone studying and researching Gadamer, hermeneutics and the history of twentieth-century philosophy, The Gadamerian Mind will also be of interest to those in related disciplines such as religion, literature, political theory and education.

Hermeneutics in Real Life: A New Project by Todd Mei

Our readers will be interested in Todd Mei’s new project, Hermeneutics in Real Life (HINRL). He describes his project as being “open to anyone interested in the application of hermeneutics to real life. The project includes online resources and a monthly, hour long, online discussion on topics applying hermeneutics to various areas of real life. While hosted by Ricoeur scholars, the invitation to participate is extended to the entire hermeneutics community, including those new to the field. ”

HINRL has an upcoming event featuring Prof. Richard Kearney. You can register for the event here.

Dialogical Breakdown and Covid-19: Solidarity in a Shared World

For those interested, here’s a recent article that Drs. Cynthia R. Nielsen David Liakos co-authored entitled: “Dialogical Breakdown and Covid-19: Solidarity and Disagreement in a Shared World.” (You can download the article for free from the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics.) See abstract below.

Abstract: This article considers the limitations, but also the insights, of Gadamerian hermeneutics for understanding and responding to the crisis precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our point of departure is the experience of deep disagreements amid the pandemic, and our primary example is ongoing debates in the United States about wearing masks. We argue that, during this dire situation, interpersonal mutual understanding is insufficient for resolving such bitter disputes. Rather, following Gadamer’s account of our dialogical experience with an artwork, we suggest that our encounter with the virus gives rise to new ways of seeing and experiencing ourselves and the world. Further, we draw on Gadamer’s account of the fusion of horizons to show how even competing perspectives on wearing masks arise within a shared space of meaning created by the virus. These insights provide hope for an improved model of political dialogue in the world of Covid-19.


Mini-Review of Overcoming Polarization in the Public Square: Civic Dialogue by Lauren Swayne Barthold

Lauren Swayne Barthold’s new book, Overcoming Polarization in the Public Square: Civic Dialogue.

The book is comprised of six chapters and makes a case for how dialogue can help to break through particularly polarized sociopolitical spaces. According to Barthold, when the public square has become throughly polarized and people seem to ignore or have no interest in rational argumentation or appeals to empirical facts, the focus should turn first to  building trust so that openness and mutual understanding can occur. On Barthold’s view, civic dialogue must be structured in such a way that it creates a space for genuine listening and reflecting on one’s own position and the other’s. The hope is that while acknowledging the real differences that exist among individuals and groups, such structured dialogue will allow what we share in common as human beings to come into focus.

Barthold draws from a variety of dialogue partners and texts including Plato’s Socrates from the Republic, Martin Buber, John Dewey,  Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hannah Arendt, Miranda Fricker, and contemporary research on cognitive bias. While engaging philosophical sources and insights, Barthold also turns to the work of dialogic practitioners. E.g., in chapter 4, she discusses an approach to dialogue called, “Reflexive Structured Dialogue,” which “places first person experience and narrative” at the center of dialogic practice (Overcoming Polarization, p. 19). Against the conclusions of certain practitioners who claim that mutual understanding is a form of empathy, Barthold argues that “the goal of dialogic understanding should not be conceived as empathy–either emotional or cognitive.” Rather, in accord with insights from Buber and Gadamer, Barthold contends that “mutual understanding is best defined as acknowledging the other’s claim to existence as a Thou. To take up the truth claim of the other is to engage in a dialogic relationship that affirms the other’s status as a Thou.” (ibid., p. 21).

Given the current dialogical breakdown, polarization, dismissal of science, and lack of trust among differing groups in the United States, Barthold’s book is a welcome contribution to both the public sphere and the classroom.

If you want to learn more about Lauren’s book, you may listen to her discuss the book in an interview on the podcast “Ethics in Action.”

NASPH 2020 Virtual Conference Information

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,  the NASPH 2020 annual meeting will take place via Zoom on the afternoon of Friday October 30 and from mid-morning to mid-afternoon on Saturday October 31.

Though the format will be unusual, we have an amazing lineup of speakers including Dr. Ted George, Dr. Lauren Barthold, and Dr. John Arthos and a panel on “Ricoeur and the Just University,” featuring Dr. Dan Boscaljon, Dr. Jeff Keuss, and Dr. Glenn Whitehouse. We look forward to lively discussions and hope that you will join us!

For more information about the program, speakers, and papers, see our listing in PhilEvents.

Lastly, more information will be posted soon on the NASPH website, including how to obtain the Zoom link to enter the conference, etc.

Please share widely!

The Responsibility to Understand Hermeneutical Contours of Ethical Life by Ted George

Our readers will be delighted to know that Ted George’s new book, The Responsibility to Understand: Contours of Ethical Life (Edinburgh University Press 2020) has now been published. Below is a brief description of the book from EUP’s website.

Responsibility to UnderstandWhat is the significance of hermeneutics at the intersections of ethics, politics and the arts and humanities?

  • Discusses how hermeneutics offers ways to develop an ethics
  • Makes the case for the relevance of contemporary hermeneutics for current scholarly discussions of responsibility within continental European philosophy
  • Contributes a new, ethically inflected approach to current debate within post-Gadamerian hermeneutics
  • Extends his analysis to the practice of living and covers animals, art, literature and translation

Few topics have received broader attention within contemporary philosophy than that of responsibility. Theodore George makes a novel case for a distinctive sense of responsibility at stake in the hermeneutical experiences of understanding and interpretation.

He argues for the significance of this hermeneutical responsibility in the context of our relations with things, animals and others, as well as political solidarity and the formation of solidarities through the arts, literature and translation

Call for Papers: “Psychoanalysis and Hermeneutics” for a special issue of Critical Hermeneutics

For those interested, the  journal Critical Hermeneutics is devoting a special issue to the theme “Pscyhoanalysis and Hermeneutics.” See details below or view the original CFP on PhilEvents.


Call for Papers Vol. 4, n.2, December 2020

Psychoanalysis and Hermeneutics

Guest Editors: Ignacio Iglesias Colillas (Psychoanalyst / PhD_University of Buenos Aires), Giuseppe Martini (Italian Psychoanalytic Society)

Deadline (full paper): 1 December 2020

Interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts

Interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts

Q: One of the central arguments of your book is that the “greatest emergency is the absence of emergency.” Could you please clarify this in relation to the ongoing pandemic caused by the coronavirus?

SZ: This thesis does not mean that a crisis such as the coronavirus is not a fundamental emergency that we must confront at all levels. It simply suggests the greatest emergency are the ones we do not confront. These include, among others, economic inequality, refugee crises, and climate change. Despite the warnings of scientists and activists since the 1970s, climate change is responsible for the death of seven million human beings every year because of air pollution. We can only hope climate change might also become an “emergency,” fought with the same unified purpose by many people as is now. What is dramatic about COVID-19 is that it was an “absent emergency” until very recently; just one year ago the WHO director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned us that the “threat of pandemic influenza is ever-present.” Unfortunately we did not listen and now we find ourselves facing an existential threat.

Q: In chapter 8 you describe biodiversity loss as one of our greatest emergencies. Now that the destruction of nature is increasingly seen as key driver of zoonotic diseases, you seem to have anticipated the origin of this pandemic.

I wouldn’t go that far. But biodiversity loss, together with right-wing extremist populism and the treatment of whistleblowers, is one of the three greatest emergency I examine in the book. The fact that we are now in this pandemic ought to invite us to think how to prevent the emergencies we ignore from becoming emergencies we have to confront immediately.

Q: How can we prevent this from happening in an age of alternative facts, fake news, and post-truth?

We must first remind everyone that warnings alone, like facts or data, do not stand up all by themselves. These need government agencies, major newspapers, and credentialed academics to convince of their meaning. This is the central problem of this age of alternative facts. The internet, and social media in particular, have tricked us into believing that traditional vectors of authority and legitimation are not needed anymore to know facts. Fake news is the result of information unattached to interpretation, that is, filters, monitors, and guidelines. Facts and truth need all the help they can get to capture our attention and hopefully, reaction. This is what philosophical hermeneutics is all about. When we ignore warnings from scientists or organizations such as the WHO on pandemics, as Trump and Bolsonaro do, we are the interpretations that can reveal an emergency and bring it forth out of absence.

Q: In the book you also claim that political theories of the “state of exception” aren’t enough to understand our emergencies anymore. Why?

SZ: Yes, that’s right, we need to overcome the idea that it is the “sovereign who decides on the exceptional case.” The difference between the presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump illustrates why. Trump will not be remembered for exercising extralegal powers to transform the “state of emergency” into routine political measures, as Bush did, but rather for denying pressing emergencies altogether. He no longer needs to take advantage of pretexts to establish states of exception because the exception—in the form of unprecedented technological, social, and political global framings—has already become the rule.

Q: Trump was also among the first politicians to attack those traditional vectors of authority and legitimation you mention above.

Yes, any disregard for facts that contradict agendas is a symptom of a global call to order and return to “realism,” which Trump and other populist politicians and academics mobilize as the defining political stance of current times.

Q: Who are these intellectuals calling for a global return to order whom you refer to?

Those who oppose the contributions of postmodern thinkers to politics and culture. These include the psychologist Jordan Peterson, the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, and other adherents of the “intellectual dark web” and the “new realism” movement. The problem with postmodern stances, they claim, is that they have denied thought any rational access to things in themselves, legitimizing an epidemic of “political correctness” that must be reversed in favor, among other things, of the certitude of “biological differences between men and women.” This is why Sommers, for example, opposes those feminists who still “be­lieve that our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ a ‘sex/gender system,’” and instead promotes “factual feminism,” which grounds the basic tenets of feminism in a data-driven approach. In sum, the need for realism is, ultimately, an effect of neurotic ressentiment. It refuses to recognize itself as part of a game of interpretation, filters, and frames. This resentment is manifest among right-wing populists, the “intellectual dark web” community, and the new realist philosophers alike. Slavoj Žižek recently reminded them that “postmodern relativism” is not the cause of alternative facts. These have always existed. “Facts or data,” he continues, “are a vast and impenetrable domain, and we always approach them from (what hermeneutics calls) a certain horizon of understanding, privileging some data and omitting others.”

Q: What is the task of philosophy in this global framed condition you describe?

For too long we have been “rescued from emergencies,” told that we are saved by temporary fixes that ignore the greatest emergency, when in fact we ought to be “rescued into emergencies.” Now is the time to disrupt the ongoing “return to order” that surveillance capitalism and right-wing populism are imposing upon us. Philosophy, art, and the humanities in general must take on this task as science is too framed by economic and technological interests these days.

Q: Why are the TV series Mr. Robot and works from the series Silent/Shapes by Italian the artist Filippo Minelli on the cover good examples to keep in mind while reading the book, as you suggest in the introduction?

I think they embrace the significance of the book’s central concepts and how it is crucial to be at large, that is, free, in this age of alternative facts. The main character of the TV series, Elliot Alderson, is a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who attempts, among other things, to bring down a megacorporation that frames our freedom, and Minelli’s photographic smoke bombs are attempts to disengage from something we’ve become framed within. This particular smoke bomb used on the cover was deployed in in an abandoned prison called the Presidio de Trafaria, near Lisbon. Elliot’s hacks, like these smoke bombs, can only take place as fugitive events that strive to disappear even as their effects ripple out in both art and the real world. When we are at large freedom becomes itself; it comes to the fore independently of any foreign imposition, such as Elliot’s hacks or Minelli’s smoke bombs. But for freedom to advance within our global framed order we must take an existential stance, that is, lend meaning through interpretation to those emergencies that I mention above.

Q: How would you suggest the reader approach your book? Can each part—on existence, interpretation, and emergency—be read separately?

Yes, each part can be read separately, but I would recommend reading the introduction first. Also, it can be helpful to keep in mind of each part’s secret guiding question: “What remains of existence after metaphysics?” “What is the anarchic vein of interpretation?” and “Why is the greatest emergency the absence of emergency?” The answers will reveal the meaning of freedom in this age of alternative facts.

*The Interview above was originally posted here.

Let’s Stay in Touch by Brian Treanor

Brian Treanor is currently Professor of Philosophy Department and Charles S. Casassa SJ Chair in Social Values at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. He writes and teaches on a diverse range of issues including hermeneutics, environmental philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He was the editor, with Richard Kearney, of Carnal Hermeneutics (Fordham 2015), a collection that makes the case that hermeneutics goes “all the way down” to our senses and perceptions, that our carnal sensations are already interpretations. Additional projects include Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living (Bloomsbury 2021), Philosophy in the American West: A Geography of Thought (Routledge 2020), Being-in-Creation: Human Responsibility in an Endangered World (Fordham 2015), and Emplotting Virtue (SUNY 2014), among others.


In in a series of recent blog postings on Hermeneutical Movements, David Utsler makes the case that the reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a number of issues relevant to hermeneutics. He is certainly right in doing so, particularly in light of the “material turn” that has gained traction in many philosophical sub-fields in recent years.

In the following, I want to engage David’s insightful posts, and to contribute in some small way to reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it.

Carnal Hermeneutics and COVID-19

David points out that while the COVID-19 pandemic presents a challenge to our thinking in various ways, it focuses our attention on touch with particular clarity. As there is, currently, no effective vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, we are left with nothing to fall back on other than good, basic public health responses, including now-ubiquitous efforts at “social distancing.” This term and its many associations draw our attention, as David points out, to our shared social spaces and how we inhabit them. As the pandemic gained speed and governments struggled to respond, we were regularly reminded to maintain a two-meter distance between ourselves and others, and almost as regularly reminded that “social distancing” is a misnomer (though too late, I fear, as “social distancing” is now fixed in the shared lexicon of the generations who will remember this pandemic). The real point is to engage in “physical distancing” and, in particular, to become aware of touch. We were reminded not to touch others—dropping handshakes for “elbow bumps” and then, realizing even those were too “touchy,” adopting bows, nods or other inclinations of the head, and eventually waves from a strictly-maintained two-meter distance.

But the two-meter bubble of social distancing is only part of our new “sensitivity” to touching and being touched. Others can “touch” us by using door handles or light switches or shopping carts immediately before we do. We’ve become anxious about touch even at the level of proprioception, intensely aware of how often we touch our faces to scratch our nose or rub our eyes. Comically, though understandably, early during the US outbreak I watched official after official touch his or her face during interviews and press conferences, culminating with a health official in California licking her finger to turn the pages of her notes shortly after advising us not to touch our faces.

The rehabilitation of touch has been a particular concern for thinkers associated with “carnal hermeneutics.” In fact, Richard Kearney, who co-edited Carnal Hermeneutics with me, has just finished a book on this very topic: Touch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021). As David notes, all sensate experience is an interpretation, something demonstrated with abundant clarity by thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Merleau-Ponty, and Shusterman. Nevertheless, the history of hermeneutics—and, indeed, of philosophy—is one in which the body and the senses are downplayed or denigrated in favor of the mind/soul and reason/language. It is for this reason that I have been arguing for some time that we need to articulate a hermeneutics “beyond the metaphor of the text.”


What makes touch distinctive among the senses?

Many things to be sure; but, from the perspective of carnal hermeneutics, the distinction cannot be that touch is immediate while the other senses are mediated. All our experience, including sensuous experience, is mediated to one degree or another. Just as sight is not direct communion with that which is seen, or hearing direct communion with that which is heard, touch remains at a distance from that which is touched. Kearney reminds us that, in the De Anima, Aristotle tells us that touch does have a medium: flesh (sarx). “Flesh,” writes Aristotle, “is not the organ but the medium of touch.” There is a gap between touch and its objects, just as there is with the other senses; whence the need for and virtue of hermeneutics. Sensuous perception shares an “experiencing as” structure in common with other, more traditional forms of hermeneutics expressed in terms of the interpretation of texts. Touch does not provide a magical, direct access to the essence of things any more than does vision, or, for that matter, than the logos for which vision has traditionally been an analog. Of course, in another register, we could call into question the supposed remove of sight, smell, and the other senses from touch; sight takes place because photos strike the rods and cones on the retina, smell takes place because molecules come to rest on olfactory receptors, and so on (on this, see chapter 1 of Kearney’s forthcoming Touch).

Nevertheless, while touch may be mediated, we do have a feeling that it is, so to speak, “more direct.” Why is this so? Perhaps, because as Utsler points out, in touch we experience “resistance” in a distinctive way.

Touch is “reversible” in a way that other senses are not. We can see without being seen, hear without being heard; but we cannot touch without, at the same time, being touched. Precisely because touch is uniquely reversible in this way, when we touch, reality “pushes back” against us in a way that is different from the other senses, and certainly different from linguistic description or conceptual analysis. To touch something is to feel oneself being touched, to feel the resistance of that which is touched, to feel reality assert itself and push back against us. This resistance is emblematic of what Michel Serres calls “hard reality.” “Hard” reality goes by a variety of names in different thinkers: the given, nature, the wild. In general, hard reality is reality that resists us and makes demands on us, reality to which we must accommodate ourselves. “Soft” reality, in contrast, is reality as interpreted or experienced by us: culture, language, and so on. It is reality as bent to fit or accommodate us. Serres does not intend to set up a dualism of the hard and the soft, because there is, in the end, only one reality. Nevertheless, reality—a mixed bricolage of diverse phenomena—can and does present itself in harder or softer aspects, and we experience it in harder or softer ways. The point is to be able to travel between these different aspects of reality and translate responsibly.

Read in a phenomenological and hermeneutic register, one might take Serres to offer a kind of friendly amendment to the traditional phenomenological rallying call “to the things themselves,” which is this: “remember the hard.” That is to say, when we seek to return to the things themselves, which is to say the way that things are given to us in experience, remember the distinction between reality and our experience of it. Recognize, but do not overemphasize, the human role in the construction of the world. Remember the resistance of things to human experience, interrogation, analysis, and understanding. Remember the existence of things outside of and independent of human concern. Remember the wild heart of reality and the inhuman expanse of the cosmos and of deep time. Indeed, SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 are themselves manifestations of the hardness of reality: unforeseen, unwanted, and (at least so far) unsolvable disruptions to our all-too-human desires, goals, and plans. Until we find a vaccine, this is reality to which we must accommodate ourselves. A stark reminder that despite our wealth and power and technological might, our achievements are always at risk of being reduced to “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” among the vast, level cosmic sands.

One of the virtues of carnal hermeneutics is the way in which it gives us alternative metaphors with which to understand the core hermeneutic insight that we always experience, interpret, know, imagine, and understand from a particular perspective; and that while we our perspective can evolve or change, the root fact of having-a-perspective is something we can never escape. This is critical, because if hermeneutics tells us anything it is that every perspective reveals some things and conceals others. Thus, to view reality as a “book” to be “read” will reveal certain truths, and it has; it’s been one of the most fruitful epistemological metaphors of the 20th and early 21st century. But that same perspective will also conceal other truths, some of which will be more easily accessible if we consider reality not as a book to be read, but rather as something to be “held” or “embraced,” or a “banquet” to be “tasted,” or a “landscape” to be “traversed.” These alternative metaphors are not merely different modes of expression or variations in pedagogy, alternatives that are useful because some people are bookish and others are gourmets or saunterers. They are alternative ways of conceiving of and experiencing the world, alternatives that express the perspectival, partial, biased, revisable nature of our experience, perception, and understanding, alternatives that reveal and conceal different truths about the world and about ourselves.

Seen in this light, both during the pandemic and in whatever post-pandemic world we craft, we should be concerned not only with “the stories that we tell,” but also with places we inhabit and the ways in which we are oriented within them, the activity (or inactivity) of our bodies and the ways in which they interact with the world, the things we touch (and are touched by) and those we keep at arm’s length.

Getting in Touch with a Post-Pandemic World

When the pandemic really got under way, people—at least those who could do so—went online. The effects of the digital divide during the pandemic will be well worth analyzing at some point. But what interests me here is the attempt to “keep living” by “moving online.” Virtual classrooms. Virtual barstools. Virtual relationships (professional, amicable, and romantic). Virtual church. Virtual weddings and, sadly, funerals. Virtual bedside comfort for the dying, and virtual life for the living.

What, asks Utsler, will be the effects of physical distancing on the social relationships that normally sustain us through face-to-face, body-to-body interactions? How will being confined to a singular place—and, thus, being displaced from the larger placescapes that also sustain us—disrupt and alter our being-in-the-world?

Wallace Stegner tells us that we cannot know ourselves without knowing our place, that is, without knowing the place in which each of us is a self. When we change places, our self begins to change as well. Generally, this takes place slowly, like evolution; but sometimes a radical disruption in place—a sudden, forced migration, or a sudden, forced confinement—can cause an abrupt disruption in one’s sense of self as well. Certainly, much of this is a necessary sacrifice; but it’s all happened so quickly that we are just coming to grips with what we’ve sacrificed. The sacrifices of front-line medical workers and first responders—a number of whom volunteered to work in COVID-19 wards and all of whom work in high-risk calling during this pandemic—are obvious and must be acknowledged. But there are other sacrifices that, while they are not selflessly or altruistically motivated, are no less deprivations. The students whose education has been put on hold. The parent whose projects are disrupted by caring for children in quarantine. The economic anxiety of the restaurant owner or worker whose livelihood has been destroyed. All the people—billions of them—under some version of a lockdown and cut off from their neighbors, colleagues, friends, and, perhaps less intuitively to some readers, from the concrete, physical places that shape and inform their identities.

What, then, is going to happen when the pandemic passes, as it eventually will in one way or another? What will it be like to get “back in touch” with the world?

Of course, I don’t want to overstate the case. As I write this, we are sliding into the seventh week of the stay-at-home order here in California; and it’s not as if we’ve been locked in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, in some form, this pandemic could last years, and various degrees of social distancing may be the order of the day for much of that time. If we spend a year or two under the shadow of this virus, that will constitute a non-negligible portion of many people’s lives. This will be especially disruptive for those near the beginning or the end of adult life. If, a bit arbitrarily, we mark the (beginning of the) emergence of a person’s adult self at around twelve or thirteen years old, an eighteen-year-old will have spent a third of her life in some under form of social, physical, and geographic distancing. Retirees who saved their entire life with the goal of pursuing some particular plan will have had those plans disrupted during precisely the years they hoped to execute them, and perhaps lost forever due to retirement savings devastated by a wrecked economy. People who are ill and who were hoping to spend their last days with friends and family, or revisiting old haunts, may well spend their last days in quarantine, video-chatting.

For those who are not at either end of their adult years, will they have adjusted, at least to some degree, to a new, virtual life? Will classes stay online? (Surely the bureaucrats will want this, but might some professors embrace it too?) Will we keep ordering food from Instacart rather than going to the market? Will virtual community replace community? Before you become too skeptical, consider our existing habits of touching. It’s a fair bet—as Leïla Slamani noted—that the thing most people touch most often is their smartphone. Or consider the degree to which both romance and sex—traditionally pretty immediate, first-person kind of experiences—have flourished online. As with everything else, efficiency and ease of access will make online life more attractive. When you can have an algorithm choose your mate, why go to the trouble of socializing? When you can have food delivered to your door, why go to the trouble of shopping and cooking? When you can teach philosophy online without having to live in an ugly city and endure a congested commute to campus, why not do so?

Or, alternatively, will the forced immersion in “virtual” reality leave us craving the real thing? Will people reject sitting at home watching a screen (“reality TV”) in favor of the world (reality itself)? Will they embrace—metaphorically or literally—their neighbors rather than hiding in their single-family homes? Will they take up the risk of life rather than living in a risk-free, virtually-mediated simulacrum?

Already, I’m reading many accounts of people—from the ordinary to the famous—who insist that they’ve had an epiphany, that they are not going to go back to the old way of doing things: working overtime to buy things they do not need, struggling to pay the rent in a city where inflation and the cost of living outpaces wage growth, coming home exhausted to sit on a couch for hours watching a fantasy play out in the soft blue glow of an HD screen. Perhaps that will be true for some of them. But I remember reading the same kinds of sincere resolutions from people who lived through 9/11. I’ll never go back to commodities trading. Life is about more than work. I want to follow my dream. No doubt some people followed through; but a year after the twin towers fell, where were most of those people? Back in the rat race. In the same city, in the same types of jobs, pursuing the same sorts of goals that they were pursing on September 10, 2001. Contrary to our fantasies, in most cases enlightenment is not a sudden epiphany which is won once-and-for all. It’s a daily achievement.

The mind or the body? Logos or tact? The soft or the hard? It’s not as if it is an either/or choice; but the history of Western philosophy is marked by a decided, and problematically narrow, preference for the former. If philosophy can get back in touch with touch, perhaps it can place its fingers on the scale of the second alternative and balance things out.