You don’t get what you deserve. Part I: Meritocracy in education vs employment relations

The belief that we live in a meritocracy is the idea that people get what they deserve. At school you don’t get a good grade because of your skin colour or because you have a nice smile but because you demonstrate the required skills. When I was young, the idea helped me to gain a lot of confidence. Being what is now called a first-generation student, I thought I owed my opportunity to study to a meritocratic society. I had this wonderfully confident belief that, if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want. Today, I think that there is so much wrong with this idea that I don’t really know where to start. Meritocratic beliefs are mostly false and harmful. In the light of our sociological knowledge, still believing that people get what they deserve strikes me as on a par with being a flat earther or a climate change denialist. At the same time, beliefs in meritocratic principles are enormously widespread and deep-rooted, even among those who should and do know better. In what follows, I attempt to make nothing more than a beginning to look at that pernicious idea and why it has so much currency.

Perhaps one of the greatest problems of meritocratic ideas is that they create a normative link between possibly unrelated things: There is no intrinsic relation between displaying certain qualities, on the one hand, and getting a job, on the other hand. Of course, they might be related; in fact, displaying certain qualities might be one of the necessary conditions for getting the job. But the justification structure suggested by meritocratic beliefs clearly obscures countless other factors, such as being in the right place at the right time etc. Here are two variants of how this plays out:

  • “I’m not good enough.” – This is a common conclusion drawn by most people. That is, by those, who don’t get the job or grant or promotion they have applied for. If there is one job and a hundred applicants, you can guess that a large amount of people will think they were not good enough. Of course, that’s nonsense for many reasons. But if the belief is that people get what they deserve, then those not getting anything might conclude to be undeserving. A recent piece by a lecturer leaving academia, for instance, contends that part of the problem is that one always has to show that one is “better than the rest”, insinuating that people showing just that might get the job in the end. But apart from the fact that the imbalance between available jobs and applicants pushes such demands to absurd heights, the question arises whether any employer could be sufficiently good to be able to recognise the enormously refined qualities of the applicants.
  • “My qualities are not recognised.” –  The more confident applicants among us might thus draw quite another conclusion, namely that they are good enough, but that their qualities are simply not seen. The counterfactual behind this reasoning seems to be the following: Had my prospective employer seen how good I am, she would have hired me. As I see it, both kinds of reasoning are fallacious in that they construe the relation between performance and getting the job / grant etc. too tightly. Of course, most people know that. But this knowledge does not prevent one from going along with the fallacious reasoning. Why is that? Well, my hunch is that meritocratic beliefs are deeply ingrained in our educational system and spill over to other contexts, such as employment relations. Let me explain.

Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.

It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.

Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.

Notes on the ethics of contagion. A reply to Martin Lenz

In his previous post about the ethics of contagion, Martin Lenz treats the issue of responsibility in the current pandemic. Given how hyperconnected the world is in which we live, everyone might infect an indefinite number of other people and thus turn into a superspreader. Now more than ever we are seeing that individual actions truly make the difference, and so we all need to act as if we were potentially harmful to everyone else in the world.

This situation demands us to take a collective responsibility. Accordingly, we must comply with the rules and advise other people to do the same. Not only that, but we must help one another to take necessary precautions. In other words, we must create supportive environments, namely ones in which we “mutually enable each other in taking necessary precautions” and “in which we can comply without harming ourselves”.

Of course, to comply with any preventive norm or social rule, we need what we have called a ‘supportive environment’. But cooperation among individuals is possible in a social group only when rationality is present1. While this would be highly desirable, the risk of a full collective compliance is conformity, which might have negative outcomes for individual agency. In fact, if a social group drifts away from rational patterns, then it is likely that forms of herd behaviour emerge among its members. For instance, when someone does not take sufficient precautions, people blame him/her for deviating from the current norms of his/her country. Collective blaming, shaming and other moral judgments are forms of herd behaviour too and may have serious consequences for individuals and social life. They are already a signal of the fact that a social group is drifting away from rational patterns of behaviour.

One way to avoid cognitive bias or falling into other traps of conformity is to doubt and hesitate. In this time, doubting about our immediate beliefs and being hesitant about judging others are perhaps the first steps each of us can take to create a supportive environment. Thus, asking ourselves ‘Was that person able to comply with the rules?’ before calling out noncompliance might prevent us to undertake a course of action which has effects that might be mostly unpredictable and even very unpleasant for third parties. (No matter if some effects were beyond our intentions: if they are directly dependent upon our actions, we are at least partly responsible for them anyway). In this way, we can still keep a reasonable attitude, which is also healthy for social life in general.

I am comfortable with this opinion and I do agree with it. However, is it enough to account for an ethics of contagion? I think Lenz’s position is lacking something in its characterization of moral responsibility, for it focuses only on what individual people ought to do. In my opinion, an ethical perspective should pay attention not only to individual agency, but also to the factors that although independent from the will are nevertheless determinant for individual decision making. The aim is to see whether people are always fully responsible for whatever they do, and eventually if we can attribute a part of responsibility to the social setting they belong to. For this sake, I will borrow some notions from social ontology, and I will use them as a key tool for widen the concept of responsibility.

As Lenz himself rightly puts it, “it is vital that universities and indeed other institutions follow policies that enable individuals to act in compliance with preventive measures”. Why is it vital? Because social environments are not always constituted only by relationships among individuals, like Facebook groups or other meet-up phenomena, which emerge out only from random interactions. Rather, social environments may be more complex. For the sake of simplicity, I shall call those environments complex social environments (CSE). Examples of CSE are corporations, social, religious or political institutions, and the Modern State. Thus, by CSE I define a social environment that has a structure not reducible to the sum of the atomic behaviour of its members or of relations among them (like an aggregation of parts), and such that the environment can be considered a unity and identified as a single entity or an individual. Another feature of CSE is that they are heterogeneous, namely they include agents with different powers and interests (some individuals have the power to act on the structure, in virtue of their role or function in the CSE).

This leads to two preliminary points. First, if something in the structure of a CSE does not allow for mutual support, its members will mostly fail in cooperative tasks. That would be the case simply because the CSE under consideration is intrinsically not functional to cooperation among individuals. (We can intuitively understand the structure of a CSE as what designs the limits and conditions for individual agency and personal freedom within the CSE itself). Second, if CSE are single entities or individuals, it means that we can attribute to them responsibility for the collective conduct undertaken by their members. Speaking from a juridical point of view, CSE are a persona like human beings. (Corollary: CSE do not interact only with their members, but – as individuals – also with other CSE).

Going back to our notion of supportive environment, under which conditions we may then deem a CSE supportive? Some conditions are mental and primarily related to individual agency. For instance, acting cooperatively presupposes that people perceive themselves already as a unity or as belonging to the same community. In other words, people must recognize themselves as members of the same CSE. It also implies that people look at others sharing the same environment each time as the person next to them and not as a third man. There must be some degrees of sympathy among CSE members.

Other conditions are related to what up to now I have called the structure of a CSE, and it is exactly here that rationality plays the most important part. Given that it is the most relevant case to our discussion, in the list of structural conditions below I will consider only the Modern State as a CSE:

a) Fair information. Politicians, scientists, intellectuals, media and public figures in general must employ a truthful and honest communication, being informative without aiming to trigger emotive reactions in the audience. In that sense, conversational maxims (Grice 1975) seem to me to be still valid.

b) Unity of decision. There must be a certain amount of coordination among the different political actors at play. In a situation of prolonged emergency and uncertainty, it is generally advisable that local administrations follow the central government.

c) Rationality of law. Social norms and regulations introduced for a pandemic must be scientifically grounded, clear, avoid ambiguities and grey zones.

Italy failed to meet the conditions to become a supportive environment. In what follows I will try to explain why it is the case and I will treat Italy purely as an example of CSE. This might sound as an attack to Italy, but that is not my intention. There are other countries facing similar (if not worse) problems – think about the current situation in China, Hungary, Brazil or the US. I am talking about Italy only because it is the social environment I know better.

a) From the beginning of the global health crisis, in Italy there has been an increasing amount of misinformation and leading politicians superspreading fake news on Covid19. Furthermore, the way Italian media have informed about Covid19 related facts rapidly spread fear and panic among the population, as a nocebo effect [https://non.copyriot.com/pandemie-kriegstagebuecher-neurosenlehre/].

b)  Many Italian politicians showed quite a spectacular way to make people comply with restrictions. Most importantly, arbitrary decisions lead to vertical political conflicts between government and local administrations, as well as horizontal ones among local administrations themselves.

c) As a country that has already been badly affected by the last economic crisis, the harsh lockdown had devastating psychological effects among the population. It is also still a matter of debate whether some restrictions2 were necessary and other decisions would not have been better to be taken.

Compared to other European countries, it seems that Italy has been seriously hit by a wave of terror and irrationality. People’s favourite scapegoats have been runners, those practicing sports or simply whoever was taking a walk or was seen outside on the streets. In such a hostile and repressive environment, the decision to hire a corps of 60.000 volunteers, patrolling public spaces and reporting noncompliance to authorities, sounded threatening even to me. Luckily, this truly Orwellian scenario seems to have been reconsidered, and the volunteers will only be employed for avoiding the formation of crowds and for public utility purposes. Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases of irrational and herd behaviour to confirm the overall negative impact that lockdown and unfair Covid19 information had in Italy. Not much data has been gathered and not enough research has been carried out yet, but to give more evidence to this point, I shall point out some examples and divide them in two groups.

Aggressions:

  • One of my Facebook contacts was stopped by a couple in an SUV, while he was going for a run in the evening. The couple threatened to beat him in case they would have seen him again hanging around outside.
  • A runner destroyed his neighbours’ car with a baseball bat, because every time he was going out for a run, they were repeatedly yelling offenses, filming and threatening him to report his “illegal and irresponsible” behaviour to the police.
  • Someone threw a bucket full of water on a woman while biking, without knowing she was simply a pharmacist coming back from work.

Herd behaviour:

  • People started spontaneously organizing in chats and social media groups to share information about infected people in their village or neighbourhood. Their aim was to avoid alleged infected people and, eventually, report their deviant behaviour to fellow citizens and authorities. Unfortunately, I had first-hand experience of this, for it has been the case in my hometown and in some other towns in the surrounding area as well. Even worse, in Vasto, a town in the Region of Abruzzo, someone wrote and spread a list with the personal information of many members of the Roma community; people labelled Roma as superspreaders and in turn attacked the major because he condemned this reprehensible action3.
  • The anti-establishment and Covid19 denial movement “orange gilets” organized demonstrations in several Italian cities (the two main ones in Milan May 30th, and Rome June 2nd). In a few days, thousands of people gathered without keeping any social distance or wearing face masks. The orange gilets claim that the Covid19 virus has been created to weaken the Italian economy and allow foreign countries to take the control over Italy. Thus, they demand at the same time the resignation of the government, the creation of a new constituent assembly, and an Italexit. In particular, during the Rome demonstration one of their main activists stated that the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte together with Bill Gates wanted to turn us all into “small robots”: by obliging everyone to vaccine against Covid19, they would inject mercury in our veins and thus connect our bodies directly to 5G; in this way, they would be able to control us remotely and, if they want, even to kill us just by heating up our body temperature.
  • On June 2nd, Matteo Salvini and the other leaders of the opposition organized a public demonstration in Rome, to protest the government and celebrate the anniversary of the Italian republic together. In this occasion too, thousands of people gathered disregarding the very basic safety rules, while politicians were only caring about selfies with their supporters.

In this post I have explored some conditions under which an environment might be called supportive. Indeed, in complex social environments those conditions are structural and do not substantially depend on individual agency. Quite on the contrary, the outcomes of individual agency are largely dependent upon these conditions (or the lack of thereof). The structure of a social environment explains the collective conduct of its members. This means that, if structural conditions make the social environment hostile and repressive, its members will not tend to act cooperatively and instead forms of herd behaviour will emerge. Therefore, part of the responsibility for the collective conduct can be attributed also to the environment itself, insofar that its structural conditions are a matter of human decisions anyway. (In a Modern State, politicians formulate and apply restrictions on different levels). For example, the case of Italy shows that the lack of those conditions does not stop compliance itself, rather it opens compliance to conformity, instead of cooperation, and creates a hostile and repressive environment, as opposed to a supportive one. Concerning an ethics of contagion, good information, politics and administration are the fundamental blocks to build a properly supportive environment, that would allow compliance with rules without fostering herd behaviour and encourage both cooperation and mutual help practices.

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1 One may object that the human being is a social animal. But even then, the fact that human beings are social animals means that they tend to live in groups with members of the same species. It does not entail per se that human beings are also cooperative by nature.
In the context of an ethics of contagion, by rationality I understand the capacity of deliberating on solid epistemic grounds. By rational (patterns of) behaviour I understand those relying on self-determination and awareness, without being affected by bias and external constraints of the sort. As I have argued above, during a pandemic a rational pattern of behaviour also consists in being able to doubt about our immediate beliefs and hesitate before making moral judgements.

2 Here I may think of the prohibition of sports activities, the obligation to stay within the area of 200m surrounding your house, or the obligation to always wear a mask outside of your house, whatever the place and the occasion (even if you are alone lying on a beach or sitting in a park on your own). But the list might not be limited to.

3 This very episode sadly reminds about the accusations addressed to Jews, of being the superspreaders of both leprosy and the black plague epidemies in France during the 13th and 14th centuries. Remarkably, in both cases Jews were accused to spread the virus in conspiracy with the Sultan and Muslims (Ginzburg 1991: 33-86). More broadly, as Nicolas Guilhot rightly argues, pandemics are the perfect environment for rumours, fake news and conspiracy theories to spread.

PS. This post is inspired by a previous Facebook discussion on the ethics of contagion and by The Metaphysics of Online Groups. Herd Behavior and Polarization, a research side-project in social ontology I am running. I am grateful to Martin Lenz for the former (as well as for the invitation to contribute in the debate). For the latter, I should thank Tommaso Ostillio and Giulio Sciacca. Last but not least, I am indebted to Anouk Hogers for important suggestions.

The impotence of hierarchy

Want to know a secret? There is this recurrent fear that many people in leadership positions told me about: “Now that I am in this position, I fear that people around me won’t speak their mind anymore, that they won’t dare criticising me. For all I know, they might think I am a fool but never tell me.” I think the first time it was my PhD supervisor who told me, and he even told me that this was also the worst fear of his supervisor. So there is a chain of fear passed on down the line. If I ask my students to be frank, I could also add that my supervisor … It’s a bit of a sad story, because we know how it goes. Back in the day, I wasn’t very open to my supervisor, and the times I tried, I often regretted it. – These fears are woven into the fabric of our hierarchies. Understandable as they might be, they are dangerous. The can preclude open discussion and correction. Given that I’m spending much of my time in universities, I am struck by how often I encounter this. In what follows, I’d like to look at a few instances and ask whether there are any remedies.

Before walking through some examples, let’s begin by looking at the phenomenon. Power imbalance is often portrayed as unidirectional state. The boss or supervisor has power; the employees or students dependent on the boss fear the boss. But as I see it, the fear has a reciprocal structure: You are afraid to criticise your boss because he or she might reproach you for doing so. Knowing your fear, the boss is afraid that you will hide your criticisms. This might spiral into a number of refined and uncomfortable assumptions. “I’ll rather tell him something nice about himself.” – “She only said that because she wants to divert attention from her criticism.” – “He doesn’t take me seriously.” – “She doesn’t take me seriously.” Mutual mistrust might follow.* If this kind of setting is large enough, the mistrust might translate into full-blown conspiracy theories. But I think the problem, at root, is not the hierarchy itself. The problem is that we often treat a hierarchical position as a personal rather than an institutional feature. But your boss is not your boss because he or she is a better whatever, but because the design of our institutions requires this function.** In this sense, hierarchy is owing to ways of dividing labour. However, while some contexts might require hierarchical division of labour, certain processes cannot function in the presence of hierarchy. Collective deliberation, for instance, is not possible if someone in the collective intervenes qua greater power. If my thoughts are taken to carry more weight because I’m a professor rather than a student, then we do not need any discussion. Or do we? Let’s look at some instances then:

  • Deliberation in science. – It’s often noted that the current corona crisis makes our shortcomings obvious. So let’s begin with policy design in the corona crisis. Given the complexity of the problems in this crisis, you would expect that decision makers listen to a number of voices. But in the Netherlands, for instance, the opposite seems to be true: “There is no discussion … Because there is a crisis, it is not allowed to have a discussion.” These are the words of Microbiologist Alex Friedrich. Rather than following the guidelines of the government, he caused quite some stir by speaking up against the Dutch strategy and partly changed the course of action by demanding more testing in the north. His point is that scientific advice is too hierarchical and focused on too few voices. Instead, it should be run like a “jam session” where everyone speaks up. I guess you don’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate the fact that you are more likely to hit on crucial facts when you listen to as many people and disciplines as possible. But the example shows that collective deliberation is still obstructed rather than enhanced (see also here).
  • Transitions in the university. – Borrowing a quote from a British colleague, the president of our university recently noted that implementing change in universities were like ‘reorganising a graveyard: “You don’t get much support from the inside”.’ The idea seems to be that changes like the current transitions to online teaching require an “external shock”. While shock might indeed be an occasion for change, I think that the comparison to the graveyard has clear limitations. I doubt that successful transition works without calling on the employees who actually do the implementing. So when we plan the details of this transition, I am sure our success will depend on whether we will listen carefully to the experiences and insights “the inside” has to offer. Indeed, the digital infrastructure that we now rely on increasingly provides great tools to implement change with the necessary transparency and participation of everyone involved. Sometimes this comes with comic relief: At the mercy of advanced technology, hierarchies of seniority are quickly turned upside down.
  • Hierarchy in teaching. – As I have noted earlier, my status as a professor should not enhance the status of what I have to say. And yet we all know that when I enter the lecture hall, the institutional powers put me in a special position, whether we like it or not. The fact that I am grading the very students who might criticise me seems to settle the intellectual hierarchy, too. Can this be evaded? Should it be? As I see it, the hierarchical power of professors over students is limited to the educational tasks they set within the institutional setting they share. I can give you a task and then tell to what extent you solved it well, whether you drew on all relevant resources etc. But an educational task, to be dealt with in an exam or essay, is different from the complex problems that confront us. Once we go beyond the confinement of exercises, students are fellow philosophers and citizens, where hierarchy should no longer apply. For the reasons noted above, the hierarchy might still be effective. But it is to our detriment if we allow it to happen.

Hierarchy, taken as a personal trait, then, obstructs true deliberation, diversity and learning. In an ideal setting, archangels could openly learn from the devil’s criticism. That said, it’s hard to figure out how we can evade the traps and fears that hierarchies foster. But we should be weary whenever discussion is closed with reference to hierarchical position. It harms all sides, those with more and less powers. But of course it’s hard to bypass something so deeply ingrained in our system. Yet, if someone politely asks you to shut up and listen, it might be best to go along and listen. In the same vain, those with more power should seek, not shun, advice from everyone. Acquiring knowledge and finding solutions, even if governed by good methods, is an accidental and collective process. You might have no idea what you’re missing. So keep asking around and encourage others. It’s always an institution, not you, that grants the power over people. The more power you exercise over them, the more likely it is that people refrain from telling you uncomfortable truths.

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* A perfect illustration is Paul Watzlawick’s “Story of the Hammer”.

** However, one might doubt whether hierarchies really obtain because of a functional division of labour. The economist Stephen Marglin famously argues that “the capitalist organization of work came into existence not because of superior efficiency but in consequence of the rent-seeking activities of the capitalist.” (I wish to thank Daniel Moure for pointing me to the work of Marglin, especially to the seminal paper “What do bosses do?”)

What’s it like to be (with) a superspreader? A note on the ethics of contagion

We’re used to the trope that our personal actions don’t make much of a difference. Arguably, in tackling climate change it’s not my choice to take an individual flight that makes things better or worse. In the current pandemic, however, nothing could be further from the truth. If I happen to be infectious, taking a flight these days might turn me into a superspreader, setting off a chain of infections that might harm a great amount of people. While we normally have to adapt to the world, the potential of spreading a virus like that has the uncanny effect that the (social) world, suffering infection, ‘adapts to us’, the one spreading. Of course, there are good reasons to avoid labelling individual people as superspreaders, but the fact remains that my individual behaviour might contribute to large-scale infections. The possibility of spreading the virus makes a number of very common habits doubtful and raises a number of moral questions. If I am contagious, then I should take precautions so as not to harm others. Therefore it’s not surprising that we find ourselves confronted with the recurrent advice to wash our hands and stay at home. However, even if the precautions to be taken are individual actions, they require a supportive social setting and compliance. If my employer, for instance, coerces me to work without taking precautions, the blame should be placed accordingly. Thus, new kinds of responsibilities emerge. In what follows, I’d like to consider some aspects of such responsibilities.

Being harmful. – In spreading the coronavirus, we cause harm. The idea of being alerted to the fact that one was responsible for such a spreading is enormously unpleasant, to say the least. While we might not want to attribute moral responsibility to a spreader, we will deem it epidemiologically important to track such a patient. So while such a spreading might not count as a (voluntary) action because it is not intended, it requires us to see ourselves as a cause of harm. That said, being involved in such an event might count as a case of (bad) moral luck and can hardly be dissociated from moral considerations.* Now the assumption that we are merely involuntary causes in such events no longer holds once we know that we are in a pandemic. In this case, I ought to take precautions. A failure to do so would strike me as morally blameworthy. So if I neglect hygiene measures (and end up spreading the virus), I am behaving irresponsibly and blameworthily. However, and this is the point I want to highlight, my fellow citizens and those responsible for living and working conditions in particular also have moral duties. Collectively, we might be said to have the duty to mutually enable each other to take necessary precautions. Now what does this amount to?

The moral status of spreading and spreading advice. – Advice such as “wash your hands!” and “stay at home (whenever possible)” is certainly helpful and ought to be followed in our current pandemic. Yet, it is a double-edged sword. On the one, hand it promotes risk aversion. If people comply, they might indeed prevent spreading and thus create a safe environment. On the other hand, it can be stigmatising. Given that at least staying at home comes at quite a price for some, we must bear in mind that calling out noncompliance might stigmatise and harm others, too. With the lifting of the lockdowns, we not only see people prematurely hasten ‘back to normal’, we also see a growing divide between those complying and those not complying with the restrictions. This divide is not helpful for either side. As I see it, people can only comply successfully with restrictions in a supportive environment. While it is true that individual actions can make a lot of a difference, individuals must have a chance to balance their compliance with the costs that arise. For a tenured professor like me, for instance, it’s easy to stay at home. But that is worlds apart from asking compliance of a shop assistant, who might be sacked if she fails to expose herself to hoards of potentially infectious customers, frowning at her for not wearing her mask correctly. So while everyone needs to consider themselves as a potential cause of harm to others, we need to create an environment in which we enable such considerations. Calling out others will more likely provide an incentive to shift the blame.

What is a supportive environment? – No matter what strategy (if any) your government is following, we need to comply with certain restrictions, if we want to prevent harming people through spreading the coronavirus. A supportive environment is one in which we can comply without harming ourselves. If we ignore the needs of children for a moment, one of the greatest factors that make compliance with lockdown restrictions difficult is the fact that we have to work and rely on other people’s work (to supply for our needs). Thus, we need to make sure that our working conditions allow for compliance. It is here that see a great number of difficulties. Let’s briefly highlight two issues:

  • The right to protect yourself from harm. – Compliance can only be demanded insofar as people can comply without harming themselves, be it economically or with regard to their health. Now from the very beginning of the corona crisis it was obvious that a number of people seem to have no effective means to protect themselves. If it is true that being indoors with other people is one of the greatest risks of infection, then care workers are exposed to an enormous danger of infection. Indeed, recent data shows that most COVID-19 deaths are occurring in this profession. If confined spaces are problematic, then what about schools, shops, public transport and the like? (While it might be ok to go shopping, it’s queite another question whether shop assistants are really well protected.) Perhaps with the exception of the medical sector, this seems to be largely in keeping with ongoing class issues. As I see it, our societies and the respective employers in particular are often not providing a safe working environment. But how can we expect compliance if we allow for such an amount of disregard within social settings, firms and institutions?
  • The duty to prevent spreading. – Is there a moral duty to prevent spreading? I guess, there is if we can do it without harming ourselves. This is why many people (myself included) consider the lifting of many lockdown measures as premature, especially in that they seem to incentivise outright blameworthy behaviour of crowds gathering to protest for individual liberties or whatever. But besides such aberrations there are more subtle cases. In mid-March, for instance, a colleague returning from a high-risk area was reproached for potentially causing “panic” among students by asking them to keep a safe distance. While I think that causing panic would be bad, I also think that universities ought to prioritise providing a safe environment. Thus, it is vital that universities and indeed other institutions follow policies that enable individuals to act in compliance with preventive measures. While most universities have now moved their education online, they are partly pushing for moving back on campus asap. While eventually returning to in-person education seems sensible and desirable, such moves might also incentivise an unhealthy competition, incentivising premature steps.

So in many cases we might witness (or at least have witnessed) that people are not complying with preventive measures. However, when judging the morality of harmful behavior, we must ask whether they are acting under conditions that allow for compliance in the first place. As much as I am upset to see people behaving in ways that might harm others or themselves, when passing moral judgement of their individual actions, we must bear in mind that the responsibility for enabling preventive behaviour is a collective sort of responsibility. Although I could cause enormous harm by spreading the virus, my actions to prevent such harmful actions have to rely on collective support. In a nutshell, it’s probably more appropriate to blame certain groups, firms and institutions than individuals. Both taking precautions and easing restrictions should be implemented such that these actions allow for mutual support.

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* Which reminds me of an intriguing discussion of Adam Smith on the so-called piacular by Eric Schliesser.

PS. Many thanks to Justin Weinberg for suggesting an important revision in my phrasing.

Cavendish’s Triumvirate and the Writing Process

I’m working through Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) at the moment. It’s not the first time (in fact, I taught a course on it after Christmas), but her writing is dense and is neither as systematic as someone like Descartes nor as succinct as someone like Berkeley. But the pay-off is a philosophy rich full of insights that genuinely does seem to be, if not ahead of its time (I don’t want to be accused of anachronism), then idiosyncratic to its immediate historical context in some striking ways. For example, I’m reading Cavendish alongside Keith Allen’s A Naïve Realist Theory of Colour (OUP, 2016), and there are clear signs that she had thought deeply about phenomena such as colour constancy (whereby we take objects to have remained the same colour even though a different coloured light is shining on them) and metamerism (objects with different microphysical qualities that appear to be the same colour) that are central to contemporary perception debates (Colin Chamberlain has written a great article on Cavendish’s atypical philosophy of colour). As far as I am aware, these aren’t issues that her contemporaries (Hobbes, Descartes, Berkeley, et al) were much preoccupied with. And while reading and working through Cavendish’s philosophy is a bit like trying to untangle a charger cable that’s been kept in a box in a drawer too long – each time you think you’ve untangled all the knots another one appears – it tends to be rewarding, even if it is near impossible to pin down exactly what she thinks about any given issue ‘X’.

Perhaps because of the inevitable struggle that comes with defending an interpretation of Cavendish’s philosophy, I’m also thinking a lot about the trials and tribulations of the writing process (it may also be because I have literally nothing else to do). For a long time, I’ve thought that one of the best pieces of writing advice came from Daniel Dennett who, in various platforms (including a keynote he gave here in Dublin last September) has encouraged writers to ‘blurt something out, and then you have something to work with’. I’ve regurgitated this advice to students several times, and it chimes well with me because I find it much easier to shape and mould a pre-existing block of text, than to face the task of squeezing something out of the ether (or my brain – wherever it comes from) and onto the page. Like Leibniz, I prefer a block to chip away from than a Lockean blank page. With that in mind, I’ve started to wonder whether a particular aspect of Cavendish’s metaphysics might provide us with a nice model for the writing process.

Perhaps one of the most interesting, and remarkable, aspects of Cavendish’s system of nature is her claim that all parts of nature contain what she calls a “triumvirate” of matter (note: Cavendish is a materialist, even the mind is composed of material substance in her system). She claims that each and every part of nature is made up of three kinds of matter: (1) rational matter, (2) sensitive matter, and (3) inanimate matter. Even if you could pick out an atomistic unit (although she rejects atomism herself), she thinks, you would find varying degrees of all three kinds of matter. Inanimate matter is matter as we would ordinarily think of it, bulky stuff that weighs the other kinds of matter down and does the important job of filling up space (a job I’ve gotten very good at myself during lockdown). Cavendish compares inanimate matter to the bricks and mortar used to build a house. Continuing this analogy, she suggests that sensitive matter plays the role of the team of builders, moving inanimate matter around and getting it to take up particular shapes and forms. The variety of ways that inanimate matter is put together, she thinks, explains the variety of things in the natural world around us. What’s more, if there were no sensitive matter to move inanimate matter around, she claims, the world would be entirely homogenous. Finally, she compares rational matter to the architect responsible for it all. For the sensitive matter wouldn’t know what to do with all the inanimate matter if it wasn’t told what to do by someone with a plan. In the section of the Observations entitled ‘An Argumental Discourse’ (one of the strangest philosophical dialogues out there, between two ‘halves’ of her own mind who are ‘at war’) she sums up the triumvirate of matter like so:

as in the exstruction of a house there is first required an architect or surveyor, who orders and designs the building, and puts the labourers to work; next the labourers or workmen themselves; and lastly the materials of which the house is built: so the rational part… in the framing of natural effects, is, as it were, the surveyor or architect; the sensitive, the labouring or working part; and the inanimate, the materials: and all these degrees are necessarily required in every composed action of nature.

Observations upon Experimental (Cambridge Texts Edition, edited by Eileen O’Neill (2001)) pp. 24

This is, then, a top-down approach to understanding both orderliness and variety of things in nature. It’s all possible, Cavendish thinks, because there’s an ‘architect’ (the rational part of a thing in nature) that devises a plan and decides what to do the with bulky mass of inanimate matter. (Another note: Cavendish is a vitalist materialist or what we might retrospectively call a panpsychist: she thinks that every part of nature, from grains of sand to plants, animals, and people, has life and knowledge of things in the world around it.)

Right, so how does all this relate to the writing process? I don’t quite know whether this is intended to be a helpful normative suggestion, or just a descriptive claim, but I suggest that Cavendish’s triumvirate might provide a model for thinking about how writing works. In this case, the role of bulky, cumbersome inanimate matter is played by the words on the page you’ve managed to ‘blurt out’, to use Dennett’s technical terminology. Or, perhaps it’s the thoughts/ ideas you’ve still got in your head. Either way, it’s a mass of sentences, propositions, textual references, and so on, that you’ve got to do something with (another tangled charger cable, if you will). What options have you got? Well, structure and presentation are important – and while these are facilitated by your word processor (for example), they constitute a kind of medium between your thought and the words on the page. So I’d suggest that presentation, structure, perhaps even the phrasing of individual sentences, is what plays the role of sensitive matter: Cavendish’s labourers or workmen.

Finally, there’s the role of rational matter: the architect or surveyor who’s plan the sensitive matter is just waiting to carry out. I actually think this may be the hardest comparison to draw. It would be easy to simply say ‘you’ are the architect of your writing, but once you’ve taken away the words/ ideas as well the as the way they are presented or structured, it’s hard to know exactly what’s doing the work or what’s left (just ask Hume). Last year, I saw Anna Burns, author of the brilliant Milkman, give a talk where she was asked about her writing process. Her answer, which in the mouth of another could have sounded pompous or pretentious, was honest and revealing: she had literally nothing to say. She couldn’t explain what the real source of her writing was and, even more remarkably, she wasn’t particularly interested. In any case, there’s something that’s grouping together, or paying selective attention to, some ideas or notions and advocating that they should become a piece of writing. Whatever that is, I suggest it plays the role of rational matter: Cavendish’s architect.

How might this be helpful to writers? I’m not sure it can in any practical way, but I find it helpful when I hit upon a nice description of something I’ve grappled with or when it seems that someone is describing my own experiences (it’s one of the reasons I like reading both philosophy and fiction). Perhaps Cavendish’s triumvirate model can be useful in this way. It may also, and I have begun to think in these terms myself, provide you with a measure of where you are in the writing process. Am I still sourcing the bricks and mortar? Are the labourers at work? Or are they waiting for instructions from the architect? Sometimes, it’s helpful to know where you are, because it lets you take stock of what there is still to do – and, in keeping with Cavendish’s analogy, who’s going to do it.

Precarity and Privilege. And why you should join a union, today

Reflecting on the personal impact of the corona crisis, a close friend remarked that things didn’t change all that much, rather they became obvious. I then began to hear variations of that idea repeatedly. If you live in a complicated relationship, that might very well show right now. If you have made difficult decisions, their consequences might be more palpable now. If you live in a precarious situation, you will feel that clearly now. On the other hand, there might be good stuff that you perhaps hardly noticed, but if it’s there, it will carry you now. On social media, I sense a lot of (positive) nostalgia. People remember things, show what mattered then and now. Things become obvious. The crisis works like a magnifying glass.

This effect also shows how well we are prepared. As an adolescent, I used to smile at my parents for storing lots of food cans in their basement. Of course, most of us also laugh at people rushing to hoard toilet paper, but how well prepared are we for what is coming? Perhaps you think that if we’re lacking things and certain habits now, this is owing to individual failures or laziness. But if we experience precariousness, hardly any of that is an individual fault. Habits need collective stabilisation and consolidation to persist. That said, I’m not going to focus on the state of your basement or hygiene measures. Rather, I’m worried about the question of how well we are politically prepared. Many people around me are facing really dire situations. And our political preparation (or lack thereof) leaves us with very few means to address them properly. So what can be done? I’ll begin with some general considerations and try to finish with some practical advice.

If we look around, we see that a lot can be done. Slowing down the economy like that without immediate chaos ensuing is a huge success. But very soon, people will start telling each other that certain things “cannot” be done, because they are “too difficult”, “too expensive” or “against the rules”. While a lot of good is happening, the bargaining and gaslighting has already begun. Being a highly competitive culture, academia has a notorious problem with collective action (role models in the UK who have been on strike for enormous amounts of time notwithstanding). But this crisis requires collective measures, both in terms of hygiene and in terms of politics.

What’s the problem? Precarious employment (not only) in academia has been a growing factor for a long time. As I see it, this jeopardizes not only political but also academic goals, because it leads to an unwelcome dissociation of teaching and research. But at the present moment, this precarity might turn into something much worse. We already see furloughs and dismissals especially of people on fixed term contracts and the flimsy justifications rolling in on a fairly large scale. At the same time, we witness what we have already seen in the medical sector. We lack transnational policies and thus people are being treated very differently, depending on where they happen to work and what sort of contract they have. Add to this that many ad hoc measures, such as online teaching, are now used as a pretext to introduce lasting changes that may be detrimental to both employment conditions and educational standards. So the precarity and educational standards might worsen to a tipping point where education might become largely disposable. Indeed, mass education is of course disposable already, unless you have democratic tendencies.

What can be done? The first thing I find striking is that, while people continuously talk about online teaching and other means of continuing work, hardly anyone addresses the question of precarious employment. Given the current firings and freezing of hirings, we know that the job market is going to be brutal. If you are, say, an international postdoc or teaching fellow whose contract runs out after the summer, it will be very difficult to find or even seek employment. While I see people readily exchanging advice on zooming, I’ve seen hardly anything so far on how to address this problem. The exceptions to this rule are labour unions and some employee organisations some of which are currently collecting data and push for measures. (You know of more exceptions? Please spread the news widely!)* Now let me ask you: Are you a member of a union? No? You’re no exception. In the various places I worked during and after my PhD, I have never been encouraged to join a union. It’s almost as if there were no awareness that there is such a thing as the representation of employees’ interests. In fact, I guess it’s worse, and it’s something I’ve not only noticed in academia but also in much of the growing freelance and start-up culture. Going from my own experience, I’d say that people always have been and still are (more or less subtly) discouraged from joining such organisations. So when employees encounter difficulties in their employment, they typically will be portrayed as not being tough enough for the job. You are overworked? Well, if you don’t blame yourself already, you’ll likely be shamed into avoiding publicity. Being overworked is still portrayed as a personal lack of stamina, to be addressed not by collective industrial action but by courses on time management or mindfulness. This way, failing to secure (permanent) employment can still be blamed on the individual rather than on the way higher education is run.

The individualisation of such problems does not only affect people’s (mental) health, it also keeps people away from engaging in collective action. In turn, this means that unions etc. will remain weak because they can easily be portrayed as not representing anyone. If people keep blaming themselves, the unions don’t have a case for building an argument in favour of better employment conditions. I see this as one of the main reasons why we are politically not well prepared for addressing economic problems in this crisis. So what should we do now?

Trying to collect ideas, I have written to a number of friends and colleagues who kindly provided me with suggestions. Let me briefly summarise some crucial points:

  • Generally, permanent / tenured people should take it upon them to make a move. We should be aware that people on fixed term contracts are vulnerable and should not be expected to lobby for their interests alone.
  • Try to see who is in or is likely to get into trouble and talk about the situation. Bring it up with your colleagues and managers whenever the opportunity arises. If you have department meetings or exchanges with funding agencies such as the ERC, ask what can be or is done to ameliorate the situation.
  • Join a union and encourage others to do so, too. In the Netherlands, the unions are taking it upon them to make a case for employees in precarious positions.
  • As I see it, it would be good for universities to invest in staff rather than reduce numbers. Wherever possible contracts should be extended, as is in fact done by various funding bodies.
  • If there are no financial resources for staff, measures should be taken to reallocate budgets, especially travel and overhead funding for the extension of contracts or hires.
  • Universities in Austria and Switzerland have created hardship funds for employees facing precarious situations. This should be done proactively, as people in vulnerable positions might feel discouraged to come forward.

These are just some ideas. I’d be grateful to hear more. But to my mind, the most important point is that we need to pursue such steps in a collective effort. Right now, these steps should be taken because we are in an emergency. Ensuring stability is what is required for providing a safe working environment.

Ultimately, taking measures of solidarity is also about helping academia to survive beyond this crisis. Whenever recession hits, education is often considered disposable. If we were to allow for the reduction of staff without resistance, it would just signal that academia could do with even fewer people and resources. Dictatorships would certainly welcome this. The way we treat our colleagues and students will contribute to determining the political system that we’ll find ourselves in after the crisis.

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* Of course, there have been initiatives addressing the adjunct crisis. But I havent’t noticed that precarity has been an issue of great public concern in this crisis, even less so among tenured academics, as a recent piece by Emma Pettit notes:

“While tenured professors have typically stood by silently as their nontenured colleagues advocated for themselves on the national stage, they have watched their own kind dwindle. Positions are remaining unfilled. Tenure lines are getting pruned. There’s still the same service work to do, but fewer people to do it, and those who remain shoulder the burden.

And today, as a global pandemic has devastated budgets and led college leaders to freeze hiring and furlough even tenured professors, the cause seems especially urgent.

The structural changes that preceded the pandemic helped set the stage for those austerity measures, and manufactured a growing — if uneven, slow, some would say glacial — recognition among the tenured that relying on contingent labor hurts everyone, activists and higher-education researchers say. …
How much tenured professors have cared, historically, about their contingent colleagues, is difficult to measure. Everyone knows the caricature: the older, typically white, typically male full professor whose non-tenure-track colleagues escape his vision, who still believes merit rises to the top and those who fail to land tenure-track jobs lack work ethic, intelligence, or both. …
Even if tenured professors might not pay attention to the adjuncts who walked their hallways, they couldn’t help but notice the fates of their graduate students, who were being sent into a bottlenecked academic-jobs market to compete for slimmer pickings. They started to connect the dots.”

Will the future be like the past? Making sense of experiences in and of the corona crisis

The world is a different place now. But what does that mean? In keeping with my previous posts, I want to think about the way we experience this situation. Binge-scrolling through expert advice, curves and numbers is important for assessing the situation and deliberating about forms of collective action. But at the same time, it is essential to understand one another and ourselves within this situation, to return from the third-person talk to the second and first person perspective. Thus, a crucial part of our thinking should be devoted to the various meanings of our experience. I speak of “meanings” in the plural for two reasons. On the one hand, I think our experiences of the situation vary quite a lot, such that the events we undergo mean different things for different people. So your social and economical situation, for instance, matters greatly in how you will feel and how your expectations take shape. Would I feel as balanced as I do, if I worked, say, in a bar? Or as a postdoc who is facing that my contract is running out soonish? Even if we’re likely facing an enormous global recession, the current stability still affects my being. On the other hand, and this is perhaps surprising, I have noticed that my very own experiences have different meanings even to me. Let me explain: I have now been staying mostly inside (with family) for a bit more than three weeks. Given that I often suffer from anxieties, I would have expected that the growing corona crisis would make me feel bad. But while I have clearly lost a sense of normality, this doesn’t exactly trouble me. I feel ok, perhaps even slightly more balanced than in the months before. For a while, I thought that’s quite surprising. But then I realised that this is true of a number of people. In fact, this morning I read an article according to which some psychologists report that a significant number of patients with depression or anxiety disorders find that their situation improved, paradoxically so. How can we make sense of such experiences? Is there a way of explaining the eerily positive attitude some of us have in this crisis? I’m no psychologist. But as a historian of philosophy I know something about the ways in which we relate to our histories and biographies. My hunch is that this kind of experience is partly determined by our beliefs about how much the future will resemble the past. While trying to explain this hunch a bit more, I’ll say how this might help in assessing conflicts between people with different ways of experiencing the crisis. Will the future resemble the past then? As we will see, this is not a question of (future) facts but of values.

Speaking to various people about the corona crisis, it seems that most conversation partners fall into one of two categories: (1) those who believe that we’ll be “going back to normal” at some point and (2) those who believe that the future will be fairly different from the past. Let’s call them continuists and discontinuists respectively. Continuists think that the future resembles the past, even after this crisis. Accordingly, they will try and prepare for the time after the crisis in much the same way they have pursued their goals before. By contrast, discontinuists assume that the future is not only uncertain but likely different from the status quo of the past. Accordingly, they cannot prepare by pursuing the same goals by the same means. They will expect having to adjust their means or even their goals.
The question whether historical events are continuous with past events or mean a disruptive change is hotly debated, because whether or not you see continuity or change depends what criteria you focus on. But for now I’m less interested in the theoretical issue. Rather, I’m wondering how our pertinent beliefs affect our experience. A wise friend of mine once said that our beliefs about the future shape the present, for instance, in that such beliefs guide our current actions. If that’s correct, then continuists and discontinuists will be preparing for different future scenarios. Of course, the question which future scenario is more likely is a rather pressing one. What (else) will this virus do to us? Will the economy break down completely? Will we have civil unrests, wars over resources? Like you, I’m interested in these things, but lacking relevant knowledge I have nothing to say about them. What I want to address here is how being a continuist or discontinuist relates to your experience of the current situation.

Now how does having one or the other attitude affect your experience? As a continuist who retains your goals you will likely want to stick to your strategies and go back to normal if possible. The current restrictions (contact restrictions or lockdowns) will probably feel rather disruptive. By contrast, a discontinuist might welcome the disruption as way of preparing for an uncertain future. So my guess is that there is a correlation between being a discontinuist and having a more positive attitude towards the disruptive measures. Let’s illustrate this idea with an example. A controversial issue that arises for many people around me is productivity. While some people readily give tips on how to successfully remain productive at the home office and quickly switch to things like online teaching, others see these outbursts of productivity as a problematic distraction from more pressing issues. They worry, for instance, that the switch to online teaching will worsen the standing of academic teaching or the exploitation on the job market.
My idea is that we can pair up the conflicting approaches towards productivity with attitudes about (dis)continuity. While a continuist will remain productive, a discontinuist will be suspicious of such productivity as it seems likely to be jeopardised by the changes ahead. This doesn’t mean that the discontinuist will stop being productive tout court. It just means that the discontinuist will likely want to prepare for adjusting the means or even the goals, rather than keep going as before.

As this example shows, there is not only a difference but also a conflict between continuists and discontinuists. If you currently google the keywords “coronavirus” and “productivity” and look at the headlines, you’re clearly listening in on a fierce dispute. Should you work on improving your productivity? Or should you redirect your focus on different priorities? Continuists often seem to experience the restrictions as if their lives have been put on hold. The crisis might be very disruptive, but by and large the goals remain intact. This might also be mirrored in different attitudes of students: If you are an ambitious student and a continuist, your priority might still be to pass your exams well and quickly. If your university cancels the regular classes and exams (rather than running them online), you will likely be annoyed or worried. By contrast, discontinuists seem to experience the restrictions as the onset or emergence of a new situation; they will likely try to adjust their goals in line with hopes or guesses about the outcome. If you are an ambitious student and a discontinuist, your priority might be to understand and prepare for the new situation. Your focus or interests might change and you might appreciate a pertinent adjustment of teaching rather than the pursuit of former goals.

As I see it, this kind of conflict is often misrepresented. It often seems to be presented as a quest for the right way of responding to the crisis. Thus, depending on the predominant attitude around you, you might see your own response as a failure. Surrounded by continuists, the discontinuist will feel like being not sufficiently productive. Surrounded by discontinuists, the continuist will feel like insufficiently adapting to the new situation that will arise. However, as I see it the conflict between these two stances is not about the facts of the crisis or the predictable future but about values. Let me explain.

As I see it, the question whether there is a continuity after the crisis is not one that could be established by looking at current or estimated future facts. It would be fallacious to think that there is a definite cut off point that distinguishes continuity from discontinuity. In other words, whether a crisis like this allows for going “back to normal” or is a pervasive disruption is not an empirical question. If the crisis has very dire consequences, you can still claim that we’re going back to a “very impoverished normal”. If the crisis is not too disruptive, you can still claim the world is altered, if mainly by the prospect of the crisis returning. So it is the other way round: First you claim that there is a continuity or discontinuity, and then you quote empirical facts for support.

If this is correct, what is it then that makes the difference between continuists and discontinuists? As I said it’s a question of values. If you largely accept the norms of the status quo before the crisis you will evaluate the predicted situation as a deviation from these norms and find points of impoverished continuity. However, the discontinuist will see the norms of the former status quo as undermined. In fact, this is what allows for seeing discontinuity. So the future scenarios discontinuists see are ones in which new norms are established. They will be what we often call a “new normal”, for better or worse. Such a new normal might include, for instance, the restrictions that we anticipated in view of anthropogenic climate change and the Paris Agreement. Seen in this light the current measures taken against the corona crisis might appear as being in line with new norms to be consolidated.

What does this mean for the eerily positive attitude that some of us experience? Once you recognise that the belief in discontinuity is a matter of value, it’s plausible to assume that what empowers (some) people is the necessitated change of norms during lockdown. So while it might be right that the positive attitude correlates with former states of anxiety or depression, it would be dangerous to confine this to a psychological question of individuals. We shouldn’t overlook the societal values going hand in hand with such empowerment. Seen in line with societal values, the disruption of the status quo is not merely destructive. It holds the possibility to establish norms more in line with what many of us might desire in light of the challenges we face, for instance, with regard to climate change. It doesn’t mean that this possibility will become true. But as long as we’re not hit by total disaster, there is hope.

On (dis)orientation and the epistemology of personal experience. A response to Martin Lenz

In a previous blog post, Martin wondered what we can say about the current crisis without simply repeating or questioning statistics or predictions. And he answered this question in a performative manner, as I interpreted it, namely by devoting most of his blog post to a discussion centered around the importance of personal experience in this time of crisis.

And this might be thought to be a good point of departure, too, since we are dealing with a crisis of such a massive scale that we all feel and experience it personally in any case. That is to say, irrespective of our geographical location or societal context, the crisis appears to us in the guise of something that immediately intrudes into and changes our lives. And so, the outbreak of Covid-19 affects us all, globally and indiscriminately, but at the same time also in irreducibly personal ways. And this makes is so that we are, perhaps, better served by personal experience than by imagination or theory if we want to understand our current situation, or so one might think.

However, this is a thought that needs to be heavily qualified and scrutinized, I believe, because, as it turns out, we are indeed all affected by the current crisis, but not all in the same way or in the same measure. And this renders an uncritical reference to personal experience more than a little problematic, seeing as it could all too easily lead into false generalizations and ideological deadlocks.

This is a problem that became especially pronounced, to my mind, when I considered Martin’s personal experience as he described it in his above-mentioned blog post and compared it with my own personal experience and the experiences that were reported by my friends. Because whereas Martin (and some of my friends) reported experiences of disorientation, confusion, and a loss of cognitive mapping in light of the crisis, I myself (and some of my other friends) reported experiences of validation, of a strengthening of our pre-existing beliefs, and of ideological certitude.

And so, the questions that I began asking myself, in light of these conflicting reports, were questions along the lines of ‘Who is actually on the right track here?’ and ‘Whose experiences are epistemically reliable?’. After all, if we assume that our personal experience of orientation or disorientation – i.e., our sense of our ability to ‘make sense’ of things – has an epistemic import, then it is not so outlandish to believe that an experience of disorientation might indicate a cognitive failure and that an experience of orientation might indicate a cognitive success.

But this is precisely a juncture at which I recognize a possibility for an error to creep into our thinking. Because it seems to me that an experience marked by a sense of having found one’s orientation despite the maelstrom of events is, in fact, always epistemically uninformative; whereas an experience marked by disorientation can be epistemically informative, but, even then, only in a negative way.

And so, to illustrate, let us first consider the experience of (still) being able to make sense of things. This has so far been my own experience in the face of the crisis and it is the reported experience of some of my friends, too, which means that it can be said that, for us, nothing has fundamentally changed since the beginning of the crisis. Our beliefs and expectations did not need to be altered because of the Covid-19 outbreak, and the worldwide response to it only confirmed our pre-existing beliefs and expectations.

The reasons for this are multifaceted and complex, as they are wont to be, but for the most part they boil down to us being Marxists. And so, naturally, we have no faith in the bourgeois state that can be eclipsed by its current legitimation crisis, nor any confidence in market economies that can be shaken by the onset of yet another economic recession. Moreover, as Marxists, we have of course been having a field day in theoretical and political discussions in the last weeks, because the way in which the crisis is unfolding – tragic as it may be – makes our positions easier to illustrate and more defensible than they have been in decades. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it may even seem as though the response to the current crisis, which is shaped by material pressures and practical necessities more than that it is determined by any normative ideals or moral considerations, has been specifically designed to provide new empirical grounds for historical materialists to stand on.

And so, for us, there is no disconfirmation; no disorientation. Our personal experience has a rather sanguine overall character in spite of all that has happened, and our beliefs have never seemed more true or justified than they seem now. But, even so, this momentary stability or sense of coherence does not, to my mind, bear any positive epistemic significance. After all, it could be based on quicksand.

Indeed, in this regard the standpoint that my Marxist friends and I now avail ourselves of is, structurally speaking, not so different from the standpoint that Francis Fukuyama availed himself of when he announced the end of history and the timeless marriage of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. That allowed him to make sense of many things, too, at a time when any honest Marxist would have admitted to feeling very disoriented in light of the then-recent world historical events and the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’. Yet the tables have turned on Fukuyama rather spectacularly in the meantime, and nothing about his experience of being able to make sense of things at the time could have tipped him off to that possibility, I imagine.

So, the experience of being able to make sense of things is, in itself, not epistemically useful. It makes one neither better nor worse off when it comes to finding the truth or developing appropriate ways of relating to the world. After all, an experience such as this can occur accidentally, too, due to unknown or misunderstood causes that only make it seem as though one has understood something, while one has, in fact, misapprehended or badly contextualized it. And, of course, we also have a tendency of initially repressing our awareness of any evidence that makes our heartfelt convictions and cherished frameworks unworkable, meaning that we sometimes still feel like we can make sense of things even though some pieces of the puzzle already do not quite fit.

But what about the opposite experience, then? What about an experience of disorientation, such as the one that Martin and others reportedly have (had) in light of the crisis?

Well, here I think things look differently. That is, I think that an experience of disorientation can be epistemically useful, even when it is considered by itself. And the reason for this is that an experience of disorientation occurs when one is trying to orient oneself – i.e., when one is trying to make sense of things – but is frustrated in the attempt. And it seems to me that such an experience of frustration, as a rule, needs to have some real cause.

After all, why would one have trouble making sense of things if there is not something outside of oneself that directly and manifestly renders one’s ideas unfeasible or unfitting? And so, for this reason, it can safely be said that an experience of disorientation almost certainly reflects an actual incongruity between the reality one tries to subsume under one’s Notion, on the one hand, and one’s Notion itself, on the other hand. Moreover, this will be an incongruity that one, in some sense, cannot get around when one has such an experience. The contradiction is too obvious or too glaring here; it distorts one’s whole experiential field, that is why one feels disoriented.

And, what is more, it seems likely that, if one attends to one’s experience of disorientation closely enough, one can glimpse the real cause of the disorientation, too, precisely because the experience of disorientation is so intimately tied to some directly experienced incongruity. And this then also means that the experience of disorientation provides a key, not so much to positive knowledge, but certainly to a specific diagnosis of what went wrong. In other words, an experience of disorientation immanently provides the dialectical means to its own solution; at least when one attends to it closely enough. Or that is the hope anyway.

However, beyond this, I doubt that personal experience – even when it is theoretically developed and considered as a totality – should be considered a reliable guide to positive knowledge. It is simply too partial and conditioned, and not to mention too determined by self-serving interests, for us to put stock in it.

Nothing to lose? Other voices in the corona crisis

Many people, part of myself included, seem to see the current crisis as a loss of normality. That makes sense, because a lot of processes just came to a halt. But what if you didn’t feel at home in the world as it used to be some months ago? What if you felt like you didn’t belong or wouldn’t get anywhere in that world? If you felt guilty, day in day out, for not getting done what you ought to get done, you now wake up in a world in which hardly anyone gets anything done. The “new normal” that lockdowns create, then, might be a rather comforting kind of normal, at least more comforting than the old competitive world that we had to leave behind for the time being. – Writing my “search for a conversation”, I focused on the current situation as a disconnection from the recent past. Since then, I had a number of conversations that made me see quite a different perspective: The uncertainties and losses we partly experience might actually make us more equal, such that at least some aspects of the current situation might create more familiarity with one another than the former status quo. In what follows, I still don’t have much to say myself, rather I’d just like to give voice to this idea – an idea that I began to see thanks to the conversations I had so far.

Before I get into details, let me be clear about one thing: There is no cynicism or disregard for the current suffering. Quite the contrary. We need to distinguish between two facts: On the one hand, there is the spread of the virus and the disease it causes. On the other hand, there are our social responses and their impact on our lives. By “social responses” I mean measures such as the stay-at-home policy, the prohibition of public gatherings and events etc. In order to appreciate the perspective I’m trying to describe, it might help to imagine that the social responses were put in place independently of any threats to our health. So when I say that the crisis might be comforting for people, I mean that the social measures themselves (and not the disease) can afford comfort.

But how, you might ask, how does being locked up (more or less) afford comfort? The social measures have a number of effects. In my last post, I suggested they disconnect me from my recent past and all the norms that guided me. Of course, this might be disorienting. But think again! What if many of these norms are not helpful or even harmful? Take the general competition within various job markets. Now we’re asked to support each other rather than compete. Is that a bad thing? Take the priorities of academia. Is it so bad that we cannot churn out paper after paper, host workshop after workshop right now? Take the effects on the environment. Isn’t it a good thing that we can swiftly adapt to acting in accordance with measures that will play into ameliorating climate change?

If we focus on certain social, psychological and environmental effects, we can quickly see that there is a lot to be said in favour of our response to the crisis. But still, you might say, it is hard to let go of cherished conventions that guided our interactions. Isn’t it worth keeping them? The disconnection from our recent past might feel like a loss. But again, what if you didn’t feel at home in these conventions? What if you think that much of your life looks like a failure or non-normal in the light of the status quo we had to abandon? There will be way more interesting examples, but I guess that my own experience helps me in taking this perspective. Before I got a permanent job at Groningen in 2012, it became increasingly likely that I would end up with, well, not much. Remembering how it felt to live through various existential worries allows me to imagine myself in quite a different state. Unemployed, ignored, full of on-going self-doubts, would I have thought that I am losing much by the social distancing measures? Or would I perhaps have thought that everyone is now a bit more on the same page as I am?

I don’t know. But Jon, a reader of my last blog post, fleshed out pertinent thoughts about our response to the crisis in some detail. He kindly gave permission to quote his message to me:

After a short burst of anxiety I realised that for me life continues much the same. I’ve been probably unhappy and somewhat anxious for the last year and a half. Why? There was no obvious reason, but a sense of foreboding, that one was not prepared for some thing, that a house could likely never be owned, that I was too ordinary for my growing children to want to spend time with me as they got older, and that I was shaping up to be a net taker, rather than a giver. Confronted with a global event like this is in many ways is a relief, I think once a cancer patient knows what they have is terminal, what really is there to fear outside of the illness.? So, this has happened and it is what I’ve always feared, yet it is hardly that unpleasant. If one can keep ones home and have enough food, it is potentially entirely satisfying. Better still, to be free of the conflict a person can have when immersed in the guilt, the kind of guilt that tells us we should be working when we are not, we should be outside when we are in, we should be engaged in some activity that is full filling when really we can’t be bothered. I find this pandemic peaceful and an opportunity to gaze into the hearth of life, free of self criticism. I enjoy the small things I’ve not seen in people before, both good and bad, and shopping is a surprisingly pleasant experience where people are cordial and aware of you, in the supermarket itself there is space to move and a quiet, calm. On the farm where I live, the M25 that drones as if an ocean is just past the tree line, is quiet now. The ancient farmland seems to be remembering itself, walking around it in the evening it is once more in the depth of the countryside and not a faux village as it is in the modern era. I will miss this when it is over. While the pandemic itself is ruinous to a small number of people for the vast numbers of younger, healthier population, this is far safer an environment that the risks taken driving to work. It is astonishing to me the level of reaction, it is one we can not repeat, there will not be another time in which any sane government will consider suspending all economic activity for everyone on full pay – and on a global scale too! It is an extraordinary experience. I’ve been thinking the virus could be the narrative vehicle in a Pinter drama, the virus itself is relatively harmless, but the story is far more about a collection of disparate personalities confined in a small space. I tell people to savour these times, because scary or not it will be an unforgettable chapter in our lives and we will mourn it when it is over.

Jon’s account brings out aspects and possibilities that I wasn’t aware of when beginning to think about this situation. Taking them into account, I realise what an enormous privilege it is to think of the time before as something lost. Yes, I lived to some degree in accordance with the status quo, I was and still am a beneficiary of the system that is now under threat. But as I noted earlier, I see my alignment with this status quo as a then lucky accident. Things could have gone differently, quite differently. And then it would have been likely that I would have felt largely out of touch with what happened to become, to some degree, a sort of normality for me.

But whichever perspective is more in line with your biography, no matter whether you feel more at home in the abandoned status quo or the interim that we’re living in now, all of us have to face the time after, the time after “suspending all economic activity”. As Eric Schliesser points out today in a rather dark piece, we’ll likely find ourselves in “political turmoil”. As I see it, we might be facing a kind of post-war situation without having had a war. Economically speaking, things look pretty worrisome already. Socially and politically speaking, I fear we’ll be confronted with various myths that are already in the making. It remains to be seen which of these two perspectives will be a better preparation for the time to come. In any case, I find it vital to learn as much as possible about our various takes and hopes generated by the crisis, and look forward to many more exchanges.

Where are we now? In search of a conversation, beyond graphs and statistics

 “That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.” Hume

I’ve been trying to begin this post for a number of days now. Everything I write feels like a failure. Why is that? Everything seems out of place. I don’t have any interesting opinions to share and I’ve even lost my own conventions for writing. Before March 2020, when I began to write something, I often felt a background against which I was thinking: What I wanted to say felt “worth noting”, “exaggerated”, “inappropriate”, “dull” or whatever, because there was a normality that afforded orientation, a canvas to which I could add my scribbles. Now it feels as if the canvas were gone. With everything in motion, all eyes fixed on the graphs showing the spread of the coronavirus, there is no normality. Of course, there are people trying to maintain business as usual, but funnily enough it is them who stand out a bit awkwardly now, because most of us live in uncertainty. (Here, I’m not talking about all the admirable professionals who work ceaselessly to limit the damage, but ordinary people tucked away in their homes.) We don’t know what’s coming next, whether curves go up or down, whether our neighbours or loved ones or we will be affected more drastically, whether we can return to the normal lives that we had to put on hold. What can we say, if we want to talk and say something beyond repeating or questioning statistics or predictions? It seems as if there were currently no proper place for a conversation between ordinary people. But we need to talk. At least I do.

It feels important to speak, not because I have anything to say, but simply because I think I need a continued conversation, I need to connect. I’m writing in the first person deliberately now. Firstly, because I’m not sure I can speak for anyone else. Secondly, because I begin to feel sick of the third-person perspective. The talk about our lives seems largely determined by graphs and pandemic plans, by talk about symptoms, spreaders, medical, social and economic challenges. Don’t get me wrong: I think this is vitally important. But beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ordinary exchange that acknowledges the current situation. The lack of normality makes most of what drove our interactions before March 2020 seem rather pointless. In a manner of speaking, I’m inclined to say that I no longer take it for granted that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s custom and convention that made me expect so, but much of that custom and convention is shattered for the time being. Currently, my friends and colleagues are not friends and colleagues but potential spreaders. So am I. Thank God, then, we have these virtual tools now, but they do have limits that I need to get used to. What’s perhaps more, we neeed a mode of speaking that neither relies on the past status quo nor merely echoes the current medicalisation of our lives.

So how can we connect? How can we have such a conversation? I’m asking because there is so much exchange and advice on how to get through. This is good. But it concerns an uncertain future. I want to talk about the present. I want to understand, not just cope with, what is happening now. No, not in numbers. I want to understand the kind of life we’re living now. We keep acknowledging that these are “strange times”. But they are our times now. We are disconnected from our recent past and from the predictions that guided us then, up till February or March 2020. The catch is: I cannot understand anything on my own. Understanding is a joint project. It works through mutual acknowledgement, occasional disagreement, and refinement, creating a shared familiarity, fostering hopes and hangovers. – But while I have not much to say myself, I have found some really good pieces that helped me shaping my thoughts. (While there are many other good pieces, I’d like to focus on those acknowledging the situation and addressing to some degree concerns of our ordinary lives.) So why not simply list them (in order of appearance):

  • The first is “Academics, lead by example” by Boudewijn de Bruin. Amidst numerous (laudable) attempts to maintain business as usual, this piece felt as if someone had opened a window and let in some fresh air. A crucial idea is the acknowledgement that this is not a normal situation and that we need different resources to respond to challenges: “This is not the time to be competitive. This is not the time to tell everyone how productive you are, working 24/7. … So should we give up? Not at all. But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s just business as usual, only online. Seize the opportunity and lead by example and share your wisdom and humanity with your students and colleagues.”
    What I particularly liked about Boudewijn’s account is that he has a clear sense of how he arrived at this acknowledgement. It came through listening to others. Accordingly, he writes: “Listening to people with different views is more important now than ever. Think about all your students and colleagues of different nationalities, from different cultures, different religions. They will bring their own ways of dealing with uncertainty. They have their own views about life and death. They may have widely different expectations about the responsibilities of the state – or they may trust the state much less than you do, or more. Imagine what you would want to do if you were in Italy or Iran right now. You would want to go home. Many of our non-Dutch students and colleagues are in that situation. But many borders are closed. They need our care more than ever.”
  • The second is “Covid-19 and online teaching: mind the slope” by Andrea Sangiacomo. He stresses that, while it’s fine to try and remain functional, we must do so by respecting the context in which we function: “If the whole university system happens to run quite smoothly online, if in the end we end up enjoying this (and this might even happen, who knows?), another risk is forgetting why everything is moving online. Reminder: we’re amidst a world pandemic that so far killed almost 15.000 people worldwide (as for today, Monday 23rd March 2020). This is the context within which our online teaching is happening. Remembering this context is important in order not to loose perspective on the meaning of the events, including online teaching. Yes, education needs to keep going, not everything can now become explicitly about the pandemic. And yet, this pandemic is now the broader context within which people are teaching and learning about any subject. We’re teaching online because students (and everybody else) must remain home, trying to limit as much as possible social contacts, practicing social distancing and trying to slow down the spreading of the virus.
    There are pragmatic and existential downsides in forgetting about this context. From a pragmatic point of view, if one looses this context one might forget why staying home and avoid socializing is so vital for everybody at this time. Online teaching becomes just another way of getting distracted, trying to find something in which one can become absorbed, in order not to think to what is happening (about the absorption syndrome see here). But in situations of emergency like this (which will likely endure for some time), trying not to think is precisely the worse one could do. We need all our thinking capacity at this point in order to face whatever will happen.”
  • The last one I want to list for now is “It’s all just beginning” by Justin E.H. Smith. It’s a very rich and multifaceted piece. What struck me most is that it gave voice to a feeling that I struggled to express myself earlier to no avail: the strange disconnection to our own and shared pasts: “In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways. …
    We created a small phenomenal world for ourselves, with our memes and streams and conference calls. And now—the unfathomable irony—that phenomenal world is turning out to be the last desperate repair of the human, within a vastly greater and truer natural world that the human had nearly, but not quite, succeeded in screening out.”

In sum, it’s the call to listen to others, to respect our context of emergency, and the insight into the disconnection to many habits and values that began to help me localising my own thoughts. What I begin to see is that my habits and my past don’t provide orientation in the current context. But it’s the current context I live in and need to understand. In order to live, we need customs and habits. If past habits don’t help us, we need to stabilise habits by building and sharing them with one another. Medical and other expert advice is crucial, but only goes so far. That’s why I want to search for voices speaking to the ordinary experience we likely share. For now, we need to establish something from scratch. – So I’d be grateful for any hints at attempts to make sense of the present situation.