Can Philosophy Help in a Crisis?

20 May 2020

As I write this, we’re months into a pandemic that has claimed at least 300,000 lives around the world; healthcare workers are risking their safety every day; and many of the rest of us have been feeling isolated and alone after social distancing for so long. It has been a challenging time. So for the next two weeks, we’re talking to different Stanford scholars who find roads to comfort, connection, and a sense of common purpose in literature, philosophy, and music.


But can the arts and humanities really help in these difficult times? In particular, can philosophy?


Just to be clear, nobody would suggest that philosophy should be the primary source of help: I want to see medical experts, not philosophers, giving the briefings and doing the research. What we need most is sound medical research coupled with effective, altruistic, honest, and even-handed governance. The kind of governance that would have worked to create a healthcare system that works for all and is equipped to handle a crisis. 


Still, philosophers and their friends may yet have some part to play, even if it’s a small one. For one thing, when governance is not effective, altruistic, and even-handed, philosophy—the moral and political kind—can help us articulate why. Maybe we should all stock up on some MarxDu Bois, and Satz when we’re putting in our next order of antiseptic wipes. 


Those same moral philosophers will also have light to shed on quandaries that arise in our personal lives, helping us to figure out whether ordering those wipes online—not to mention a new TV—is really the right thing to do. And discourse analysts, like this smart person and that smart person, can tell us whether politicians should really be calling this a “war.” (Hint: they shouldn’t.)


Maybe the greatest philosophical help might come from the ancient Stoics, who would advise us to focus on what we can control and not on what we can’t. Be safe, be kind, be responsible, help others, resist injustice, and work for better political days—but for the rest, if you can, let each day take its course. Easier said than done, admittedly, but maybe not impossible some of the time. We don’t have to be perfect Stoics, as the Stoics themselves were the first to admit.


Over and above all that, there’s something I think we get from (good) philosophy in general, regardless of which specific thinkers we’ve been reading, and that’s a set of helpful intellectual habits. For many ancient thinkers, philosophy wasn't just a set of ideas—it was a way of lifeIt was a set of habits of thinking, habits that translated into habits of being. And one of those habits is the practice of constantly evaluating claims, spotting fallacies, calling BS on nonsense. 


Good philosophers really do question everything (except, well, you know the rest). That’s not to say they reject everything; most philosophers accept plenty of true statements. They just demand evidence. So I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that folks who spend time around philosophy are not the ones who are going to brag about shaking hands with everyone at a hospital full of Covid patients, embrace crackpot conspiracy theories, or start injecting ourselves with bleach.


Stay safe and thoughtful, everybody! And don't forget to tune into Comforting Conversations, Parts 1 and 2!


Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash