The pandemic of coronavirus disease, or the impotence of intellectuals

Por: Raúl Fornet-Betancourt

Raúl Fornet-Betancourt

International School of Intercultural Philosophy, Aachen / Barcelona

Many are the gestures of solidarity that are currently impressed by humanity’s reaction to the coronavirus disease pandemic. One of them is the taking of the floor by intellectuals.

On media and social media in general it’s easy to verify that, indeed, intellectuals from all over the world, either because they are asked for their opinion or because they do so on their own initiative, they believe, quickly and often unusually in this guild, about the meaning of Covid 19, risking even in the vast majority of cases forecasts in the face of the serious consequences that this, never better said, “viral event” can bring to the future of humanity’s life and planet Earth.

For the containment of the pandemic and the healing of coronavirus disease this fact is surely not relevant. And, of course, you can also doubt its strength to influence the real change of the “course of things” in our societies. However, I think that, at least for us who consider ourselves “intellectual”, it is worth looking at this fact.

The reflection that follows is an attempt to explain why.

Regarded as a witness of commitment and responsibility, the fact that intellectuals take the floor in the face of the current crisis deserves, without a doubt, praise and recognition. For it seems to attest that today’s intellectuals, and especially the philosophers among them, strive to deny with their prompt participation in the present debate that famous verdict of their colleague Hegel who sentenced that philosophy, because of the very task that defines it (to be the thought of its time), will always come late to say how it should be or where reality should go in its historical course.

It is also, I think this can also be acknowledged, a fact whose merit would not be dented even if it were shown to be responsive and corresponds to the logic of one of the most decisive structural characteristics of our current era. I am referring, with a metaphor, to this “environmental pressure” towards the global and rapid “presence” that greatly generates the digitization of social processes and communication and that, in the style of a new and more rigorous “categorical imperative” than the Kantiano, impeles today, also intellectuals, to quickly position their voices in the opinion forums, to “be and remain visible”.

But in this brief reflection I am not interested in weighing the merit that the mass participation of intellectuals can actually have in the public debate of the Covid 19 crisis, nor do I dwell on judging the explanations to which this fact can or should be traced back.

I am rather interested in wondering why this testimony of intellectual commitment evidences about its own subjects, namely the so-called “scientific community”, here understood especially as a community of social analysts, philosophers and theologians. This is precisely what I wanted to indicate with the title chosen for this reflection, by summarizing with it the impression that, with their analyses and opinions, intellectuals “let go”, even if it is through the rodeo of their positions on the current pandemic, something of themselves or, more specifically, of the state of suspense in which their own thinking remains in the face of the rawness of this crisis. I explain my impression.

Reading works that, in my view, can be held as representative of this takeover by intellectuals from different regions of the world before the current pandemic, for example, compilations of texts published under the titles of Wuhan1 Soup, Covid 192 or Capitalism and Pandemic3 – all three available on social media – I have had the impression that , with very few exceptions, the opinions of the authors who write in them are considerations that highlight their impotence or perplexity; and that in this sense they seem to say more about the intellectual state in which the very thought of these intellectuals lies, than about the situation of the crisis and how it is endured by people in their daily lives.

Thus the question that pointed out earlier as the reason and justification for this reflection, the question of what it says about the same intellectuals what they say about Covid 19, would therefore receive the paradoxical response that this testimony of intellectual commitment is reversed on their part against their subjects by “letting see” how powerless their thinking is shown in the face of the challenge that the current pandemic represents for our ways of life.

I will now try to justify this impression or response with a few brief remarks. And, with the intention of preventing any misunderstanding, I allow myself to interleave here that I present them as suggestions for self-critical reflection on the intellectual state in which intellectuals find ourselves today, and not for pedantry cravings for controversy. In other words, the following considerations do not seek to pronounce an “I accuse”, but to invite a collective self-criticism that makes us think of how we “perform” our “office” and ask ourselves whether we would not do well, for the benefit of humanity, to seek more authentic ways of practicing it.

First of all, I would like to point out that my impression is based on the surprising finding that authors who are recognized by the international scientific community as authorities and benchmarks indisputable in their respective disciplines, both in analyzing the causes of Covid 19 and by proposing alternatives to the new situation, do so, essentially in their assertions, repeating long-known ideas , more so, ideas that have long been true common places of critical thinking (and not so critical too!). And this with a certain gesture of saying novelties! For example, ideas such as that capitalism has limits, or that the spread of liberal and possessive individualism has meant the ruin of community sense, or that we live the crisis of a consumerist civilization that has sharpened to the unsustainable the mass destruction of nature, or that, as a result of that model of civilization, the foundations of the balance of life have been undermined; or, perhaps as a common horizon of all of the above, the idea of Western patriarchal and narcissistic anthropocentrism as the ultimate substance of the current crisis. And one could still add, on a more existential level, the “discovery” of the idea that human life is characterized by the vulnerability of its constitutive finite condition; and that the time has therefore come to focus the order of our societies on the values of mutual care and the common good.

Clearly, the mere repetition of ideas that are considered fair or the use of traditions that are thought to still retain a critical guiding potential today are not in themselves any sign of helplessness. On the contrary, they may be a sign of humble wisdom. That is why the sense of helplessness caused in me by that resource is rather, and in essence, explained by the way in which that resource is used. I therefore leave here the question of the assessment of the presumption of novelty, in order to retain from my impression that the resource seems made to fulfil the function of replacing the effort to pay attention and remain attentive to what is actually going afloat in this Covid 19 crisis, especially as a crisis of habits in the daily ways of life and the emotional stability of millions of people. I have therefore perceived it as a certain license (a new Hegelian cunning of reason?) so as not to have to set aside known theories and the noise of disputes between its representatives, at least for the time of this “state of alarm”, that is, so as not to have to risk “swaying to think” about what happens, without crutches or preconceived theoretical interests. Thinking, especially in a moment of crisis like the current one, seems to me, requires the willingness to open our eyes and hearts to let ourselves be affected by what is happening alarmingly around us and ourselves as people and “intellectuals”. That is what I want to point out with “stop to think”, which I certainly understand as a first duty of our “office”.

That the fulfillment of this duty is not easy? Okay, because it certainly requires an effort that can baffle us as individuals and as intellectuals. But it seems to me that this is a mandate of elementary intellectual honesty. I give, to justify my opinion, two reasons that are intimately intertwined with each other. First, because its fulfillment motivates the realization of the uncomfortable learning process that entails the disposition of affectation, in the sense of the experience of getting into the shoes of contemporaries who suffer in their own flesh the crisis. And secondly, because that vision of the crisis from the concerns and fears of the other is what really gives us a real basis of life to decide whether or not it is appropriate to resort to our “reserve” of theories in the search for good explanations of the meaning of the situation in which we find ourselves today; but also for discerning the vitality of the ideas for which we bet as responses to the crisis, come these from the “reserve” or be new creations.

I said that these two reasons are intertwined and that you have to see them as two moments of the same movement. But let me emphasize that the first sums up what in my opinion is really decisive, namely that the intellectual is willing to lay down any pretence of “preceptor” and, sharing places where life beats, decides to seek in company answers to the needs that manifest themselves in the vital situation of the “overwhelmed creature”, to put it with a biblical expression resumed by young Marx.

Secondly, I would like to point out one aspect which follows from what has been said lately.

The impression of helplessness that I am talking about here also has to do with the place from which intellectuals usually think: Universities, research institutes, foundations, etc. In other words, they speak from places that not only confer high job stability and good economic security on their teachers and researchers, and which also enjoy broad social recognition, but are also, and this is what I am interested in stressing now, places where the rule is to study “people’s problems” as “issues” that certainly matter and to which position is also taken, but which are essentially left existentially. And this existential remoteness of the places from which we usually think about people’s daily lives, is also for me the one that explains the impotence that is reflected, for example, in discourses that highlight the advantages that forced confinement can have for the cultivation of “the essential” in life and give advice for it. Well, I ask rhetorically, don’t such “advice” mean any regardless of the living conditions and concerns of most people who are most of the people who have been most directly affected by the Covid 19 pandemic in their lives: those who have become ill, those who have lost family or friends, those who have lost or fear losing their jobs or homes? Don’t they reflect such

“advice” do not know the emotional fragility of the “overwhelmed creature” and domestic violence to which it can lead a situation of confinement in precarious conditions? I think that’s really the way it is. And that is why I give to think with self-criticism of the following: To remedy our impotence in the face of a crisis like the current one, intellectuals certainly need better theoretical resources, but it seems to me also that we need to look for those places that give truth and truthfulness to our “office” (Ignacio Ellacuría).

And finally this third observation.

Philosophers know the phenomenological twist driven by Edmund Husserl with the intention of correcting the course of a philosophy that, in their view, had lost its sense of things. Hence its motto: “Back to things themselves”. I remember it here because a lot of what is written about the current pandemic, just to recognize it, seems to echo this twist. But the writing also shows that today this turn alone is not enough. And in this sense I conclude with this idea: The search for new places that reed our frequent helplessness to speak (with weight of life!) of the problems that affect human life and coexistence, must also be accompanied by a twist that complements our “return to things themselves” with a return to our contemporaries. For as living interlocutors we are indispensable to understand, for example, that the “essential” for the meaning of a life can also occur in the resting time by drinking fresh air next to the fellow nurse with which hours have been spent in the care of a patient or in sharing the cigarette break with the “copain” with which a train station is cleaned.

Raul Fornet-Betancourt

International School of Intercultural Philosophy, Aachen / Barcelona. ( This text, initially written in German, was translated and published in a cultural newsletter in Guatemala. The author is a highly recognized intellectual internationally, with a very special imronta in cuban Catholic grounds, as he was the coordinator of the Cuban-German meetings that began in 1997 with the attention of Cardinal Jaime ortega.



1 This work includes, among others, works by Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Jean Luc Nancy, and Slavoj .

2 This compilation publishes the positions of Leonardo Boff and Byung-Chul Han, among many others.

3 The work contains, inter alia, considerations by Emanuele Coccia, Enrique Dussel, Arundhati Roy and Fernando Savater.

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