Pandemic, death of death and philosophy of the Enlightenment


What could a philosopher possibly have to say to us in the midst of pandemic crisis ? Probably not much if one considers that the conversation is exclusively reserved for scientists striving to provide cold answers to all of man's questions - whereas in the philosopher's case, there seems to be rather a multiplication of questions and a decrease in the number of answers. If, on the other hand, we look at this crisis in a more holistic way, that is to say, in its entirety, it seems to me that a certain philosophical approach - rather atheoretical, sensitive to the primacy of practice and more interpretative than creative - can shed valuable light on the great complexity of living man.

Under these conditions, Clint Witchalls and Lionel Cavicchioli draw our attention in their article of 10 March 2020 that different "authors have ... sought to reposition the epidemic ...pandemic, it is necessary to specify here, since March 11, 2020The report also notes that "in the context of other pandemics", but also with respect to the "growing impact" of COVID-19 (the official name of the disease) on theworld's economyabout what it reveals about the weak supply chainson how it makes science more open (and the concomitant risks involved), as well as on the progress of the in vaccine development ".

We can also mention the reflection by Giorgio Agamben which places the pandemic in the recent political context: for the Italian theorist, he " it would seem that, since terrorism has been exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic may offer the ideal pretext for extending them beyond all limits ». Yet it must be said that there is one aspect that is paradoxically neglected in the discourse while constituting the heart of the crisis: it is a reflection on the experience of death, which has occupied a central position in the history of humanity since the dawn of time. It comes back to haunt us.
In other words, it is as if we no longer really hear the death whisper in our ears, we only hear it now because a pandemic seems to bring death back to our faces.

At any rate, this is what I believe has been happening - beyond all the theoretical considerations of the experts, in practice, day after day - since the beginning of the year 2020, when "we began to hear about a worrying number of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, caused by a mysterious new 'coronavirus' [...]": at that time, it was spreading in China, and a few people had tested positive in Thailand, South Korea and Japan, as the two authors of the article entitled " Coronavirus : an update on the international coverage of The Conversation ".

To this end, the interpretation that I put forward is rooted, in my opinion, in a much deeper and older movement of Western modernity, namely a certain march of the Lights announcing the death of death :

It was, for our consciousness, an event far more important than a simple transformation of the image of death as it has come down to us through millennia of human memory, either through the interpretation given to it by religions or through the forms of organization of human life. This event, which is specific to our times, is even more radical: it is the erasing of the image of death in modern society. Our consciousness clearly demands this. It could be defined as a revival of the Enlightenment movement; but this time the new Enlightenment affects all sections of the population and makes the technological mastery of reality, achieved through the brilliant performance of the natural sciences and the modern information system, the foundation of everything. This new Enlightenment movement has led to a demystification of death (2).  

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However, there is evidence that within the Lights driven by the success of the sciences - especially mathematics and physics - in explaining previously inexplicable phenomena - for example, by an oscillating science like traditional metaphysics before the reform of Immanuel Kant -The demystification of death is, by natural extension, a continuation of the demystification of life.

What does this mean in concrete terms? I mean the fact that in the eyes of scientists, the introduction of the new into the course of the world, the appearance of life in the universe, no longer has any prodigious or miraculous dimensions... as "the product of an incalculable game of chance [; science] succeeds in naming decisive scientific causalities which, in a gradual process, comprehensible in its broad outlines, have led to the birth of life on our planet and to all the subsequent developments it has undergone". (3). Now, from this point on, the experience of death in human life seems to have also slipped down this slippery slope of the Lights The industrial revolution and the major social transformations that have accompanied what could be described as a process of breaking all links, at the scale of macro like atomize from edge to edge what was once bound together.

Within this new atomized societythe horizon of death is subtly removed from everyday life:

Not only by doing disappear the funeral procession out of the urban landscape - that parade where everyone took off their hats before the majesty of death. But also in making death effectively anonymous in modern clinics, causing even greater upheaval. The disappearance of the public representation of this event goes hand in hand with the removal of the dying person from his or her family and familiar environment and the separation from his or her parents. (4).  

It's like the experience of death, the event of death to use the Gadamerian vocabulary, is completely integrated - absorbed, as it were - into the great technological mechanism of industrial production and its alienating pace. Consequently, like the many other economic activities of modern man, death is woven into this fabric as another productive activity - with its market shares to be conquered, espousing the model of supply and demand, and above all as a sphere subject to the laws of the market and commercial competition - among many others.

However, the horizon of death represents a unique experience in the life of man. Not only is it located on another plan - it introduces, up to a certain level, perhaps to the same extent as language, a human future of man -But it is also undoubtedly "the only experiment that so clearly marks the limits of the mastery of nature that science and technology have made possible", since "even the immense technical progress that has been made in the often artificial prolongation of life only demonstrates the absolute limit of our know-how". (5). So it is not trivial if transhumanism, as a dangerous enterprise aimed at denying man's finiteness and thus what makes him a...has made death his main target: specifically.., the death of this death. It is ultimately by taking this path that the transhumanises think they can go beyond the finiteness of man, towards a so-called infinite life of man: however, this will naturally concern that wealthiest.   

Let us return for a moment to our original question: what can a philosopher have to say to us under these conditions? In my opinion, his contribution here is more marked and clear-cut. More specifically, the philosopher should in particular counter the harmful influence of the dangerous transhumanist utopia. DangerousThis is because any utopia as a guide for political action - that is to say, one that goes beyond an imaginary framework, because only within this restrictive framework does it have any value as a literary act of creation - can prove to be literally catastrophic, in the same way as the communist and fascist utopia:

The possibility of a final solution - even if we forget the appalling meaning that this expression has acquired for us - is an illusion, and a very dangerous illusion. For if we really believe in the possibility of such a solution, then there is no doubt that no cost would be too high to achieve it: to make humanity just, happy, creative and harmonious forever - what price would we not be prepared to pay for that?
To make such an omelette, there is certainly no limit to the number of eggs that can be broken. - that was the ideal of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Pol Pot, for all I know. Since I know the only path that will lead to the definitive solution of society's problems, I know where to lead the caravan of humanity; and since you do not know what I know, there is no question of giving you the slightest freedom of choice, if the goal is to be achieved. You declare that such and such a policy will make you happier, or freer, or give you more room to breathe; but I know that you are mistaken, I know what is necessary for you, what is necessary for men; and if I meet resistance, due to ignorance or malice, then it will have to be broken, and hundreds of thousands of men will perish if it is necessary so that millions of others may be happy forever.

What would you like us who have the knowledge to do, if not be willing to sacrifice them all? Some armed prophets seek to save humanity, others seek to save their race only because of its superior qualities, but whatever the motive, the millions of victims of wars and revolutions - in the gas chambers, in the gulags, during genocides: all the monstrosities for which our century will be remembered - are the price to be paid for the happiness of future generations. If your desire to save humanity is serious, you must armour your heart and not look at the expense. ...] The only certainty we can have is that of the reality of sacrifice, the dying and the dead. But the ideal in whose name they die remains distant. The eggs are broken, and the habit of breaking them sets in, but the omelette remains invisible. (6).  

So, if today, after the great utopian and totalitarian visions of left and right have collapsed - those final solutions that have broken so many eggs -, the spectre of another utopia haunts us: that of transhumanism presented once again as the only path that will lead to the definitive (technological) solution of society's problems, with a handful of bosses who want to lead the caravan of humanity there.

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But it is precisely a refusal of unequivocal answers to the complexity of reality and of the living man that I am putting forward. On this point, I rely on an observation by Kant that Isaiah Berlin holds as one of the wisest comments on the human condition: " Aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden "which in French evokes that "from a wood as crooked as that of which men are made, nothing straight can be cut", or that "in a wood as curved as that of which man is made, nothing straight can be cut". (7).

It is for this reason, it seems to me, that no so-called perfect solution is either possible or desirable in human affairs: any attempt will not only result in a failurebut mostly in one excessive violence.

So much for the philosophical objection, which seems to me to be definitive, to the idea - more generally - of a perfect totality, or even a definitive solution, within which all of man's problems are soluble, but also to the idea - more precisely - of a great technological and transhumanist solution to all our questions as the ultimate horizon.

This is all the more true at a time of pandemic crisis when the fragility of our economic and political structure - Especially with regard to the swaying foundation of the house of cards forming the great network of globalization - we are tragically reminded: the experience of death, that embarrassing and frightening phenomenon that we wanted to sweep away from our thoughts, is making a comeback. When we turn on the television, we are presented with up-to-the-minute information on the evolution of the number of deaths nationally and internationally; on social networks, relatives of those who have died from the disease publish messages to make us aware of the speed with which the virus kills; the fear of death introduces a state of widespread panic and a surprising dose of irrationality among those who empty supermarket counters; in some countries huge mass graves are being built and the dead are being buried in them; the imagination of death slowly but steadily creeps under our feet. It is back.

For man has always been, but even more so since the wave of the LightsIt is difficult to imagine that his consciousness, "this consciousness capable of projecting itself into the future" as Gadamer would say, could ever be extinguished. We are in the presence of something that prevents us from sleeping at night, so strangely disturbing is it: "[t]here is a profound relationship between, on the one hand, the consciousness of death, the consciousness of one's own finitude, that is, the certainty that one must die one day and, on the other hand, the terribly strong and imperious will to know nothing of this kind of consciousness. (8).

In other words, man is guaranteed to have a future as long as he is not aware that he does not in fact have a future. Our will to live is through the repression of death. This very personal and deeply intimate relationship with the experience of death will not be spared by the LightsOn the contrary:

It can certainly be said, therefore, that the world of modern civilization is zealously and over-zealously attempting to bring the suppression of death, which is anchored in life itself, to an perfect institutionalisationand that, for the same reason, he relegates the experience of death completely to the margins of public life (9).  

Under these conditions, the transhumanist project, in a certain sense, seeks to prolong this march of the Lights. However, there seems to be a difference - maybe a big one, I don't know: while men in the Lights were content to keep death out of the immediate field of concern, without forgetting it because it kept a marginal place - but a place all the same - the proponents of transhumanism seem to be overflowing with confidence in the hope of its total eradication, no matter the cost of such an idea.

Now my wager is the following - in fact, perhaps it is more of an observation: fear before the mystery of death, a certain dread before its deafening silence and its sanctity, or the strange experience of such a radical separation from the one who, a few moments before, was still alive, cannot be dismissed out of hand. The experience of death - and a certain intimate and healthy relationship of repression to it - is inherent in every man's life.

This is precisely why the transhumanist project, and by extension the project of the Lights scientists up to a certain level, is condemned to hit an eternal wall, for they "come up against the mystery of life and death as an unassailable limit". (10).

What is more, it seems to me that this limit has a certain value: it is a true place where men who are sensitive to the specificity of our humanity can express themselves, defending side by side the mysteries of life and death as mysteries. If no living person can fully accept death, every living person must nevertheless accept it. That is the complexity of his being.

Thus, through this pandemic crisis and all that it reveals about us, it is possible for us to (re)think about the place of the experience of death in our society: the pandemic we are going through obliges us all to face - in the most frontal way possible - this essential experience of the limit. In our time Disney where optimism at all costs - at least on the face of it - When the sadness is imposed on us and crushes us all (we have to admit that we sometimes experience deep within ourselves a sadness that is much greater than we are allowed to admit publicly), it is then perhaps time to reappropriate a space of expression where we can freely inhabit our feelings - however diverse and dark they may be - in order to eventually reduce our pain a little bit. Let us embark on this path today.






(1) Engraving by Paul Fürst (1656) depicting a physician during a plague epidemic in Rome in the 17th century - "Doctor Schnabel" means "Doctor beak" -, in: Eugen Holländer, Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin: Medico-Kunsthistorische Studie von Professor Dr. Eugen Holländer, Stuttgart, Ferdinand Enke, 1921, fig. 79, p. 171.
(2) Hans-Georg Gadamer, "L'expérience de la mort" in Philosophie de la santé, Paris, Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle and Éditions Mollat, 1998, p. 71. Italics are mine.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid, pp. 71-72. The italics are mine.
(5) Ibid, p. 72
(6) Isaïah Berlin, "La recherche de l'idéal", in Le bois tordu de l'humanité: romantisme, nationalisme et totalitarisme, Paris, Albin Michel, 1992, pp. 28-29. The italics are mine.
(7) Kant, Idée d'une histoire universelle au point de vue cosmopolitique, 6ème proposition, Paris, Bordas, coll. Univers des lettres, 1988, p. 17.
(8) Gadamer, op. cit. p. 74.
(9) Ibid, p. 75. The italics are mine.
(10) Ibid. at 77.

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