Does Philosophy Still Matter In The Age Of Coronavirus?

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Can philosophy offer a light in the dark? Aubrey Rose Odom (CC0)

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As of this week, there have been more than 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. More than 300,000 people have died from the illness; in the United States alone, 93,863 people have died. And sadly, the number climbs as the pandemic continues. 

As we reckon with the scale of this loss of life, it's natural to be seeking answers — both about those lost and how we continue to live. John Kaag, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, thinks we can find some of those answers in philosophy.

Kaag believes it can help us sort through the soul-searching questions confronting us as we’ve been forced into social isolation, remote work and the specter of a killer virus, COVID-19.

Kaag is the rare academic philosopher who writes popular books about the existential questions surrounding meaning and purpose.

In his new book, "Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life," Kaag makes the case that 19th century philosopher William James has special resonance for our lives today. 

I wanted to know how Kaag is thinking about philosophy as we’re facing the coronavirus pandemic.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Steve Paulson: I think a lot of people, including me, are unmoored right now, and we’re asking big questions. How do we make sense of this strange world we’re in? And how do we find meaning? Is that your sense as well? 

John Kaag: I think so. When people are in crisis or are deeply unsettled, they tend to ask existential questions — like, why am I here? Where did I come from? Is life worth living? How do I go on in a meaningful way? And times, like the one we're in right now, give us a chance to ask these questions in a new way. That might be the silver lining to this pandemic. 

SP: What are some of those big questions you are asking now? 

JK: The 19th century American philosopher William James asked the question: "Is life worth living?" These days, that's a question that many of us cooped up in isolation are asking.

And philosophers have made it their business to answer that question in all sorts of unique ways — most of them in hidebound ways. Yes, life is worth living because God made us this way or because we're something special in the universe. But in our secular culture we need a better answer. 

I think William James gives it to us. So he asks, "Is life worth living?" And he says, "Maybe. It depends on the liver." 

SP: "Maybe"? That is tough love! Just about everyone else would say, "Of course life is worth living!" But James is asking us to dig deep. 

JK: That’s what I think is so brilliant about James.

When you ask this question, "Is life worth living?" And if you're on the brink of saying "no," sometimes you don't want a straight "yes." You want "maybe." It depends on you. You're in charge of it being worthwhile or not being worthwhile. And what he means is, let's be serious about what makes our lives worth living. James doesn't accept easy answers.

SP: Do you think there are different questions that we're asking right now because of the pandemic? 

JK: Absolutely.

What is meaningful work? Do I like myself in social isolation? Can I handle being with myself more than I usually am?

The typical distractions that we have in life are no longer available to us, so we're invited to look at ourselves and our immediate surroundings more carefully.

Do I like the people currently surrounding me? What makes me anxious? What makes me scared? 

SP: You’ve mentioned William James. By all outward appearances, he had an extraordinarily successful life. He was a star professor at Harvard, an admired intellectual, and he came from a remarkable family. Yet he really struggled to find happiness and meaning. 

JK: In (his book) "The Varieties of Religious Experience," he says, "Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of 10, his innermost consciousness is one of failure."

James, who led a very privileged life, also struggled with depression for most of it.

I think that during this crisis, especially when many people who aren't familiar with depression are going through their first bouts of it, James helps us to move from being sick-souled to being healthy-minded. 

SP: What did he mean by "sick-souled"? 

JK: He says there are two types of people. 

The sick-souled are those who are predisposed to pessimism. They see the world as alien, foreign and in many cases antagonistic. 

On the other hand, the healthy-minded see the universe as personal and well-fitted to them and in a lot of ways, as benevolent. 

What’s unique about James is his philosophy is geared to heal our sick soul.

SP: He also said sometimes it’s healthy to be sick, which is so counterintuitive. There's both a personal angle and a societal dimension to that idea, which resonates at this particular moment. 

JK: "Tis healthy to be sick" is an exact quote from Henry David Thoreau, writing in the 1840s. James would agree with Thoreau that convalescence gives us the chance to think through life in new ways.

I'm also thinking about the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who says, "I must be thankful for the sickest days of my life, for they have led me to become who I am." I think that sort of stoicism is quite helpful in these times.

When we are sick, very sick, we have the ability to see what is important about life as we approach death or flirt with death. We can actually see that we want to talk to people in more careful ways. We want to reach out as best we can to loved ones.

That's a wakeup call that a modern society often overlooks in our desperate attempt to remain healthy. So being sick sometimes allows us to slow down long enough to actually see what matters.

SP: It's worth pointing out that you have not only written two books about William James; you’ve also written a book about Nietzsche. Both are pretty dark thinkers who are trying to help us find our way out of the abyss. Why are you drawn to these particular thinkers?

JK: Well, just to lay my cards on the table. I'm sick-souled. So I'm drawn to thinkers who might give a little bit of insight about how to deal with psychic turbulence. Philosophers can provide what the 19th century thinker Arthur Schopenhauer would call "companions in misery," when you feel so alone. Sometimes it's good to pick up a book and read about somebody else who feels all alone. 

And during this time, when we're all going through our own trials, it's good to remember that just across the way, people are doing the same exact thing. That should create some sort of strange camaraderie. And that's what philosophy has done for me.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.