A philosopher’s guide to the coronavirus

What really matters now, we asked. They answered.
A statue of Aristotle in front of a university building in southern Germany.
A statue of Aristotle in front of a university building in southern Germany. [ WINFRIED ROTHERMEL | AP ]
Published April 10, 2020

Over the last month, as we watched this pandemic transform our world, we reached out to physicians, politicians and priests, asking them to help us make sense of what’s happening and how we’re feeling.

I wondered about philosophers — whose job it is to think big thoughts.

So I called my sister, Amie Thomasson, a philosophy professor at Dartmouth. She’s teaching remotely this semester, holed up in her snowy mountain home in Vermont with her husband, two daughters, two goats and four chickens. For once, she had time to talk.

Her colleagues around the world, she said, had been debating ideas they have long taught in class: about existentialism, identity, the meaning of life.

Can I send them a question? I asked. Would you post it on your Facebook page?

She got dozens of replies, some of which I didn’t understand. Other philosophers posed questions I’d never considered.

Below is my query, and some responses from them and Amie’s other smart friends. Their answers have been edited for length.

In this age of angst and isolation, so many people are pondering: What’s it all about?

When we can't hug our friends, visit our grandparents, go to church, watch a basketball game, see a play, listen to live music or even go to school ... when all the things we do to find meaning in life outside of work are gone ... when, for so many, work itself is gone ... and there's no notion of when, if ever, things will go back to normal, what really matters?

How do we find meaning and purpose in this new uncertainty?

Amie Thomasson, philosophy professor, Dartmouth University

It’s no surprise that so many people are feeling bad through the isolation -- not just worried for themselves or their loved ones, but more deeply, feeling a kind of meaninglessness. Heidegger talked about two sorts of things that are distinctive of our being human, and that give our lives the only kind of meaning we can hope for: One is our projects — the things we care about, work toward, are engaged in — and the other is our being with others. The pandemic, and the isolation it has brought, has cut most of us off from our projects — whether it’s baking cakes for weddings, teaching first-graders or cheering on the Rays. And it’s cut us off from much of our normal ways of being with other people. Once we get disengaged, there’s also the threat that the things we once cared so much about no longer seem important. And that can bring on the feeling that it’s not just a temporary state — it’s not just that life feels meaningless now, while we’re stuck inside, but maybe it was never meaningful to begin with? It’s important to realize that those projects were never really capable of giving our lives deep meaning — so cutting them off doesn’t mean robbing our lives of deep meaningfulness they could have had if it weren’t for COVID-19. But it does mean taking away what we had cared about, what made our lives meaningful, for a time, to us. The best we can do is to stagger on being human — and that means staggering into new projects, whatever is still (or maybe now for the first time) possible in these new circumstances. I know a mathematician learning to play guitar, a computer programmer making videos and philosophers starting gardens.

Kevin Scharp, philosophy department, University of St. Andrews, Scotland

This is not an existential crisis in the sense of homo sapiens going extinct. That isn't going to happen. Even the most dire predictions estimate no more than 5 percent of the population will be dead. Nevertheless, it is also worth emphasizing that many things about our identities will change, and these could be thought of as existential changes. I'm thinking about personal identities ("I'm a world traveler") and societal identities ("We're a tourist destination"). In a sense, COVID-19 has forced every person on earth and every society and humanity itself to go through a transformative experience. That means we get to make up new identities for ourselves to some extent. Let's go with "we are environmentally responsible," and "we care about everyone's rights and quality of life."

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Matthew Lines, attorney, Miami

Either the cosmos and everything in it is ordered or it is random. If random, there is no meaning. If ordered, then all has purpose even if not understandable to us individually. However, how could humankind have access to logic and reason if logic and reason did not exist in the larger ordered cosmos? I submit that we could not and, therefore, the cosmos is undoubtedly ordered. What matters is what we actually control: wisdom, courage, moderation and justice.

Manidipa Sen, philosophy professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

We are facing an existential crisis precisely because we have either never learned or have forgotten to be with ourselves, not in a selfish or self-centered way, but in a meaningful way, respecting others, their space and time... various kinds of meditative practices are meant to train us to do learn to be with yourself and let others be.

Howard Curzer, philosophy professor, Texas Tech University

My own suggestion is to move onto the web. Each of us is both a self and an e-self. Since our selves are restricted, we should focus more on our e-selves. Our e-selves have a task. Because of the dramatically enhanced communication options now available, worldviews increasingly emerge out of the millions of electronic interactions among everyone rather than being deliberately created by elites. We are not only shaped by our society’s worldview, we also participate in its creation.

Susanna Siegel, philosophy professor, Harvard University

Meaning and purpose come from cooperation and social connection. Any of us could become a killer, without knowing it, just by touching a doorknob. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes gave us a powerful thought experiment when he asked: What would life be like without political institutions? If you don’t have institutions to oversee large-scale coordination, will people respond with mutual fear and suspicion, or with solidarity and cooperation? The pandemic shows us both reactions. Gun sales have gone up in some places, while mutual aid societies have formed in others. The more that local governments use their powers to repurpose closed schools and shuttered hotels to protect and re-train health care workers and stop the spread of the virus, the more they foster the spirit of cooperation. Nothing could give our lives more meaning in these trying times.

Sam Levey, philosophy professor, Dartmouth University

The ancient Stoic philosophers held only a narrow range of things to be truly good (virtue) or bad (vice). Even death isn’t bad, according to the Stoics. Look into the activities that give our lives meaning. Watching a basketball game makes life good. But why? If it’s appreciating the artistry and connecting with friends, maybe we can find another route to those same good things, even without going to a game. Likewise for live music or going to church. Passionate experience and peaceful communion are possible in other venues. We might need to adjust to new modes of human connection or personal growth to attain the things that make life good. It’s hard to make sense of our actions if they’re not woven together with goals and plans that we care about. Our life at any moment is filled up with ideas about what we’re intending or hoping to do, different courses of action we might take. These imagined elements of your experience can be as vivid as the actually present ones. Lockdown sweeps away a lot of plans and possibilities, and uncertainty makes it hard to formulate new ones to take their place. This is compounded if, like me, you tend to have your mind on other things and not be present where you are. It takes work and focus to figure out what you can do, and to make new plans and take new steps. Can you help deliver food to people who can’t get to the store? Can you sew masks for people to wear? Can you make a call to talk to someone who is in quarantine alone? Can you teach what you know by posting a video online? Any of those can provide new grounds to restore a sense of purpose and meaning.