People and Politics in Times of Pandemics and War
Prof. Dr. Gerald Hartung / Philosophy
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"We need a powerful control authority that can effectively conduct peace policy".

Philosopher Prof. Dr. Gerald Hartung on people and politics in times of pandemic and war, and the mystery of the human form of life

Climate change and the exploitation of our ecological resources of the 20th century will occupy us for millennia to come. You work as a historian of philosophy and once addressed the question "What is man?" in a Studium Generale event series. Has humanity had experiences that correspond to the current challenges and can we assume that we can understand at all what challenge we are facing and what options for action are necessary?

Hartung: That's an interesting question, especially because of its culturally pessimistic tone. Of course, one can say that we humans have experiences from which we can learn. However, there are events - crises and catastrophes, for example - that make us suspect that the correct conclusions we draw on the basis of experience are not far off. As individuals, that is, as social and historical subjects, we make experiences in the course of our lifetime. In normal cases - we should exclude the pathological cases - people draw the right conclusions from their experiences. An example from earlier times was the toddler who touches the hot stove top only once in his life. As collective subjects we live as participants of generations that follow each other. Thus, experiences are passed on within families and social groups. An example is the war experience of my parents' generation, who as young people experienced the Second World War and the bombing of German cities (without knowing the complex situation of causation and responsibility) and passed on this experience. But already here the situation is so complex that the conclusions from experiences made are not clear. Both a radical pacifism and a plea for a military deterrence policy can be motivated against this background of experience. Another thought: we encounter challenges and make decisions in a field of tension between experience (past) and expectations (future). That is, our expectations of future situations and life circumstances determine our present. To the extent that the future no longer corresponds to the past, we lack an important anchor to regulate our expectations. In this sense - this is a thought of the historian Reinhart Koselleck - we as actors in a rapidly changing world are not well prepared for the future.

Today, the dominant political order worldwide is still the nation-state. Since the 1940s, thinkers have been calling for either a globalization of politics - keyword: world state - or a radical individualization of politics, according to philosopher Simone Weil. This is also associated with different concepts of responsibility. Where do you see the strengths and weaknesses of these conceptions?

Hartung: The demand for a global politics that is based not only on ideal maximum demands but also on institutions that can lend force to a political will has been formulated primarily in eloquent terms since the middle of the 20th century. However, there is still a lack of a global judiciary and executive. What the UN General Assembly decides still depends in practice on the good will of the political actors. And this is a rare commodity, as Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine shows. With the founding act of the UN, a path was taken that was triggered by the human catastrophe of a German war of aggression on the whole of Europe. As long as the memory of this triggering moment is kept alive, we can assume that the path taken will be followed. Every recent humanitarian catastrophe and all forms of genocide remind us that we have not yet achieved much. It is becoming clear that we need a powerful monitoring body that can effectively conduct peace policy. We are far from that. - Radical individualization of politics seems to me to be a great nonsense. It is possible that in some directions of current identity politics we see a tendency to radicalize the political. But politics relies on processes of communalization and socialization, of containing conflicts and building consensus. Responsibility is also attributed to the actions of individuals (this is a basis of our constitutional state), but in view of the complexity of political, social and economic structures in a globalizing world, it cannot rest solely on the shoulders of individuals. It needs to be relieved by institutionalized procedures for legitimizing social action.

Is there currently talk of a crisis in politics and a loss of confidence in science? What is your opinion of this crisis discourse, which often turns into a warning of an approaching catastrophe and has an apocalyptic undertone?

There are good reasons for the aforementioned loss of trust in politics. But these are not revealed on the surface of the debates as they are conveyed in newspapers, magazines, talk shows and social media. Regrettably, the situation is more complicated and it is hardly possible to address the question of trust to individual acting persons in politics. The unwelcome news is that many factors interact on the issue of trust, which are characteristic of our modern information society: We are confronted with a flood of information on different channels. We often experience this situation as crisis-like because we are unable to reduce the complexity of the information situation with good reasons. Different information, opinions and evaluations are represented on different information channels. The pandemic situation has shown that experts can contradict experts. Data can be interpreted differently, situations assessed differently and expectations formulated in different tones. We have trust in acting persons, institutions and procedures as long as our experiences and expectations correlate with the experiences and expectations of others and we have the impression of living in a common world. The foundations of trust become fragile when experiences and expectations diverge for us and we increasingly have the feeling or the well-founded insight that we no longer share the same world view with other people. We deal with these experiences of unfamiliarity differently. Some see only the risks and dangers, while others see opportunities and new options for action. Under these conditions, politics cannot always please people. In a pluralistic society, it cannot serve all interests and feelings. And it gets worse: Politics can also use this situation to polarize society, as we can observe in several European countries. In that case, consensus-building procedures take the place of maintaining power. This tendency undermines the foundations of a liberal social order.

Philosopher Wolfram Eilenberger says in an interview: "In today's talk about ecological transformation, it is pretended that everything is just a question of technical or political feasibility. I think this is an unfortunate illusion. (...) The truth is that we don't have viable solutions to the questions we are currently facing. We don't even have the apt terms to describe the horizon of the problem." Is it really that hopeless?

No, I don't share that view. We have all the terms at hand to deal with the challenges of climate change and ecological transformation. There is no acute need for new terms, even if the addiction to neologisms drives many. Rather, what is lacking, and actually always lacking, is a willingness to work on and with the existing set of terms. After all, terms are constantly changing. We are permanently challenged, for example, to work on the basic concepts of our political and moral practice and to adapt them to the changing contextual conditions. This applies to the concept of "freedom" as well as to the concept of "responsibility". This applies to the concepts of "equality," "justice," "law," "security," and many others as well. But it also applies to rather inconspicuous terms of our technologized and socially differentiated world of life such as "participation", "transformation", "risk and control", the omnipresent talk about "crises", the universally lamented loss of "trust". On closer inspection, it is often not clear what "freedom" we are demanding, what understanding of "crisis" we are supposedly presupposing, what we should trust with good reasons, and whether a good measure of mistrust is not sensible. After all, "blind trust" is not something any of us should have in other people, institutions, and procedures such as judicial proceedings, promotional regulations, financial transactions, and so on. Besides the tendency to polarization, there is another danger that could undermine our liberal social order: the steering of the media and the elimination of dissent, a totalitarian form of term policing, when, for example, as we can currently observe in Russia, governments prescribe how events and actions may (not) be called.

The world is in the midst of the biggest pandemic of the 21st century with an as yet undefined outcome. Should we redefine the basic concepts of our liberal political order - for example, freedom, equality, justice?

I have already answered this question, but I would like to emphasize it again here: We have not been able to define the basic concepts of our social coexistence at any past time, nor will we be able to do so at any future time, because these concepts are alive and because their boundaries can shift. It is a practice of liberal societies to tolerate diversity of opinion - including different theoretical approaches and political procedures for understanding and dealing with the pandemic situation. This is one aspect of the principle of tolerance, which - we don't want to sugarcoat it - reaches its limits in times of permanently experienced crises and social upheavals. The pandemic situation of the past two years can be seen as a stress test in enduring plurality and contradiction, in practicing tolerance and solidarity. The outcome of this experiment is open.

How can philosophers help to show a way out of the crisis of trust in politics and science?

Well, philosophers cannot offer solutions to problems. For a good two hundred years, the realization has gradually gained ground that we lack a single theory to explain the complexity of our reality. In the process of differentiation of knowledge, new disciplines of knowledge have emerged since the 19th century in the natural, social and cultural sciences, each of which throws different perspectives on our reality (nature, society, culture). Our knowledge has become more detailed, but also more perspectival. Paradoxically, as knowledge has accumulated in its perspectival diversity, the realization has spread that the realm of non-knowledge is almost infinite. With every advance in knowledge, non-knowledge also grows. The progress of knowledge is therefore peculiarly correlated with a theoretical pessimism: we will never be able to reach a solution of the world's riddles. The natural scientist and physician Emil du Bois-Reymond has already spoken in 1872 in a much-noticed speech in this context of an irrevocable area of "ignorabimus". What can philosophers do here? The answer is: They have an incomparable competence in enduring this situation, in which the knowledge of ignorance pushes itself into the foreground and takes on dramatic features - for example with regard to the question of how we want to avoid the climate catastrophe. Since the times of Plato this situation has been penetrated in different varieties of aporetic thinking. Philosophers know how to deal with irresolvable contradictions (aporias) without naively seeking hasty solutions, taking refuge in ideologies, or slipping into resignation. For here lies a secret of the human form of life: that it is confronted with questions for which it cannot find answers, and yet secures its survival by seeking answers with provisional strategies. We should remember this in order to remain fit for the future.

Uwe Blass (interview from 11.04.2022)

Prof. Dr. Gerald Hartung habilitated at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of Leipzig in 2002 and worked there as a private lecturer. In 2008, he came to Bergische Universität, initially as a professorial substitute, and in 2010 took over the Chair of Philosophy of Culture/Aesthetics there.

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