21 December 2020

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We Are Facing A Difficult Winter – But Philosophy Can Help

Understanding our own limitations, and turning to hope, can help us deal with hardship...

We Are Facing A Difficult Winter – But Philosophy Can Help
We Are Facing A Difficult Winter – But Philosophy Can Help (Photo by Sam Wordley)
All around the world, Christmas dreams are becoming nightmares. As R numbers increase and the epidemic spikes, people are seeing long cherished plans go up in smoke.

In England, plans have been curtailed as the five-day Christmas bubble which would have allowed three households to celebrate together has been reduced to one day for two households. For those in the new Tier 4, no household mixing at all is permitted.

After months of lockdowns and social distancing guidelines, many people will be feeling defeated – and exhausted by the prospect of a long winter to come, with further lockdowns possible before vaccines have been widely rolled out. If even the goal of spending one warm and happy day with friends and family cannot be attained, what is the point of all the hard work?

In times like this, though, we can find solace in a few philosophical ideas. One is the concept of human finitude. Simply put, human finitude means we are imperfect creatures with a limited lifespan. We are far from god-like; we do not have a god’s eye view, nor are we immortal.

In philosophy, finitude refers to the study of our human limitations. Many philosophers have explored finitude, including Kant, Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche.

This may seem an odd idea to cling to, but recognising that we are finite, imperfect creatures can bring comfort during trying times. It is understandable to feel bewilderment at changing government advice. It is understandable to resent other people telling us to stay away from our loved ones, and to feel deep sadness at cancelled plans. And it is understandable to begin to lose the resolve to do the right thing. If finitude tells us anything, it is that we are only human.

And as finite humans, we are vulnerable. Among other things, we can die, we can lie and we can be used against our wishes.

COVID-19 has taught us how intensively mutually vulnerable we really are. We depend on each other – but this dependency also puts us at risk. More socialising means an increase in virus transmission. Carrying on socialising during a spike in the epidemic might mean an increase in the number of people suffering severely from COVID-19, and a rise in the number of deaths.

So, while finitude tells us that it is understandable to feel the desire to break lockdowns and travel limits, vulnerability keeps us committed to doing the right thing by others – others who might be more vulnerable than us.

There is another philosophical concept that can keep us going in trying times. It is also more recognisably upbeat: hope.

Philosophically, there is a difference between good hope” and “bad hope. While bad hope is simply unrealistic optimism, good hope has warrant; it is based on the idea that goals and aspirations are possible, no matter how bad things seem.

In our current situation, hope is an attitude we have warrant to adopt: what we hope for is really possible. A vaccine is already being rolled out, and with it come warranted hopes: for summer meet-ups with family, holidays with friends, the continuance of lives and loves.

In fact, hope is also related to human finitude. Were we god-like, we would be immortal and all-knowing, and hope for how the future might turn out would be unnecessary. Uncertainty is an inescapable part of the human condition. Even when we cannot be certain of the end result of a commitment or aspiration, we can still hope.

It is understandable to feel resentment when plans are changed – and to feel the desire to ignore guidelines. Yet, recognising our mutual vulnerability means we cannot ignore the small voice telling us that the right thing to do is stay home. And hope can help us. Even as some hopes this Christmas are dashed, we can begin to formulate others. Spring is coming, and with it the hope of a better future.

About Today's Contributor:

Katy Dineen, Assistant Lecturer in Moral Responsibility and Political Theory, University College Cork

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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