It is said that philosophy is the discipline that involves itself most deeply with concepts. It constructs them, expresses them, and deconstructs them. But as much as the philosopher is the artist of the concept, also the non-philosopher is doomed to use them.
Everyone has need of concepts, thinks in concepts, and acts on these concepts. As such, the non-philosopher perhaps suffers the concept most intensely, sentenced by life to live by them, but having no role in their construction. As such, life is a game of concepts, a conceptual warfare. A search for those concepts that are able to ignite noble actions, and an attack against those concepts that ignite ignoble actions. No concept is innocent. A concept conjures up an image, and an image conjures up a feeling. Those feelings affect us, and these affections make us act in a certain way. As such, different concepts to think about the same phenomenon make us think differently, make us feel differently, and make us act differently. Some concepts ignite fear, others ignite wonder. Some concepts ignite freedom, others ignite slavery.
I. War of the concept
The war of the concept, in a sense, makes the war of arms obsolete. If you can determine the concept of the other, you determine their action, and you no longer need force. Let us look at an example, an example all too close. We hear every day these concepts: “the virus”, “infection”, “disease”, etc. By themselves, these are just words signifying a phenomenon, but this phenomenon can be grasped by different concepts, which ignite different attitudes vis-à-vis the phenomenon.
There are different concepts of a “virus”, or of “disease.” Under a disease is usually understood a certain phenomenon characterized by different symptoms. It is the presence of these symptoms that signifies the disease. But, apparently, nowadays, we hear talk about a “symptomless disease.” A conceptual monster that is nothing but a contradiction. If a certain disease is recognized and even made up of a collection of certain symptoms, how can there be a symptomless disease? There cannot be, but the belief that there is does affect behaviour. Let us compare. It is perfectly rational to want to avoid disease, it is even perfectly normal to “fear” disease. If one takes the first concept of disease as a collection of certain symptoms, then what does one “fear”? What does one seek to avoid? One seeks to avoid the presence of these symptoms, and when these symptoms arise, we worry or fear, and (hopefully) undertake action. In fact, these days it is also taught that one shouldn’t treat disease, one should just isolate and hope for the best. This atrocity which teaches a passive attitude vis-à-vis our own lives is not what we are interested in here. Let us take the different concept in which disease can be present without symptom; what should one be on the lookout for here? What should one worry about or fear here? Precisely, everything and nothing. Whatever might be the case, one can always be victim to disease. The fear is not localized, it does not even have to be ignited by a certain phenomenon or symptom, but one is in a constant state of possibly being sick.
You see, a concept is as a pair of glasses, it makes one see, it focuses attention. And different strengths or colours of glasses make one see differently, make one’s attention focus on different things, and make one act differently. This is what I call conceptual warfare, by making use of (often) nonsensical concepts, the behaviour of people is directed. These concepts thrown at us are like lenses that cloud our vision, and cloud our ability to see with our own eyes. We should always analyse these lenses, with our own eye, and see if there are not better ones out there.
II. From concept to practice
Let us offer a different, more broad, and more radical example pertaining to conceptual warfare in the age of corona. There is the by now age-old discussion between the Germ-Theory of disease, and the Terrain-Theory of disease. Simply put; the Germ-Theory proclaims that microorganisms known as germs lead to disease, these small germs (invisible to the naked eye) invade humans and other animals from the outside and thereby cause disease. The Terrain-theory states that the internal environment of the organism determines whether germs cause disease. The causal agent of disease in both theories is thus different; the outside germ in Germ-Theory, the internal environment in Terrain-Theory. I am here not interested in which theory is correct, I know nothing about these scientific-domains, I am merely a philosopher. I hear the newest science is working on a sort of unification theory of both, which seems sensible to me.
I use these two theories merely as two extremes of different ways of explaining disease. Let us see them as two extremes of a spectrum. What should be obvious is that the theory that one accepts determines one’s behaviour vis-à-vis disease. This is what I know as a philosopher: concept influences life, as life influences concept. I repeat, it is perfectly rational and normal to want to avoid disease, and the theory one adopts lays out how one will avoid disease. The theory thus does (broadly speaking) two things in the mind of the individual; it gives an object of worry, and it lays out a plan for how to avoid this object. It tells us what causes disease, and how to avoid it. If we take the extreme of a Germ-Theory of disease, in which outside germs cause disease and the internal environment of the human (or other organism) is irrelevant, how do we fulfil our rational desire to avoid disease? We do so by wanting to avoid, worrying, or even “fearing” something outside of us, a violent germ, and avoid this germ by making sure we don’t come into contact with it. If we take the Terrain-Theory, what do we fear? We fear the inadequate state of our internal environment, its possible weakness, and we avoid disease by strengthening our internal environment, strengthening “immunity” and the like.
Two theories with two different concepts to explain the same phenomenon, “disease”, and two naturally corresponding ways of acting. One should consider what the prophets of Science have made us do the past two years. It is evident that this is all premised on making us collectively believe in a radical version of the Germ-Theory. If the outside germ is the sole cause of disease, it is perfectly rational to want to social distance and impose harsh lockdowns. It is also perfectly rational to broadcast that “everyone can die from this, despite internal health”, even when the numbers say otherwise. (One must not underestimate how much the concept one uses determines how one interprets numbers. A nurse can see mostly obese and old people die every day, but will still believe the internal environment of the patient is irrelevant if the concept of “Germ only and no Terrain” is locked into their minds.) This theory also lends itself perfectly to the idea that some outside agent, a “vaccine” perhaps, is needed to prevent disease, for the internal environment left to itself is incapable of preventing disease.
In this conceptual war, one need not take fundamental liberties by force, one only has to make a population believe certain concepts, that naturally make them give up these liberties. Imagine what measures would be taken in a populace that believes in the radical opposite, Terrain-Theory. We can imagine initiatives to strengthen individual immunity, guidelines for what to do when one gets sick, and perhaps most importantly: one wouldn’t accept the unscientific science of lockdown. Let us remind ourselves that, before 2020, the extreme “lockdown” as we have seen it in the past years has never been part of any pandemic-preparedness plan of any nation that even remotely values freedom.
Again, my purpose is not to argue that the Terrain-Theory is accurate, and the Germ-Theory is false, I do not know enough of the relevant science to determine such a thing. But what I do know, is that a dogmatic interpretation of Germ-Theory as the sole veritable theory (the idea that an outside germ is the only cause of disease, and that the internal environment is irrelevant), is false. Anyone who has not fallen in this war of concepts must admit that the individual internal environment does play a significant role.
III. The rational response
Let us take this a step further. It is said by both lunatics and well-thinking individuals that these illiberal and anti-human measures in response to a disease are just a decoy for a different purpose: the taking away of individual freedoms. When such a claim is made, the response is often of the form of: of course not, it is merely a rational response to a very real threat. We must not deny this response, but must accept it as true. It is the case, that from the perspective of a certain theory of disease (the radical interpretation of Germ-Theory), this is the rational response, to a certain extent. If one says otherwise, that it is not a rational response (but one accepts the radical interpretation of “Germ only and no Terrain”), one has already accepted the argument in a sense. Or at least, one has accepted the playing field of the argument, and one can only say “the containment of the virus is not more important than the economy, culture, schooling, etc.” Such an argument, even if true, is weak in this day and age, because people are so emotionally invested in the eradication of the virus. Even if other aspects of society are more important to people, in this specific point in time, by grace of the fear and the attention being focused on the virus, these areas are of less importance to people. Disease is important and to be feared, the question is in the concept of disease that we utilize. The question is in the concept, and thus in how attention is focused. Perhaps, with a more mature concept of disease, its treatment is not even incompatible with other aspects of society. And thus this problem (how to combine fighting the disease with other aspects of life) becomes a non-problem.
It has been argued that in this “pandemic”, virologists have been given too much of a role in government decision-making. It is said, if you only worry about treating the disease, you naturally end up with illiberal measures that go at great costs for other aspects of society. This is false, the problem is not that scientists are allowed to decide on how to treat a disease-problem. The problem is that a certain dogmatic concept of disease is utilized, and if you utilize this concept, then indeed illiberal measures must follow. But if you use a different concept, then other measures would follow that don’t involve the eradication of rights. If there is a certain disease, I want a qualified individual to tell me how to treat it, not an economist or an ethicist who knows nothing of disease. The problem is that we have given dogmatic science too much of a role.
The science is not as settled as it seems. And it is to enter into this domain, where dispute is ever-present, and we don’t blindly follow concepts as if they were the sole reality, that we enter into the domain of freedom. This domain, where concepts are constructed and not merely instructed, where concepts are created and not merely enforced. The debate is open as long as we discuss the concepts that determine what we view as a problem, as long as we discuss the concepts that determine our actions, but when we do not question these concepts, we have already lost to the enemy. The war is not won by accepting the concepts of the enemy, but proposing we should have acted differently. Concept and action are intertwined. Thus, the war is won by attacking the concept, and putting a more adequate concept in its place. There is more to life than the concept, and there is more to this corona-politics than concepts, but let not the living vibrancy of what is non-conceptual obscure the power of the concept.