Freedom, Problems, Pandemic
"It is already a great and necessary proof of cleverness or insight to know what one should reasonably ask. For if the question is absurd in itself and demands unnecessary answers, then, besides the embarrassment of the one who proposes it, it also has the disadvantage of misleading the incautious listener into absurd answers, and presenting the ridiculous sight (as the ancients said) of one person milking a billy-goat while the other holds a sieve underneath." Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A58/B82
The questions we ask determine the solutions we find. A question is the verbal expression of a certain perceived or felt problem, that one has to posit for it to turn into a question. A problematic state of affairs is perceived or felt, and consequently the thinking person has to create a problem that adequately expresses this state of affairs. A problem that accounts for the emergence of the state of affairs. A question is a, somewhat weakened, verbal expression of such a problem. When we look at philosophy, it is evident that thought works this way. An author's concepts, and his motivations, can only be understood if we understand the problems to which his concepts respond. But this problem is not always explicitly formulated as a question in the text. The task of interpretation is thus first and foremost to find one's way into the problems of the author, and thus to look at the concepts from the perspective of the author, from the perspective that gave them their original coherence.
Life is no different from philosophy. In all aspects of life, our lives are affected by the problems we struggle with. This is the case on a personal level, but also on a societal level. The way my day is going and the thoughts that arise during this day, are determined by the personal problems I am struggling with. My life changes in response to what I have set as a problem for myself. If I make a problem of my health, I will live (hopefully) in a manner that is conducive to health. If I make a problem of my loneliness, I will live in a manner that desperately seeks out company. In many ways, living is nothing else than an endless chase to solve problems that we set ourselves.
I can feel an intense bodily pain, thus making me realize that I have a health problem, and thus inciting me to act on it. There is thus a real event, a problematic event, in response to which I posit that I have a health problem, to which I then proceed to find a solution. Even in this example, the own contribution to the problem is not to be underestimated. The same bodily pain can mean different problems for different people; one might interpret the pain, say a chest pain, as the result of a bad diet, and he will proceed to clean up said diet. The other will interpret it as the result of heartbreak, and will proceed to mend his emotional problems. And some other will interpret it as the result of the natural frailty of the human body, and will proceed to find a doctor to prescribe him some pill. Problems reveal themselves to us in a very real manner, but how we interpret them is up to us, and how we interpret them determines our future actions.
It is no different in society. The actions we choose to take flow naturally from the problems we set. Covid measures flow naturally from the problem: deadly viral pandemic. Actions toward gender equality follow from the positing of a problem of inequality. Environmental policies follow from the positing of an environmental problem.
Like we said, problems have to be created in response to problematic events. With "problematic" I mean every singular event or series of similar events that draw our attention because we think it is out of the ordinary, or not how it should be. For example, there is the event of sexual harassment, and in response to it we posit the larger societal problem of sexually related harassment. The event in a sense opens our eyes, it confronts us and forces us to look at something we might have not perceived before; a societal problem. But like we said, there is great freedom in the choice of problem, many will interpret the event differently. And endless discussions ensue on what the right problem is.
When we agree on the problem, we can start looking for solutions, and we can debate on what solutions are best. When we don't agree on the problem, we have to debate on what the real problem is, debates which are often far more violent than the debates concerning solutions. It is often hard to separate the posited problem from the real problematic event from which it arises. In experience, the two are so closely knit together, that it is hard to separate them. And consequently, when someone proclaims that the problem I posited is false, this can feel as a personal attack, it feels as if the person is objecting to my experience. As if he is attacking my reality.
The problems we posit in response to events are also portrayals of what we want. A problem determines the actions we take in response to a problematic event. If I perceive that my chest ache is due to a bad diet or lack of exercise, I posit this as a problem, and thus posit the task of cleaning up my diet and exercising more, I feel that I need to do this, I want this, even if I don't actually do it. This is why discussions often remain civil and calm when we discuss solutions to shared problems, but when both parties in a debate realize they don't want the same, their voices get louder and frustrated, and often violent accusations ensue.
However, despite these dangers, the discussion about problems is necessary. It can always happen that someone interprets a real or true event in terms of a wrong problem, and it can happen that such a wrong problem becomes dominant, thus dictating the actions of larger and larger groups of people. Yet this problem must be questioned, despite the danger of people feeling attacked. This questioning of problems, and consequently positing a different problem in its place, is where our freedom of thought first and foremost resides. When we are only thinking in terms of solutions to unquestioned and stable problems, only a small area of freedom remains. And often these problems are not even our own interpretations of events, but interpretations/problems we take over from family, peers, politicians, experts, or society. We might, for example, have learned that the only true political and economical problem is that of "class struggle." But true freedom of thought is asking if this truly is the problem of today. Freedom of thought is ensured as long as we can freely posit problems, and debate about what the right problem is in each case. If we can think freely about what problem it is that the real events point to.
The reality is, that this is often not the case. Let us take an example. When the pandemic hit, speculations arose from all sides about what the problem was that this event (people dying) pointed to. Globalisation and free travel, an already sick society that was too weak to handle an innocent virus, the defunding of hospital infrastructure in previous years, or even the ridiculous idea that the consumption of animals was the true cause. Opinions on problems diverged, as they naturally do. But something had to be done, and as problems determine actions, we couldn't let people do as they like and thus do differently, a dominant set of problems had to be chosen. Those in power set the problem, and we all acted in uniform. This is natural, this is what political societies do. The issue is, that for people to keep acting in the same way, they have to believe in the same problem. For if the problem is replaced by a different one, different actions follow. And very soon, dissidents who posited problems that differed from the mainstream narrative were, with varying degrees of force, silenced or ridiculed. Only scientists that agreed on the problem of the state and its overarching global institutions were listened to and broadcasted. Those who questioned the dominant narrative were seen as denying the reality of people suffering and dying. Recall our previous point, that when someone posits a different problem, it is often interpreted as denying the very real experience of the one questioned. It is seen as an attack, it is seen as violence, that can only be answered with an equal amount of violence. Recall health professionals who posted innocent and well-meant advice on how to strengthen immunity, and how they were censored by big tech, and framed as dangerous by media and politics.
In such a situation, only a small amount of freedom in thought remains. The positing of diverging problems is pushed into the shadows of private life, and society becomes that sterile domain in which we are forced to act in uniform on supposedly agreed upon problems. As we said, it is not always easy to separate the real event from the consequently posited problem. And those in power have all the interest in making you believe there is no difference. In making you believe that the event of the virus can only be interpreted as a problem of transmission, that the continued existence of the event can only be interpreted as a lack of sanitary measures, as a lack of lockdowns, as a lack of surveillance, as a lack of vaccinations.
Thought is discernment. As Alain said, "Penser, c'est dire non." Thinking means looking at an event, stopping for a moment, and asking how it should be interpreted. What is the problem that this event signals to us?
It is a sign of the unthinking to blindly rush forward in action, never asking if this is truly the right way of acting. If the problem that we are engaged in solving, is really the problem that we should be solving. The issue here is that there is no perfect correlation between event and problem. First and foremost, the problem has to be created. And it is always created by someone at some specific time and place. We can create for ourselves, or we can let others determine our problems for us.
While thinking about solutions to problems set for us by others, we might bathe in the illusion of freedom, while we are nothing else than slaves to the problems created by others. This illusion is only shattered when we reclaim the right to posit our problems for ourselves. This is what it means to think; not only to say no to experience, to stop and reflect before it, but also to say no to the problems which others impose upon us, and to take up the responsibility of thought.