Narrative and possibility: reflections on the centrality of language in the present crisis


Session on “Health and Humanities” in the context of the present CoVid-19 crisis


-“Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins” (“Language is the house of being”), Martin Heidegger

-“There is no such thing as a private language”, Ludwig Wittgenstein


In the following, brief laying out of a series of propositions, I want to express some possible ways in which the disciplines within the humanities, and in my case, philosophy, grant us some tools and insights which can assist us in the on-going struggle to understand the present situation of the COVID-19 ”crisis”.


Thesis #1: Phenomenology offers an array of tools and concepts which can act as hermeneutic openings for understanding the present situation.

-As Heidegger says in the Introduction to Being and Time, phenomenology is marked most by its “possibilities”, not by its “actualities.” That is, it is not a rigid ideological framework; nor best understood as an historical movement in the long narrative of philosophy; nor as an ultimate answer; nor as path of certainty. It is developing an attitude of openness to the “phenomena”, or indeed, learning to ask the questions “about” the phenomena that do not already assume an “answer.

-From within this “questioning attitude”, many (if not all) of the central concepts of philosophy are re-positioned and transfigured. While taking a somewhat critical stance vis-à-vis previous philosophy, phenomenology does not offer ultimate claims of judgement about previous philosophy: it simply wants to open again a questioning stance regarding the basic concepts of philosophy, basic concepts that perhaps have (too) long been either assumed to be fixed, or are so embedded in our discourse that we do not even notice them.

-Among these basic concepts: “subjectivity” (and hence also, “objectivity”); the “self,” (and hence also, the “other”) “truth,” (and hence also, “falsehood”); “authenticity” (and hence also, “inauthenticity”); “the real” (and hence also, the “imagined”), the “normal” (and hence also, the “abnormal”.

-A phenomenologist like Heidegger, however, might be displeased with me introducing these “concepts” in this way.  First, my list already makes binary distinctions which themselves are open to question: (e.g., is “falsehood” the correct counter-concept to “truth”?); second, there is an implied hierarchy in many of these distinctions (eg. “authenticity” seems “better” than inauthenticity”); third, these “concepts” are themselves “entities” – and we thereby assume already (without question), what it “means” to be a concept (this is why Heidegger thinks that our primary “questioning” must always be the “question towards the meaning of Being itself”). Finally, Heidegger might not be happy with my introduction of some basic “concepts” because it sounds too “conceptual”: as if “concepts are “timeless”, abstract, formations of thought and meaning. For Heidegger, concepts” are always essentially historical and concrete.

-But this last “imagined” heideggerian objection gives us a way to get to the “things” themselves that we want to discuss today – the present situation. Just pause and think: how often have we heard in the past weeks and months, in some version, that importance of “objective facts” versus “subjective opinion”? But this self-evident admonition is layered with countless unquestioned assumptions about subjectivity, objectivity, “facts”, opinions”. As though we “know” what all of these concepts mean! And of course, even the most casual observers is bound to remark rather quickly: why do so many of the “experts” (who should be the proponents of the “objective facts”!) seem to have such varied “opinions” about the facts”? Ah, not to worry we are told – such temporary disputes will eventually be solved on the basis of “evidence”. But what is “evidence”? Bio-statistical evidence? Micro-biological evidence? The evidence gathered from health-care workers? The evidence from “history”? The evidence from literature? The “evidence” from social media? In short, claiming that our public discussions should be based on “evidence” doesn’t necessarily help matters – indeed – it may simply show that we have no univocal notion of what might count as “evidence”.

This may sound rather hopeless; but to the contrary, coming to the realization that we don’t really “know” what we are talking about; recognizing that there is a lack of clarity regarding even the most basic concepts used to discuss CoVid19 is not necessarily negative! It is an opportunity for all disciplines and for all members of the world community to re-assess what was previously thought of as “self-evident”; to develop a questioning attitude towards the very language employed within our manifold discussions. This claim points to my second and third theses: we can seize this opportunity to call things into question in some sort of methodologically justified operation: in the phenomenological tradition the methodology for such questioned is structured by what can generally be called “phenomenological reduction”. And one aspect in particular starts to show itself as in need of thoughtful “questioning” - language itself, our discursive practices which often go unnoticed at many (most!) points of our individual and communal lives.


Thesis #2: Among these tools, it is helpful to recall the basic methodological structure of “phenomenological reduction.”

The goal of phenomenology is often stated by a motto: back to the things themselves” ("zu den Sachen selbst") Implied in the notion of phenomenology is a sense that "the things themselves" are sometimes hidden from us, that the "phenomena" are perhaps not as accessible as may first be thought. How are they hidden?

(i)  proximity; naiveté (natural attitude); ease; self-evidence; carried-along

(ii) by assuming in an unquestioning manner certain theoretical constructsfrom the tradition. "Activity in passivity;" or Heidegger's analysis of the tradition.

In this literal sense of “going back (reduxit) to the phenomena” naive presuppositions and authoritarian presuppositions go out the window: this is why phenomenology often described itself as "presuppositionless".

But how does this relate to our present situation?

Very well indeed for a number of reasons: Perhaps due to the shock of the present situation – we can, as BEGINNERS, acquaint ourselves - for the first time, with the “phenomena” of our vulnerable and uncertain existence, with ourselves.

The notion of phenomenological reduction, part of which is expressed as epoche or "bracketing out." Is to allow the phenomena to appear to us. We must not prejudge how things are given to us, and we must not impose all sorts of theoretical structures upon the ways that things are given to us.


Thesis#3: the centrality of language and some examples of narratives that can be questioned.

(i) “Worlds” as complex meaning formations come about in and through language. Without language, there is no meaningful world; language is at work from the beginning. “Worlds” are linguistic phenomena. So there is not simply a neutral or non-linguistic “fact” called a “virus”, or a clear present situation called the COVID19 “crisis” about which we speak. Discussions of viruses, fears about pandemics, social admonitions about various types of comportment are not mere narrative reactions to non-linguistic “facts” or “natural occurrences”: the “way” or “manner” in which we ‘speak” already constitutes the phenomena about which we speak.

(ii) Language should be conceived “broadly”. It is not just “word-things” or sentences and judgements. For Heidegger, “discourse” is “pre-predicative”; language may come to take the form of ‘sentences’, but discourse itself is much richer or broader. Body language, gestures, a baby’s cry, are “meaningful” in themselves–not just when we thematize them in sentences. Hence, in the present situation – as we focus our attention on language – it is not just “utterances” that demand attention. Social practices, institutional structures; “forms’ of communication (and not just the “content”) are narrative structures that can be thoughtfully questioned. 

(iii) Language is also not a mere “instrument. It does not “connect” a “mind” and the “world” (as though there could be a non-linguistic “world”). Language is not just a mere “thing” among other things. It is the basis of there being “anything” at all meaningful for us.

(iv) It is also not a mere “computational” system (though indeed, we can compute because we are linguistic).


(III) INTRODUCTORY CONCLUSION (!): Some noteworthy narratives to be questioned:

1 The language of “war”: harnessing the threat of the invader.

2 the language of “self-protection” and isolation; the self as self-subsistent and invulnerable to the alien;

3 the language of visibility and invisibility;.

4 the language of social solidarity;

5 the virtues of technology


Philip Buckley , McGill University