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"We were paralyzed for a long time"
by Philosopher Olivia Mitscherlich Schoenberg
Thursday Jun 10th, 2021 9:26 AM
Only in dialogue with those who are strangers to us can we become discerning, can we develop political wisdom. If it is true that we are tipping into a particular form of oligarchy, we should consider how we might supplement our representative system - to re-democratize it.
"We were paralyzed for a long time "
Interview Philosopher Olivia Mitscherlich-Schönherr knows alternatives to the way of politics in the Corona crisis
[This interview published in June 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, Interview ǀ „Wir waren lange gelähmt“ — der]

The third Corona wave has broken, and the number of vaccinated people is rising. And so we are slowly entering the space of hindsight, where the focus can once again be more on the human being and less on the virus. How we think about our humanity in crisis is one of philosopher Olivia Mitscherlich-Schönherr's core questions. She criticizes that freedom and self-determination have been neglected in the interpretation of the pandemic so far, and suggests a re-democratization.

Jacob Augstein: Ms. Mitscherlich-Schönherr, for a long time Corona was mainly a matter for epidemiologists and virologists. Where is the place of philosophy in such a crisis?
Olivia Mitscherlich-Schönherr: The crisis was a borderline situation. Not a legal state of emergency à la Carl Schmitt, but a borderline situation of life in which we have lost many things we take for granted. Concepts that we thought were safe have been called into question. For instance, we usually know what we mean when we say we are healthy or sick. We assume: If we feel healthy, we are healthy. When we feel sick, we are sick. In the pandemic, it is suddenly the case that we feel healthy, but we may already be carrying the virus, infecting others, perhaps even on the verge of death. At the same time, the crisis reminds us of the uncertainty of our existence. The general knowledge about our mortality has suddenly become very concrete. Suddenly it is no longer only the others who will die, but I myself am affected. So the old questions arise anew and urgently: Who am I, and what is a successful life? These are the questions of philosophy.

Do you have different things to say than sociologists or psychologists?
I see the most important contribution of philosophy in the way it deals with the current crisis. Philosophers can reflect on presuppositions that are underhanded in widespread interpretations of the crisis: Ideas about health, vulnerability, security, freedom, solidarity, justice. Philosophers can critically examine these assumptions and point out one-sidedness, abridgements, internal contradictions. For this philosophical inquiry Socrates coined the image of the mosquito.

He also talked about stingrays and midwives, right?
Exactly! By resorting to the image of the midwife - and mind you, precisely not to the image of the signpost - he gives us to understand what philosophical orientation can actually be. He does not want to prescribe universally valid guiding principles of a good life, but to help in the process of giving birth - that is, in going through processes of cognition. He brings the philosophical techniques of conversation to the images of the stingray and the mosquito. Whom the stingray touches is first paralyzed, must pause. Philosophers disturb, tear out of apparent self-evident facts. And like mosquitoes, they bite by asking the question: Do you actually know what you mean when you use a certain term?

It was interesting that during the pandemic, it was mainly virologists and computer scientists who had the confidence to interpret the crisis.
There was a euphoric, almost erotic recognition at work. The bioscientists and computer scientists took it upon themselves to interpret the crisis - and politicians encouraged them to do so. To this day, the advisory bodies of the political executive are primarily influenced by the bio-sciences. This influences our image of ourselves as human beings and makes it difficult to consider other perspectives. I recall that around 2005 there were major debates about interventions in the human genome, and at the same time a series of Islamist terrorist attacks took place. These events were not causally linked, of course. But Jürgen Habermas used the coincidence and wrote: "We need complementary learning processes of believing and non-believing citizens, because both can learn something from each other.

About the person
Olivia Mitscherlich-Schönherr, born in 1973, is a lecturer in Philosophical Anthropology at the University of Philosophy (HfPH) in Munich. The focus of her research and teaching is the examination of borderline questions of human life

What would that mean?
At the time, Habermas pointed out - very roughly - a dangerous reliance on scientific knowledge. If we make science and technology absolute, if we remove their limits, it can happen that these forms of enlightenment no longer bring us freedom and self-determination, but that they themselves become a system of dependence. Against the interventions in the human genome discussed at that time, Habermas has set another engagement with human creatureliness, with human finitude: religion. In order to establish a dialogue between these traditions, translations are needed. Unfortunately, these have not yet taken place.

But Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer say, "Follow the Science," and in the pandemic we followed the science. Isn't that a good thing?
Behind the great reliance on evidence-based policy is a distrust of a traditional notion of policy wisdom. We don't want trade-offs, assessments, experiences, attitudes - we want unambiguity and lack of alternatives. And virology, epidemiology, physics and molecular biology currently seem to provide us with this.

Where is the problem?
Here we are working with a truncated understanding of rationality and forming a political practice that limits our political freedom. I believe that the proponents of evidence-based politics underestimate the abstractness of scientific evidence. We hold the results to be true - but by definition they can only reflect one aspect of life. And when we infer definite actions from these evidences, we thereby refer to certain values without clearly reflecting that. In doing so, we curtail our ability to make judgments. For a long time, we treated the Corona crisis as if it were a purely virological phenomenon, ignoring the entire social fabric in which it was taking place.

I remember an infographic from the early days of the crisis: all these little dots moving around in a square, one is red, and when it touches another one, that one turns red too - and then very quickly they're all red. Are we all such dots?

This graphic clearly shows the abstractness of an exclusively epidemiological perspective: The dot is the carrier of a viral event and actually has no freedom, it is not related to any value, it has neither a historical nor a social or economic context. But the virus event becomes relevant for us only in these contexts ...
... because such a "point" in Neukölln behaves differently than one in Grunewald and it also has different consequences if it gets infected ...
... but exactly that is all faded out. I find it very interesting that Viola Priesemann, a physicist who works in the brain sciences and builds artificial neural networks - i.e. artificial intelligence - to theorize about human brain activity, also sits on the Chancellor's scientific advisory board. She has now applied her theories about how information works in neural networks, whether in computers or in the brain, to the pandemic and drawn conclusions about how the virus spreads through the population. It is from this, among other things, that she derived her call for "no-covid." So we explain social life in the pandemic in terms of an interweaving of biological and computer sciences.

What I find astonishing is that many of the models used can apparently only make very inaccurate predictions - and yet we rely on them for such essential issues.

I have spoken out publicly in this crisis to point out that we should collectively go through learning processes that will re-enable us to exercise political wisdom. The debate is still too polarized. It also didn't help that the loudest criticism of evidence-based policy came from, of all people, the political right, the so-called lateral thinking movement. We were long paralyzed in this juxtaposition - the Enlightenment here, its enemies there. But I am confident that we are not yet at the end of the line.

There was a recurring motif in your texts and contributions on the Corona crisis that I hadn't expected at all in this context: the theme of the crisis of representative democracy. Do you want to elaborate on that?

There is a strong science-centric attitude that is also reflected in the media. And then there's a big movement of mistrust, which comes from the right, but also encompasses quite a few other people, and which is about concerns about individual self-determination. There is hardly any mediation between these blocs. I see a loss of pluralistic debate there. This is problematic for our liberal democracy. Two different principles of political freedom are interwoven in it: Separation of powers and democracy. The powers control each other, and the democratic principle ensures self-determination and participation for all. The Corona crisis reveals the tension between these principles. Of course, this process began long before: Procedures have become more and more complex over the past decades, and we are increasingly dealing with an expert democracy that de facto excludes the less educated parts of the population. This is visible in the crisis.

Don't you attach too much importance to this so-called lateral thinking movement? These people may have been visible. But were there really so many? On the contrary, wasn't it the case that an astonishing number of people suddenly had a great deal of trust in the state and its institutions?

I believe that there is a potential of people who should not be underestimated and who have the impression that they have fallen out of democratic self-determination. I think it's worth listening to these people as well. Because we can learn something from them. Because if we are serious about pluralism, we are dependent on others: Only in dialogue with those who are strangers to us can we become discerning, can we develop political wisdom. If it is true that we are tipping into a particular form of oligarchy, we should consider how we might supplement our representative system - to re-democratize it. I find very interesting what happened in Ireland after the 2008 financial crisis. In response to democracy fatigue, they introduced citizens' councils - not as a substitute for representative procedures, but as a complement to them. Councillors are drawn by lot from different population groups to meet in assemblies and discuss important sociopolitical issues. In Ireland, for example, the issue was a new abortion law. The legislature has pledged to take the results of these rounds seriously. This has resulted in several bills and then actual legislation. And we now know that this process has also led to a strengthening of democracy. This would be a democratic alternative to evidence-based policy.
Gunnar Jeschke
"and in the pandemic we followed the science"
We followed a wrong understanding of science and some very loud representatives, whose motive was in any case not an objective scientific assessment of the situation.

Saloonleft | Community about 17 hours ago
Politicians have seen dealing with the pandemic as a competition.
The winner will be whoever comes through best, and it was not clear whether loss of life or loss of freedom or loss of economic power was the measure of success or defeat.
The West is committed to the idea of competition, and even in a pandemic it cannot help but give in to this repetition compulsion.

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