Times of Covid and of Falling Statues –

Facebook showed me what I was doing this time of year, three years ago… I was in Vienna – for the first time (if I do not count changing trains from the Netherlands to Hungary some 30 years ago and having coffee at the railway restaurant). And despite the feelings of alienation walking along the wide imperial streets lined with high-horsed men and women who once ruled the center of Europe, I fell in love with the city. Where power is concentrated, where its evils are planned and perpetrated, subversion and rebellion live too – and that ambiguous mix provides a space to think – always.

The city where Karl Popper as a student joined a communist organized protest, and became the philosopher of piecemeal engineering, after experiencing what the death at the hands of the police of some of the young protestors did to him. In an interview made for Dutch television, Popper tells of this experience (from 4:04-6:20):

A bit earlier in the same video, at 2:22, he discloses his feelings as a teenager about the fall of the Habsburg Empire after WW I – making him a philosopher who lived through, and reflected on, one of the major crises of the 20th century.

In that same city remembering power and disgrace, now philosophers from many continents were gathering to spend time to push African Philosophy forward.

All the same, Austria in 2017 denied like six potential attendants of the conference from Kenya and Nigeria their visas, for no clear reason. It has to mentioned. Always. We should not mention only those who are present, who gained powerful passports or positions to get them a better chance at a visa, but also those who are absent, whose experiences for sure would challenge the field even more.

And this year, 2020, as my previous post showed, I came back to Vienna, to spend time with thinkers from even more continents to discuss ways to decolonize our work and efforts to understand the world. After I returned I fell ill – had I picked up the virus in the city that saw one of the first major outbreaks of covid19 in Europe? I couldn’t get tested, my case was not serious enough according to the hastily drawn up regulations, so I had to isolate and see how to manage. It felt serious, although it started with only some throat pains, it slowly deteriorated to being at an energy level that barely was enough to take care of my daily needs. And to isolate. Enough time to fret, to worry, and to think.

And when I was improving a bit, work pushed and pulled immediately – students had to be taught, given assignments and graded, and more energy to write a blog post lacked. Not that I didn’t think of anything to post – on the contrary, every day new topics would come up in my head. But it somehow seems harder to speak publicly in times of covid. Not only because of one’s own situation – but because of the situation of the world. Everything seems to be shifting, and it is hard to say anything. People are angry, throwing ancient statues from their sockets. People are confused – seeking fast alliances – and as an involved philosopher, you look on – where we are going, before you can speak again.

Something is ending, that is for sure. The challenge is to think how to avoid unnecessary suffering and death in this ending – yes, I feel what Popper felt when the Austrian empire was trembing in its vestiges and falling. Popper also saw the rise of European racism in the 1930s and made sure to get a job in a faraway country where he – a Jew according to nazi ideas – would be safe. That country would be New Zealand, where he wrote his Open Society. While discussing views of history in philosophy – being especially critical of Marx and Hegel, this work implicitly tells us of the end of Europe, and aims to devise strategies for people to survive in a new world, a world where the statues no longer rule:

“If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. … Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. … And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control.”

(Karl Popper, 2002 [1945], 556-557)

I don’t know how to end this post. I just thought it was worthwhile to remember some of the experiences and reflections of this exiled thinker, who did not want to be driven by ressentment, nor by mistaken utopianism, but who tried to make the best of it.

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