The problematic concept of the “new normal”

“The ideal, as we conceive of it, is unshakable. You can’t step outside it. You must always turn back. There is no outside; outside you cannot breathe. – How come? The idea is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off. “‘ 1

A few weeks ago, our prime minister, Mark Rutte, addressed the nation in his weekly Tuesday coronacrisis press conference.In his message he spoke about the ‘new normal’. While we all probably have a pretty decent intuitive grasp of what he means with the concept, it gives rise to some philosophical questions. Putting any interpretation of his intention with the concept aside,neither assuming he invented it, nor that hethought the concept through regarding its implications or its consistency, the idea itself is anyhow nothing short of pragmatic.2

The ‘new normal’ is about a new set of social contact norms, such as maintaining a one and a half meter distance from all strangers in any public space at all times. The concept seems to imply a certain (future) acceptance of anew situation. A situation which at the same is meant to be created by the new social contact norms.They are new rules meant for coping with a new reality.

However, Rutte also spoke about his hope of eventually returning to a state of a ‘somewhat more normal than the new normal’. Which gives rise to certain conceptual problems and contradictions: How do we determine what is ‘normal’ and how can it differ from a ‘new normal’? And, if ever, when does it transform from an ‘old normal’ into a ‘new normal’? Does it even make sense to speak of how often and how quickly a ‘normal’ situation may change?

There are also certain social philosophical questions about the concept of the ‘new normal’ which can, and should be, asked. Is the ‘new normal’ a progressive concept, opposing the conservation of the the status quo, the ‘old normal’? Can we change our ways? Can we use the coronacrisis to propel forward into a better, cleaner future? Or is the ‘new normal’ an attempt to conserve the status quo as much as possible? The concept of ‘normal’ itself, echoing Rutte’s hope of eventually returning to a ‘somewhat more normal than the new normal’ unfortunately seems to imply this direction. Does a certain social ‘normal’ exist? We often speak of as if there being certain social habits of Dutch culture. And with regard to the new norms of the ‘new normal’, those relevant are a certain spatial distance between conversating persons, the shaking of hands and our famous three kisses on the cheeks. Those are to be abolished or changed in the new normal. The obvious objection to this idea of Dutch culture is that we live in a multicultural society, with a lot of different social contact norms. Regardless this objection whether a ‘normal’ even exists, we should ask ourselves whether we want there to be a ‘normal’ or a ‘new normal’ at all. The idea actually seems to be a pretty dangerous idea and it is exactly such a misguided perspective that Wittgenstein is referring to in the above aphorism.

Wittgenstein’s ‘ideal’, in the first sentence of the aphorism, refers to his own logical theory as developed in the Tractatus. In this work he decribes the normative framework for language: all the logical rules and structures and the fact that language should refer to situations which are empirically verifiable. If language does not meet these requirements, it does not qualify as being meaningful. Years later however, Wittgenstein realizes this is simply not how it is, or not how we should want language to be. There are a lot of instances of language that are valuable in their own right, communicating other types of meaning, not describing matters of fact: e.g poetry, prayers, jokes, oaths, swears. We should not disregard these instances of language, nor judge them as meaningless.

If we should reject a normative simplification of language we must also be aware of the dangers of a normative simplification of society and its social norms. A society that longs for or tries to implement social simplicity is a society dangerously unaware of its own situation. It stagnates, desperately trying to maintain the status quo, because it does not know how to adapt to emerging new problems. It is in a complex society, where different people think differently, that they can learn from one another precisely because of their conflicting perspectives. In the context of the coronacrisis this is perhaps peripheral criticism. The ‘new normal’ after all primarily relates to a set of new public health norms. But we should ask ourselves: How will the resulting change in social behavior affect our mutual social connection?

What we regard as normal is nothing but a pair of glasses on our nose through which we interpret reality. And the problem is, we cannot see clearly without them. We must maintain a certain grasp of our own idea of reality because it is a psychological necessity. It never really occurs to take them off. And if we do or try, it’s not for long anyways. It seems to me that this is not a problem per se, as long as we are aware that they are mere glasses, fit for our eyes. And for those who think alike, who see the world the same way. Now it’s time to take my glasses off.

Deze tekst is eerder gepubliceerd op het filosofieplatform

Share Button

Saving as many human lives as possible?

‘This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule. The answer was: if every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule, then it can also be brought into conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.‘ 1

In the Netherlands, just as in other countries, several measures are taken for preventing rapid growth of corona infections. These measures can take different forms (e.g. Keeping 1,5 metres distance from other people, a ban on meetings, closing down cafés, restaurants, hairdressers, schools etc. or even a total lockdown), but they all have a similar goal: saving as many human lives as possible. However, there is also opposition, claiming that these measures have the opposite effect. There are two main arguments for this point of view, both of which focus on the economic decline resulting from these measures. According to one line of argumentation, this economic decline will lead to a lower life standard that in turn will lead to a lower life expectancy. The second is that the actions that will be undertaken for a recovery of the economy will have negative ecological effects like an increase in air pollution compared to prior states (no more funding relatively expensive green energy), and will therefore be detrimental for future generations. Bluntly said, both lines of argumentation claim that the corona measures may save lives on the short term but will only cost more lives in the long run.

To connect this current situation with Wittgensteins aphorism: there is a rule (saving as many human lives as possible) and there are several actions based on this rule (social distancing, lockdown). On the one hand, these actions seem in accord with the rule, because on the short term less people will die because of a decrease in daily corona infections. On the other hand, they seem in conflict with the rule, because in the long run many human lives will be shortened by it. From this point of view, the opposing action of letting the virus run its course will ultimately be more in accord with the rule, because it will improve future lives.

How can we escape this apparent contradiction? According to Wittgenstein the paradox mentioned n the aphorism rests on a misconception. This misconception has to do with interpreting the rules. Rules aren’t meant for interpretation and should therefore simply be followed. Both points of view regarding the measures taken in the coronacrisis are based on interpreting the rule: What should we do to save as many human lives as possible? Both are a rational cost-effect evaluation of the situation that ignores an important ethical aspect. By focusing on what to do to save as many human lives as possible, whether on the short or long term, we leave out the straightforward ethical appeal: Do we really want to have it on our conscience that a large group of people is facing a slow death by suffocation?

Deze tekst is eerder gepubliceerd op het filosofieplatform

Share Button

Over begrijpen en de regels volgen

Wat is leren? Wat is de stof begrijpen? Hoe weet je of een leerling iets daadwerkelijk begrijpt? Wat is het criterium om dat te kunnen beoordelen? Kun je iets begrijpen op een heel andere manier (dan de meeste mensen)? Is het mogelijk dat een leerling iets begrijpt, maar op een zodanig eigen manier, dat niemand kan beoordelen dat hij of zij het begrijpt en dat daarom iedereen die dat wel doet, onterecht beoordeelt dat de leerling het niet begrijpt? Dit zijn allemaal interessante filosofisch-didactische vraagstukken.

Mijn grootste held uit de filosofie is Ludwig Wittgenstein. Aan de hand van zijn filosofische reflecties wil ik hier iets van inzicht geven, antwoord geven op deze vragen. Dit doe ik in omgekeerde volgorde. Ik begin dus met de laatste vraag.

Is het mogelijk dat een leerling iets begrijpt, maar op een zodanig eigen manier, dat niemand kan beoordelen dat hij of zij het begrijpt en dat daarom iedereen die dat wel doet, onterecht beoordeelt dat de leerling het niet begrijpt? Nee, dat is niet mogelijk. Het is niet mogelijk, omdat er dan zoiets als privéoordelen zouden zijn. En privéoordelen zijn geen oordelen, want dan zou alles gelden, alles zou kunnen. Alles zou aangepast kunnen worden naar je eigen wensen, zodat het een positief oordeel wordt. En het zelf creëren van de regels om je eigen begrip te beoordelen heeft daarom geen enkele kracht. Het zijn daarom geen regels. Regels moeten ten minste door meerdere mensen gedeeld worden. En dit betekent dat ook anderen altijd je begrip moeten kunnen beoordelen.

Kun je iets begrijpen op een heel andere manier (dan de meeste mensen)? Ja. Kijk maar eens naar hoeveel verschillende bewijzen en typen bewijzen er zijn voor bepaalde wiskundige problemen zoals de stelling van Pythagoras (algebraïsche, meetkundig, knip-en-plakbewijzen).

Wat is het criterium om dat te kunnen beoordelen? Hierbij is het criterium van oordelen van toepassing. De enige manier om te bewijzen dat je het begrijpt, is door te laten zien dat je het begrijpt. Net zoals de regels publiekelijk gedeeld moeten zijn, zo is ook het criterium van bewijs het laten zien aan anderen dat je het begrijpt. Sterker nog, de toepassing is het begrip. In de wiskunde zie je dat heel goed. Een inzicht, een vermoeden lijkt een mentaal proces te zijn. Echter het zeker weten, het laten zien (ook aan jezelf) is door het uit te werken. Door het op te schrijven of op een andere manier te delen ontstaat het begrip.

Hoe weet je of een leerling iets daadwerkelijk begrijpt? Door het te zien. Zo kan je controleren of hij of zij de regels van begrip heeft gevolgd.

Wat is de stof begrijpen? Regels volgen.

Wat is leren? Regels volgen 😉.

Share Button