If you’re reading this alone, you’re not alone. Two and a half billion people are in some kind of lockdown or quarantine. A third of the world’s population, hiding out from one another. When we do go outside, in the United Kingdom anyway, we keep our distance, we stay two meters away from others at all times. Masked people bend sideways when they pass each other to avoid a potentially murderous cloud of invisible breath. No handshakes. No rubbing of shoulders on the Underground. No sitting at close quarters in a cinema. No clinking together the lips of pint glasses at the pub. A friend just mentioned what now looks like the ancient practice of blowing out candles on a cake – blowing them out with your breath at close range – and then everyone eating a piece. I winced.
Philosophers have a lot to say about the other – usually they just mean “other people” – and what the other means to us. We might find some of those lines have a new resonance to us in our quarantines. Consider Simone Weil,
“The human beings around us exert just by their presence a power which belongs uniquely to themselves to stop, to diminish, or modify, each movement which our bodies design. A person who crosses our path does not turn aside our steps in the same manner as a street sign, no one stands up, or moves about, or sits down again in quite the same fashion when he is alone in a room as when he has a visitor.”
We turn aside from the other in new ways now, and for new reasons. We don’t have visitors. Philosophers go on about how the other shapes us, how our reactions to one another have a dynamic that can be constitutive of who we are. What happens to all that when the other is toxic? When we’re alone in our rooms and have no visitors, no other to give us shape, what becomes of us then?
Many contributors to this issue have something to say about all this, in one way or another — some articles appeared before the lockdown, but others take account of it. Before the pandemic, we chose for this issue’s forum “new moral problems”, and certainly the world now has plenty of those, but again, some authors were writing with the virus in mind, and other weren’t. What we have is a snapshot of philosophers at work during an extraordinary moment, a unique transition. We don’t know what world waits for us on the other side of this transformative experience, we don’t know who we’ll be either, but we are making a start on thinking it through.
And we’re discovering that we’re not entirely alone, even if we don’t leave home. We’re finding new ways to encounter others, if not in the pub, then on the phone, on the screen, across balconies and through shared hardships. There’s a new reassurance in writing too, knowing I’m in contact with other people on the page; and a new reassurance in reading, for just the same reason.