Humanitarian Aid is the series of offline charitable events in Kyiv by Ukrainian magazine Platfor.ma aimed at those whose school lessons on History, Ukrainian Studies, and Art were insufficient. Each week, we invite the top experts in the humanitarian field, offering them to share their expertise on certain matters. The philosophy historian, the doctor of philosophy, and the consultant of the World Bank in the area of data analysis and cybersecurity, Mykhailo Koltsov talked to us about philosophical concepts that have undergone major transformation, as well as about how this change has impacted our understanding of the world.
🇺🇦 Text in Ukrainian is available here 🇺🇦
The cases of philosophical concepts changing their meaning are few and far between. However, after February 24 philosophers set off rethinking the reality around them. Nevertheless, while views on certain concepts undergo changes, this may not necessarily imply their taking on new senses or definitions. At times, the change lies in the concept bearing the meaning it used to have before.
One of the first important concepts of 2022 was the concept of uncertainty. Uncertainty did not limit itself to the borders of our country since in a matter of a few days following the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Federation put its nuclear forces on high alert. After all, the media (in particular in Europe) began spreading messages about people suffering from insomnia and doomscrolling (i.e. scrolling the news feed in search of bad news).
It was an observation in which philosophers took interest. By looking through digital archives in search of the phrase “uncertain times,” we will see that it has appeared all the way since the 17th century. Ever since that time, a phrase, a teaching, or a text has appeared with the exact same message: we are living in uncertain times.
In 1843, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that our sense of uncertainty is most frequently related not to our perception of the future, but to the uncertainty of human behavior. We are infinitely free to the extent that the unpredictability of the behavior of other people scares us more than the uncertainty of our future.
When ancient Greeks formed the perception of the uncertainty of the future, they introduced the concept of the goddesses of fates — Moirai (aka Fates). Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos give us something on which we could rely on in our understanding of our own fate. Clotho determines the events that will take place in your life, Lachesis decides how much time for life you are to be allowed, and Atropos offers you a total certainty and cuts the thread of fate.
Existentialists took this Greek idea as the basis, assigning the meaning to it, namely, that we are mostly afraid not of the uncertainty of our future — since we more or less know how things are going to end — but of the uncertainty of human behavior. Uncertainty has left a permanent imprint on our perception of time. In March-April of 2022 different people relied on either of the two models for their perception of time. The first category believed they were still living on the day of February 24. They saw the following days as an infinite day full of worries. The other category had an impression that February 24 happened long ago. These two perceptions constitute a cognitive mechanism protecting us from the uncertainty of human behavior.
The same problem was also observed at the beginning of WWI. The English writer Clive Staples Lewis (the author of The Chronicles of Narnia — Platfor.ma) claimed that a human being is to realize that the sense of ultimate uncertainty is the state in which they normally find themselves. Humans constantly live in this state, without knowing what will happen the next minute. Lewis emphasized that war does not bring a totally new reality — it just exacerbates the current one. Therefore, human life constantly teeters on the brink of this abyss.
Lewis also emphasized that we are especially vulnerable to any events that do not depend on our wish and that we are unable to control. When faced with this uncertainty, we are forced to act in a counterintuitive manner. Instead of brining at least some certainty to our lives, we have to accept the fact that uncertainty does exist and there is nothing we can do about it.
Much counterintuitive as this path is, it is quite effective. When you concentrate on the small steps which you take here and now, each of these steps fills you with the sense of an accomplished task. In doing so, you become certain that tomorrow will come.
We are now living in the state of uncertainty that comes back to our lives as an anxiety ahead of unpredictable human behavior. We are aware of our future depending on our enemy. However, instead of trying to fight uncertainty, we had better focus on feasible tasks. Each of them will offer us at least some feeling of control over our lives.
In 2022 courage became the main trait of the Ukrainian people. For ancient philosophers courage was one of the most important virtues. Aristotle considered it an effectively spiritual element, claiming that we are courageous only when doing courageous deeds. Plato saw courage as something that predetermines the connection of the human with higher powers.
When Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, and later thinkers spoke about courage, they emphasized its individual nature. Courage has to be inherent in a particular person rather than a community. However, in 2022 we altered the idea. Ukraine has set an example of courage becoming the category of a community and not of a particular person.
Kant wrote on courage in his short work What is Enlightenment?, responding to this question with the Latin phrase “sapper aude” and interpreting it as the courage to deploy one’s own reason in the public domain. In other words, one’s understanding of these or those important things has the right to be expressed using public discourse. One has the right to express one’s convictions that could run counter to those shared by a community or not correspond with accepted values. Nonetheless, one has the right to speak about something that is of value for this society.
Ukrainians have set a wonderful example of this motto of the Enlightenment. We were ready to speak about what was going on in our country. Our nation has become courageous not because this constituted a sort of a moral category, but because we have plucked up courage to speak about something that others could had never imagined possible. When I now open philosophy journals with issues of courage being discussed on their pages, I read the words written by an author who, instead of describing the phenomenon, simply says the following: just take a look at the Ukrainian people and you will understand what it takes to be courageous. This means the ability to use one’s own mind and engage in a rational discussion in the public domain.
The concept of power can be interpreted as both “political power” and “strength” — in western philosophical discourse these are closely related terms. 2022 had a devastating impact on the meaning of power. Previously, political power and strength were first of all understood as coercion. This concept was predominantly one-dimensional: if I have the power, I can force you into something. This coercion is possible due to the fact that I am stronger, I have military units and resources to limit your freedom. It transpired, though, that in 2022 this definition was deficient.
Ukrainians have added the second aspect to the understanding of power. We have managed to show that our strength lies in the fact that it is we who have begun to form the agenda. It has turned out that strength belongs not to someone who can enforce silence or coerce others into speaking only about concrete things, but to those who manage to keep the focus of the audience on the problem they deem important.
In 2014 they outplayed us in terms of strength, so to speak. They introduced the element of uncertainty, claiming that nobody was really aware of what was actually going on in Donbas. This led to our being effectively powerless. However, things took a different turn in 2022.
When we speak about someone having strength, we mean the ability to act (I have the power to change something, I have the strength to change it). The issue in question now is not the individual ability to act, but the ability to act together. Nobody had expected it from us — we were regarded as a community of separate individuals who due to their disunion would crumble in a matter of three days. It turned out, though, that we managed to demonstrate this very quality. It brought a third aspect to the understanding of the concept of power into play, which is about us being capable of retaining the focus on Ukraine as a top news story, while at the same time acting jointly. We do not need a single warrior who will handle the media field all by himself. We do this practically subconsciously.
The concept of justice manifested itself after surveys began to be conducted to find out what Ukrainians expect from victory. One of the first things they mentioned was holding the guilty accountable, in other words, they demand justice. Unlike previous concepts, which may be of individual nature, justice is always a collective phenomenon. No philosopher can lock themselves in their office and after hours of reflection come up with the definition of justice, let alone put forward a benchmark for the future. Justice is about communication.
It has become the subject matter of many discussions again. In particular, the question of what kind of punishment will be adequate for the enemy is being looked into. The concept of justice has made its way back into discussions. The most interesting thing is that the Ukrainian government has understood this concept not only in military terms, not only with regard to the enemy, but also in terms of its own citizens. Take, for example, the government’s move to place a ban on raising prices on electricity. On the one hand, it was considered to be an economic or political decision, but in fact, it was one of the notable examples of justice. In a market economy, the producer of electricity would check the costs they need to produce it, add their fixed margin, and send you the bill. However, would it be fair to raise the price amid war? Certainly not. One cannot push the price up since people do not have money. The fact that the government grew aware of this was quite a rare phenomenon when representatives of the state authorities had an internal discussion about what justice is and brought it to life not only in words, but also in deeds.
The concept of justice is closely related to that of war. The thing is, one of the very first attempts to understand it was undertaken amid the so-called “just war.” Augustine of Hippo tried to show how Christian values correlate with the necessity of serving in the army and standing up to evil. In order to explain how the concept of justice may correlate with war, he coined the concept of a just war. Augustine opined that a just war occurs when war as such does not bring any good or profits, while only being part of the fight against evil, which brings us to the last concept of this article.
All five of the aforementioned concepts are interrelated. However, “evil” took center stage in 2022 not only in the media. First, it is connected with the discussion that was generated back in 1945. Max Weber attempted to answer the question, “Why should I care about what is going on in the neighboring country?” He said that one can take two positions in this discussion: espousing the ethics of conviction or the ethics of responsibility. The first position assumes that evil cannot be confronted with force, since every time you do it, you go against your own convictions. The ethics of responsibility, on the other hand, encourages you to resort to violence in an attempt to stand up to evil. Should you ignore it, you will also be held responsible for the evil committed. It is thanks to this philosophical discussion that we are now enjoying such scope of international support — not because we are citizens of Ukraine, but because most countries have decided to take the side of the ethics of responsibility.
It is believed that violence is inherent in any political system, even liberal. Nevertheless, it turned out in the course of globalization that the geography of responsibility is not limited to the borders of your own country. Say, a citizen of Norway has to be concerned about developments in Ukraine because Russia is such a big evil that they bear responsibility for not doing away with it. Thus, we go back to the old definition. People may find themselves remote from something, but if they observe some sort of evil while not taking any steps to counter it, they turn into accomplices.
Evil cannot be neutral. It leaves no compromises, which means that the only way to interact with it is to fight it. This notion has led to Russia’s defeat, because it encroached on moral borders to the highest degree possible. Note just how often Russian propagandist speeches emphasize on Russia being a moral ideal. Propagandists are trying to appeal to the discussion of the ethics of responsibility. However, in doing so they only try to justify evil in their actions. They claim that they embody the moral ideal, which enables them to change rules that govern their behavior. Nevertheless, their actions were so evil (the massacres in Bucha and Izium as well as all those things that we have revealed in the liberated territories), to the extent that it is Russia that is the source of all things evil in terms of the ethics of responsibility.
It may seem that philosophy is useless. It goes without saying that we need more weapons. However, the fact that philosophers addressed the issue of the ethics of responsibility in 2022 brought about the change in societal narratives.
That is what the year of 2022 looked like. It will go down in the history of philosophy as the year shaped by the deeds of Ukrainians. Anyone willing to comprehend these five concepts should simply take a look at Ukraine of 2022. This would offer a far better explanation than Aristotle, Plato, and the others did.
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