COVID-19 phenomenology: a reflection

The novel coronavirus, now seared into our universal consciousness with the technical name of SARS-CoV-2, stalks us in every corner like a new plague. In attacking the way we breathe, when air (pneuma) is both life and spirit, this coronavirus and its variants are changing us. SARS-CoV-2, seemingly appearing out of nowhere in late 2019, eats away at the lungs of those who it chooses to kill. Unable to keep it out of our daily existence, the authorities are now resigning to the fate of universal infection, which will separate the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. But sickness and death will not spare either of them when breakthrough infections and waning antibodies are scientific realities. 

The promise that those in power have given us is that through mass vaccinations, COVID-19 will become like the flu. Many will get sick; some will die; but most people are going to be okay. But in epidemiology, no one is actually sure that this situation of relative freedom, with some sacrifices of life, will be stabilised. What is certain, however, is that a global pharmaceutical governance will define our lives as we humans eke out our existence through vaccine boosters to counter our gradually fading immunity in face of the growing violence of the coronavirus mutants. Since that fateful day in late 2019, we are no longer free. Our Dasein is disease-being in the spiralling pandemic-endemic dialectics. 

Heidegger warned us never to equate being with security. Sein, in fact, is Gefahr. Through decades of being cocooned in technology, which are material extensions of our cleverness, our desires and our foibles, humans have forgotten that in olden times, the hunter also became the hunted. There has never been an absolute conquest. History always has the last laugh as the curtain falls on the stage of our vulnerability on earth. This is our fundamental ontology.

Notes on das Man

Indeed what is really fascinating about Being and Time is not because it is some kind of treatise on existential heroism, but because it tellingly describes the everyday existential-existentiell reality of what it is to be for us to exist as Dasein. Heidegger’s descriptive-interpretive phenomenology situates the everyday Dasein in das Man while pointing out that by and large, Dasein exists in the mode of “they-self” (Man-selbst). Instead of Dasein being anything like the depiction in popular accounts of existentialism as a battleground between authentic selfhood and the anonymised masses, its being-in-the-world in the unglamorous mode of das Man is the norm. Yet moments of authenticity do break through, when Angst comes into play, unannounced: an unsettling opening up of possibilities in face of the radical finitude of death. 

Why Heidegger in nursing theory?

Are we looking for authenticity when trying to understand being-with? Are nurses using Heidegger to attain a deeper understanding of what they do yearning for, and trying to let happen, authenticity in the being-with of nurse-patient relationship? Pragmatically speaking, Heideggerian phenomenology, in its very quest for authenticity, can contribute to the quality of patient care, hence leading to better health outcomes.

Is care (Sorge), as the temporal structure of being (Sein), meaningful only when being tied in with authenticity, when openness towards being in Dasein is not obscured or obstructed, thus avoiding the ossifying concretion of Dasein as an object merely ready-to-hand without an authentic caring-for (Fürsorge)? These are all real challenges encountered in the situation – “situation” in the Heideggerian sense – of nursing care, noted in nurses’ own reflective practice and in patient (consumer) feedback.

Techne as physis: technology as nature

Nature, as physis, is self-arising; it is not produced by anyone, let alone human beings. Physis is not poiesis. In this fundamental aspect, Heidegger’s understanding of the nature of nature is more akin to the Chinese description of nature as ziran, which literally means “self-arising”. Hence through Heidegger, a hermeneutic bridge is built between physis and ziran, between ancient Greek thought and ancient Chinese thought, while ziran remains in usage in modern Chinese to mean “nature”.

To have time for someone

To have time for someone is to bring him or her into the sphere of one’s own existence, i.e., the being-in-the-world of one’s Dasein. The result is the formation of a Mitdasein between one and the person that one has time for. How is that time opens up an entry into one’s space? Does this show a primordial relation between time and space, what Heidegger elaborates as time-space (Zeit-Raum) in his secret writings from the 1930s, Contributions to Philosophy (not published until 1989, 13 years after his death)? 

In contrast, not to have time for someone is to exclude him or her from the being-in-the-world of one’s Dasein – in order to prevent the formation of a Mitdasein with that person. 

Tianxia and the worlding of the world

The classical Chinese concept of tianxia – under heaven – implies dominion of the Chinese imperial order (the emperor as tianzi, the “son of heaven”) and cultural sphere. In this ethnocentric view of the world, those people who live outside the Chinese dominion are considered “barbarians”.

Clearly tianxia is too narrow a concept to describe the whole world, even if is meant to convey the sense of the whole of the “civilised” world. Yet in Chinese culture, another common concept also has an expansive spatial meaning without the cultural and political constrictions of tianxia, namely sihai – the “four seas”.



Mental health and the abyss of ipseity

Self, or the phenomenon of ipseity, constitutes our consciousness, such that consciousness is in fact understood and experienced as self-consciousness. (Mysticism has a more expansive understanding of consciousness, however, which transcends the determination of historical time.)

It is commonly understood that when one’s experience of self is seriously problematised, mental illness occurs.

This is based on a non-mystical understanding of self, not only by society but by the mental health consumers or patients themselves.

The overall construct of mental illness is based upon an exoteric, not esoteric, interpretation and understanding of consciousness. (Esotericism is built on mystical insights.) This construct is a form of hermeneutics stalled in the phenomenon of what Heidegger calls the “everyday”, which determines a form of Dasein known as das Man – the everyday people.

Mental illness is a profound experience of coming up against a wall built unquestioningly by the everyday people in their everyday activity.

In one aspect, the occurrence of mental illness signifies the oppressive power of das Man in how ipseity is to be experienced and understood. Hence the abyss which opens up in normality, feared and rejected by society as “madness”, actually provides an opening for a deeper experience and understanding of ipseity.

When there is clarity in ipseity, mental illness disappears.

Language, body and truth

In a recent published study in neuroscience (Mehl et al, 2017) which has its central ideas popularised in the media (Moss, 2017), it throws up some very interesting philosophical questions for the hermeneutically attuned. Via the methodology of so-called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), it is shown that we can deceive both ourselves and others in our spoken words when we are in adverse social conditions, such as chronic stress, making self-reporting quite unreliable as a methodology. Instead of self-reporting, what the researcher looks for are genetic expressions which in some cases bypass consciousness or self-awareness and state the true state the body of the person under investigation, such as post-traumatic stress. In the study cited, genetic expressions are apparently innocuous everyday words which are used repeatedly by the person, such as “so”, “really” and “very” (Moss, 2017). On the surface, CTRA appears to pose a serious challenge to philosophical hermeneutics, because when two people are supposedly engaged in an existentially revealing dialogue, the Dasein of the self-deceiver or deliberate deceiver becomes opaque and even concealed, making it difficult for the Gadamer’s model of fusion of horizons (leading to mutual understanding and growth) to do its beneficent work. Or should the hermeneutician not give up hope in interpretative horizoning and instead go looking for these genetic expressions like what neuroscience investigators do, but use them in a more holistic way which remains true to the ontological integrity of Dasein? And yet, in the search for and capturing of these linguistic biomarkers as natural language of the affect unmediated by self-consciousness, is there any danger that hermeneutics will be compromised by scientistic unreflection? Or can social genomics, which Mehl et al subscribe to, benefit from the traditional adherence to personhood in philosophical hermeneutics? Is not the sense that one is no longer a complete person the leading cause for mental breakdown for someone caught up in adverse social conditions? Is not the reduction of a person to a random, uncontrollable series of genetic expressions the very picture of madness that a therapist wants to free a distressed patient from?



Matthias R Mehl, Charles L Raison, Thaddeus W W Pace, Jesusa M G Arevalo & Steve W Cole, Natural language indicators of differential gene regulation in the human immune system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114, 2017. doi:10.1073/pnas.1707373114.

Rachel Moss, Saying these words a lot could be a sign you’re stressed, Huffington Post, 10 November 2017.


Gestell: notes and reflections


The meme of the future that is already shaping the present is the giving over of Dasein to techne, in the global appropriation of being under the technological framework of Gestell, which in essence is Dasein‘s comportment to techne that in the fallenness of das Man (the anonymous everyday person) evades or deflects reflection on the meaning of being. In the absence of reflection, Gestell appropriates the meaning of being and vulgarises the ontological difference between being (Sein) and beings (Seiende) in the form of technological thinking alone.

Gestell, while framing the future, is manifest as an overarching power already framing the future possibilities of Dasein in the present. In fact the ontological space of Dasein is already becoming permeable to the entry of the otherness of the machine designed to emulate Dasein, if not to surpass it, by way of “thought”. The very arche (ἀρχή) of Dasein is thrown into question as a matter (Sache) of another beginning – a foreboding of vanishing as far as the essence of Dasein is concerned.

As the interface between Dasein and machine is predicted to become more and more seamless and even unified one day, what holds sway will be the battle of machination (Machenschaft) involving the two. This goes beyond the question of control, and is something that deeply affects the totality of being in essential thinking and experiencing.

Spatialisation of embodiment qua Dasein: the future question of techne

With the future technology of neural lacing (à la Elon Musk) on the horizon, which aims to blur the distinctions among human consciousness, technology and the physical world in the name of seamless control – “Zum welchen Zweck?”, one may ask -, spatialisation, as the temporalisation of space, will have the technologically augmented embodiment of Dasein as both its starting point and its endpoint. In that case, the possibility of primordial experience of being-in-the-world will necessarily involve breaking out of both the net and the grid of “intelligent” technology as the group mind of the post-human future.