A few weeks ago I got into a discussion with a friend concerning the vaccination against Covid-19. He was reluctant to get vaccinated, pointed to potential risks, questioned whether he of all people could be a danger to others, and expressed doubts about “statistics.” He ended by saying, “Sorry, but that’s how I see it.” I was annoyed, almost shocked by his position, but it was his final statement that stuck with me. It seemed to me to embody an attitude that is very characteristic of our time, an attitude that might be the product of a cunning strategy or of some fundamental confusion. Or both.
The appeal to one’s own seeing has a peculiar double effect: it claims indisputability but relates it back to a particular perspective. “That’s what I heard,” “that’s what I think,” “that’s my opinion,” or other comparable phrases would not have the same effect. It is seeing that seems to have a special claim to truth – seeing is believing after all. On the other hand, there is no seeing without someone who sees, and the explicit reference to the person of the speaker may seem to attenuate this claim or qualify it. Paradoxically, it also infuses it with a certain pathos or stubbornness that adds a moral dimension, so that contesting the speaker’s claim would doubt his veracity or even his personal integrity. “I embody this truth,” it seems to say, and to attack it you have to attack me.
There are some obvious problems with this stance. First of all, seeing is a metaphor here since there is very little to see. The virus cannot be seen, nor the infection, nor the effectivity and risks of the various vaccines. Simply seeing the statistics wouldn’t help either, they have to be read, understood, contextualized etc. Any decision one finally makes must be based on a complex evaluation of all this and has very little to do with immediate perception. Appealing to one’s own eyes in this context is nothing but a rhetorical device, and a dubious one at that.
It seems to me that we can shed some more light on this strategy by distinguishing different kinds of judgments in a Kantian vein: judgments that are based on one’s personal taste, aesthetic judgments, and judgments of fact. A judgment or statement of personal taste – “I don’t like Brussels sprouts” – is something one might incredulously disagree with, wondering how anyone can not like this delicious vegetable, but it would hardly spark a heated debate (except between parents and children). In fact, starting a discussion about these kinds of preferences seems like a category mistake. There are no arguments to be brought into this discussion, no way to persuade the other. Luckily, very little depends on it.
Judgments of fact, on the other hand, should in principle be uncontroversial, or rather: controversy should be easily resolvable by turning to the facts themselves. It is obvious that it’s not quite so easy, and the fact is that these facts are often disputed. Appealing to “science” does not do the job either because, as anyone with even a superficial understanding of scientific processes knows, there is no such singular thing as “science.” Still, there are some agreements in all the controversies, and even those controversies themselves should ideally be decided with scientific methods following established standards. To be sure, there are a lot of things we still do not know about Covid-19 and about the various vaccines, and the constant changes in what we do know may seem discouraging to laypersons. But none of this is about how Christian Drosten or Anthony Fauci “see” it or what they like.
Aesthetic judgments are different. Like judgments of personal taste, they have an individual dimension but are very much open to discussion, a discussion for which there are no established procedures. According to Kant, we demand agreement and “make a rightful claim to the assent of everyone” (Critique of the Power of Judgment, § 7) when making an aesthetic judgment. The fact that disagreement is frequent makes this claim rather precarious, or, as we could also say, interesting; finding disagreement will not be the last word but rather the beginning of a debate in which we try to get the other to see things the way we do by pointing out, showing, describing, interpreting, etc. Common ground or community, which are irrelevant in judgments of taste and presupposed in judgments of fact, are at stake here. In these debates, the idea of a common world is put to the test, but they are not matters of life and death.
Now it seems to me that statements like my friend’s conflate judgments of fact with judgments of taste in a way that appears to occupy the site of aesthetic judgments without actually being one. If “That’s how I see it” accompanied a description and/or judgment concerning a particular painting or installation, the next step would be for the speaker to explain her way of seeing and for the interlocutor to demand such an explanation, not by appealing to one’s feelings or the peculiar qualities of one’s eyes but by pointing to aspects of the artwork. In our context the statement does not aim to start a discussion but to end it, much like the aversion to certain food. But what it talks about should be as far from personal taste as one can imagine. Irresolvable disagreement on matters like this, or rather the refusal to even engage in a scientifically informed debate, is a fundamental challenge to our common world. And while even disagreement on aesthetic matters may lead to friendships breaking up, this challenge is much more serious. It seems like we have to envisage a world in which there are several alternative versions of the facts, each tied to a particular embodiment. Asking how this embodiment is informed and whether its vision may not be that accurate after all can then only be an act of aggression.
There is an obvious connection to Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and to Steve Bannon’s strategy of flooding the media with outrageous falsehoods in order to undermine the idea that there could even be a true version of how things stand. I know that my friend would vehemently protest against being associated with any of this. Maybe his statement really shows confusion rather than strategy. But the seemingly innocuous appeal to one’s own eyes should be questioned, reminding ourselves what is at stake. It may well be that the idea of a common world is a lot less solid than we tend to think, and that acts of contesting it are not restricted to the testing ground of aesthetics. We can only hope that statements like this can be turned into impulses to start a debate rather than terminate it. But this is far from guaranteed.