How philosophy can help us understand the war in Ukraine

What good is philosophy in times of war? Ukrainian scholar Mychailo Wynnyckyj and Yale philosopher Jason Stanley share their thoughts on how philosophy can illuminate the Ukrainian crisis — and inform our response to the war.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, two philosophers consider their discipline's value in times of crisis

A man stands outside a burning house after it was hit by shelling in the Ukrainian town of Chasiv Yar.
The town of Chasiv Yar, Ukraine was attacked by Russian forces on March 21, 2023. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian academic Mychailo Wynnyckyj has been wrestling with one ancient but central question: what is the nature of evil? (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

"Bestial savagery."

Those are the words Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used this week to describe the Russian shelling of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian philosopher Mychailo Wynnyckyj uses similar language to describe the relentless destruction of the war, which has now claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.

"[We] have seen and felt an agency of that which we cannot explain," Wynnyckyj said. 

"Russian barbarism and spiteful cruelty in Ukraine is beyond comprehension." 

The Centre for Civil Liberties and other organizations supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development have documented more than 30,000 war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine.

'Roots of evil agency'

On March 17, 2023 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Putin over his involvement in the illegal abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children.

Since Russia invaded his country in February 2022, Wynnyckyj has struggled to comprehend the cruelties that he and his fellow Ukrainians have witnessed. For him, turning to philosophy for ways to understand the inhumanity isn't an abstract exercise. It's searingly real.

"Russian occupiers murdered civilians in Mariupol and in towns and villages throughout the southern, eastern and northern regions that experienced occupation. The Russians committed atrocities in Izium, Kherson, Irpin and countless other towns and cities throughout Ukraine. Were these actions not evil?"

Wynnyckyj, who directs the graduate department at Ukraine's Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, made those remarks earlier this month at a virtual conference hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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Philosophy … has always wrestled with a question of how democracies can be stable in the face of propaganda.- Jason Stanley, Yale University philosopher

The event, titled What Good Is Philosophy? The Role of the Academy in a Time of Crisis, brought internationally-renowned philosophers together to discuss the value and responsibilities of their discipline in times of war.

Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, says the question has a long history in his discipline.

"Philosophy … has always wrestled with a question of how democracies can be stable in the face of propaganda," he said.

 A Ukrainian soldier looks through the broken window of a building in a dark stairwell.
A Ukrainian soldier stands in a damaged residential building in Bakhmut, February 27, 2023. Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley argues that Russian citizens have been conditioned to think that Ukrainian independence is a fundamental threat to Russian identity. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

For his part, Wynnyckyj believes philosophy may hold a path forward for Ukrainians as they seek justice. But he also offered a note of caution. 

"I fear that without a profound philosophical understanding of the roots of the evil agency that Ukrainians have suffered through during this war, the phrase 'never again', which supposedly was to be the unifying slogan for elites and institutions after World War Two, will yet again ring hollow at some point in the future." 

Proceeds from the conference, which was organized in support of Ukrainian scholars, will help fund the establishment of a Centre for Civic Engagement at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. 

Guests in this episode:

Mychailo Wynnyckyj is the director of the Doctoral School at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and an associate professor in the Academy's Sociology Department.

Jason Stanley is an American philosopher at Yale University and the author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.

Aaron Wendland, host of the conference What Good Is Philosophy? is a Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King's College London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto

Yulia Kovaliv is Ukraine's Ambassador to Canada.

*This IDEAS episode was produced by Annie Bender.

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