Friday, July 28, 2006

Depression and Philosophy

John Fischer once suggested to me that many of the best philosophers are mildly depressed: This gives them the lack of confidence necessary to recheck and rethink their arguments with paranoid care; it prompts them to toss what's less than excellent in the trash; it gives them a realistic appreciation of how someone opposed to their point of view might react to their writing. The average person generally accepts her first thought with blithe confidence and is satisfied to stop there until someone points out a flaw. The mildly depressed philosopher worries that her first thought is off-target or too simple, that there are important objections she hasn't considered, and that her opponent may be right after all. Consequently her thinking deepens.

There's much right in this, I suspect. Surely you can think of philosophers (I won't name any names!) who are rather too satisfied with their own work and their first thoughts in response to challenges, whose philosophy would profit from a loss of self-esteem! (Perhaps in their early careers, before they earned their flattering students and editors, they were rather more depressed?) And contrary to what one might superficially think, a depressive lack of confidence is quite compatible with the seemingly arrogant conviction, essential to the boldest, most creative philosophy, that every other scholar in the world (and Kant) is farther wrong than you.

On the other hand, there's something to be said for euphoric philosophy, too -- philosophy that strikes out in new directions, without too much looking back, philosophy that doesn't detain itself overmuch with fine distinctions and robotic consistency. And of course even mild depression is enervating, making it hard to take up the bold project or even just to sit down and write or revise what one has already planned out. The inner critic speaks too loudly after each sentence, each paragraph -- they don't come out, or half come out, or come out and get deleted.

The best pathology for a philosopher is probably mild manic-depression. The ephoria, self-confidence, and energy of a mild hypomania can drive the drafts, enliven one's thinking, encourage new starts, new directions, bold ideas. The subsequent depression puts one's feet back on the ground when it comes time to revise, rethink, and often just completely abandon the thing. The philosopher's ideal condition is one of gentle fluctuation.

The implications of this for the proper use of caffeine and diurnal rhythms I leave as an exercise for the reader.

11 comments:

B. Michael Payne said...

As a young man, I don't think it inappropriate to feel drawn to Stephen Dedalus. When I was in high school I was always guided by,

His thinking was a dusk of doubt and selfmistrust lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition, but lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his feet as if it had been fireconsumed; and thereafter his tongue grew heavy and he met the eyes of others with unanswering eyes, for he felt that the spirit of beauty had folded him round like a mantle and that in revery at least he had been acquainted with nobility. But when this brief pride of silence upheld him no longer he was glad to find himself still in the midst of common lives, passing on his way amid the squalor and noise and sloth of the city fearlessly and with a light heart.

which is a line from A Portrait. I definitely write in a manner similar to the one described supra. I sit and sort of twiddle my thumbs and then after a few minutes of not thinking that I'm thinking, I'll tear off four or five pages of straight typing. It's one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Deril said...

What's this? Top ten reasons to kick my pharmacon? You trying to sabotage my quest for mental health? I've been on medication for bipolar disorder for five days now and then you post this shit, seducing me back into my old stomping ground. Bastard. I thought we were friends.

Deril said...

No, but really, although I am on Lamictal, I'm wondering how many would-be philosophers lay claim to being manic-depressive for the sake of self-promotion.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm all for responsible psychopharmacology, Daril! I advocate a mild, gentle fluctuation.

Thanks for the interesting quote, Mr. Joyce -- I mean, Michael!

Anonymous said...

This is striking for me. Reading it, I felt at home and understood. As a philospher, my depression brought me TO the quest to understand, first myself and then that around me.

Being a Marine for 9 years I wrote much on tactics. Leaving the Marines I worked in Iraq as a security specialist. One second changed my like when a car bomb went off and I was hit it the head, deep into the brain.

Speach and movement was taken from me, which I got back in time. But my depression which I can only explain as the feeling of not being understood ran deep. I delved into my ego. Many great expresive women helped me find my inner philos. Since I couldnt talk, I wrote......then poems. I am compared to Neruda and my thinking follows the extremes of passion.

And I have figured out where my depression comes from. It is my ego's GIVING of love and it not being met.

I have dated models, thinkers, just normal women, strong and meek women.

I am drawn to expresive women, but in that, they have a huge ego to overcome. They have taught me more about myself in my conflicts with their thinking and I have never been so critical. Im more locked on love and how people SHOULD love.

My poems are my contracts of love, what I can and will give. I take it very serious. I dont want a woman to love my poem, I want them to understand the thought behind WHY I wrote it.

Ive lost poems on the computer because it didnt post right, the world ended for me! My thoughts that I cant get back! I can try to rewrite it but I CANT, it can never be as good as the original thought!

But, enough writing, very good article, it helped me better understand myself. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

To the ex Marine, wow. I'm sure your poems are/were beautiful

Thanks for this post, veyr interesting. I really agree,being bipolar allows one to see the bad and really really appreciate the good but not ever be wholly dominated by either, like i think people can be (for example someone with a way over-inflated ego!!) which i think is necessary for being a philosopher

Clarissa Millarker said...

Hypomania is terrific for any task. If I could hit a few months of hypomania I'd have a dissertation. Full-blown mania sucks, though. I probably would just go try to gaymarry several of my friends in rapid succession and convince myself I'd invented a perpetual motion machine.

Constant depression is nice for maintaining the status quo because I am too pessimistic to bother with thinking that things can change or that I could change them. It was terrific for doing philosophy until my every attempt to make life livable turned to shit. I guess the great puzzle is how to go about cultivating the optimal ratio of mild depression to care about writing philosophy and hypomania to actually do it.

And Deril: stop looking for excuses to go off your meds! And besides that, I think someone would have to already be interested in a philosopher's body of work in order to care that he or she were manic-depressive. No help for me. ;)

Anonymous said...

I’m a little late chiming in but from a personal perspective, it would seem that many philosophers are in fact mildly, or even severely depressed. It’s difficult to live in a society that you feel is helpless and only cares about monetary gain. I’m no savant but I am very aware and perceptive to things all around me and find myself mentally disassembling everything. Because of my inability to shut off this rational workhorse, I’m pretty depressed and find it nearly impossible to enjoy life; except for when I’m surrounded by wilderness. I ask myself every day, if given the choice, would I choose to be what I consider ignorant (naive) and have the bliss that comes with it, or continue philosophizing? The answer ladies and gentlemen is the latter. When it comes right down to it, the most important thing in life is the search for truth- in everything. Unfortunately, the majority doesn’t feel the same way, so I’m told something is wrong with me and that “I think too much”. This of course makes my depression worse. One day, I will stop second guessing myself and find a good philosophy program to enter and maybe get a hint of happiness connecting the dots of life.

Gary

Anonymous said...

Post-war individualism (and resulting depression)is reinforced by advertising and other media. Bernays was wily enough to take Freud's ideas and exploit them - perhaps because he had a genuine contempt for humanity - perhaps he was depressed?

However, if we are born into an individualist society, we are conditioned early on. We can not just select 'another mode' of existence so we have to draw meaning from this one.

It is helpful to observe nature - imagine an insect crawling up a wall towards an electric light - his ultimate goal. Where most of his species fail, one or two will reach the light, one of these may go beyond it. These are the 'naturally selected' leaders that ultimately determine the next tiny step of the species.

A community of individuals is still a community.

Anonymous said...

Amen, coming from bipolar/OCD I find decyphering reality and the material world in a philosophical manner, to be the greatest endeavor and responsibility one can take on. Although you realize the insignificance of yourself and the human collective, it grounds you to a level of honesty and experience that most others never sense throughout their lifetime.

- Trent

BluecometZola said...

My friend is depressed all the time for a very long time and when i ask her why she says so many complicated stuff. I want to help her but I have no idea how she feels because I don't understand or like philosophy because it is scary. But she likes it and I think that's what's making her depressed. Help?