Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Depressive Thinking Styles and Philosophy

Recently I read two interesting pieces that I'd like to connect with each other. One is Peter Railton's Dewey Lecture to the American Philosophical Association, in which he describes his history of depression. The other is Oliver Sacks's New York Times column about facing his own imminent death.

One of the inspiring things about Sacks's work is that he shows how people with (usually neurological) disabilities can lead productive, interesting, happy lives incorporating their disabilities and often even turning aspects of those disabilities into assets. (In his recent column, Sacks relates how imminent death has helped give him focus and perspective.) It has also always struck me that depression -- not only major, clinical depression but perhaps even more so subclinical depressive thinking styles -- is common among philosophers. (For an informal poll, see Leiter's latest.) I wonder if this prevalence of depression among philosophers is non-accidental. I wonder whether perhaps the thinking styles characteristic of mild depression can become, Sacks-style, an asset for one's work as a philosopher.

Here's the thought (suggested to me first by John Fischer): Among the non-depressed, there's a tendency toward glib self-confidence in one's theoretical views. (On positive illusions in general among the non-depressed see this classic article.) Normally, conscious human reasoning works like this: First, you find yourself intuitively drawn to Position A. Second, you rummage around for some seemingly good argument or consideration in favor of Position A. Finally, you relax into the comfortable feeling that you've got it figured out. No need to think more about it! (See Kahneman, Haidt, etc.)

Depressive thinking styles are, perhaps, the opposite of this blithe and easy self-confidence. People with mild depression will tend, I suspect, to be less easily satisfied with their first thought, at least on matters of importance to them. Before taking a public stand, they might spend more time imagining critics attacking Position A, and how they might respond. Inclined toward self-doubt, they might be more likely to check and recheck their arguments with anxious care, more carefully weigh up the pros and cons, worry that their initial impressions are off-base or too simple, discard the less-than-perfect, worry that there are important objections that they haven't yet considered. Although one needn't be inclined toward depression to reflect in this manner, I suspect that this self-doubting style will tend to come more naturally to those with mild to moderate depressive tendencies, deepening their thought about the topic at hand.

I don't want to downplay the seriousness of depression, its often negative consequences for one's life including often for one's academic career, and the counterproductive nature of repetitive dysphoric rumination (see here and here), which is probably a different cognitive process than the kind of self-critical reflection that I'm hypothesizing here to be its correlate and cousin. [Update, Feb. 26: I want to emphasize the qualifications of that previous sentence. I am not endorsing the counterproductive thinking styles of severe, acute depression. See also Dirk Koppelberg's comment below and my reply.] However, I do suspect that mildly depressive thinking styles can be recruited toward philosophical goals and, if managed correctly, can fit into, and even benefit, one's philosophical work. And among academic disciplines, philosophy in particular might be well-suited for people who tend toward this style of thought, since philosophy seems to be proportionately less demanding than many other disciplines in tasks that benefit from confident, high-energy extraversion (such as laboratory management and people skills) and proportionately more demanding of careful consideration of the pros and cons of complex, abstract arguments and of precise ways of formulating positions to shield them from critique.

Related posts:
Depression and Philosophy (July 28, 2006)
SEP Citation Analysis Continued: Jewish, Non-Anglophone, Queer, and Disabled Philosophers (August 14, 2014)

Update April 23:

The full-length circulating draft is now up on my academic website.


Yolanda said...
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Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yolanda: Your comment reads a little like spam. Please feel free to modify and repost if it's not!

inafelltoearth said...

This is really interesting. Something I've often wondered about, too. I have a constant problem fiddling with meds because if they work "too well," I can't write decent papers (or creative writing for that matter).

Sandy Ryan said...

Interesting. I think a non-depressive person might think, "I'm open minded due to my victory conquering egotism" (though ironically the thought is a bit egotistical itself), but that is too bright a view of oneself if mild or clinical depression is involved. One so bright, with such a large vocabulary, who takes time to write as clear, and plainly, as you do, Eric, is rare. I appreciate that you take the time to write in a style that is accessible to the non-Ph.D. in philosophy. I hope you realize that widening the accessibility to your ideas and inviting a broad critique is a gift to your reader. One that may not be rooted in the thoughts included in this post, but in other parts of your particular brand of awesome. As an aside, depression makes for great comedic writing too. I'm glad more people are being open about their struggles with it as Allie Brosh & Jenny Lawson have been in recent years. Thanks for your thoughts and to be blunt, I hope you are not struggling too much with this.

P.D. Magnus said...

In my own experience, I don't do my best philosophy when I'm at an apogee of self doubt and listlessness. Quite the opposite. I do my best work when I'm excited and energetically following out the consequences of ideas.

More generally, I'm dubious of the notion of a "depressive thinking style". There was a terrible column in the New York Times several years ago which suggested a deep synergy between philosophy and autism spectrum disorders. It wrongheadedly lined some qualitative features of philosophical activity up with symptoms of a clinical diagnosis. The qualitative features aren't the same as the symptoms, which gets their significance from the context of the rest of the psychological condition. I'm worried a similar error is being made here with depression.

Is depression more common among philosophers than in the general population? Even if the answer is yes, it might be explained by the social position of philosophers in our society rather than by the nature of philosophical enquiry.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Ina: That reminds me, too, of some of Sacks's comments on migraine.

Sandy: Thanks for all the kind words and wishes! I'm doing okay. Let's chat soon.

P.D.: I am inclined to agree that the "apogee" of depression is probably for most people a difficult time to do good philosophical work. Thus my emphasis on "mild" patterns of depressive thinking. And there's definitely something to be said for enthusiastic energy in pursuing one's ideas without so much of the self-critical voice in one's ear. (In my 2006 post, I consider the possible advantages of a mild fluctuation between upbeat energy and more depressive-style thinking.) On your general point about qualitative features vs. symptoms -- that sounds like an interesting type of concern to have, but I'm not sure I quite get it without a bit more fleshing out. I'm inclined to disagree with your last remark, however. Compared to most of the jobs our society has to offer, being a philosophy professor (especially a non-adjunct one) is a pretty good deal, I think, if you're the type for it.

Luke said...

Have you read Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death?

Luke said...

Are you aware of the ideas that:

     1. modernity has fragmented society
     2. consciousness [strongly] mirrors society
     3. unintelligibility is painful

? #3 is probably much worse if you are closer to what William James called "tender-minded" in Pragmatism, as opposed to "tough-minded". This might help explain the phenomenon you observe. It's even testable, because those "tough-minded" philosophers should be less impacted, and therefore be less depressed, on average.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Luke, I haven't read the Becker first hand, I'm afraid, though I'm broadly aware of the general theory. On the 1-3, I'm not sure exactly how they are supposed to fit together. I probably should confess some general disinclination toward analytical theories about the decline of culture/civilization.

Luke said...

To the extent that you're really interested in the topic of this blog post, I would highly suggest a read of The Denial of Death. You might also check out Donald E. Polkinghorne's Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, in which he talks about how critical story is to our lives. In the preface, he argues that the failure of the human sciences for some decades is due to the application of the mechanical philosophy to human nature. See, for example, Enlightenment thinker Julien Offray de La Mettrie's 1748 Man a Machine.

I'm not sure how "analytical" my 1.–3. are—I think successful sociology has been done on at least 1.–2., such that there is empirical confirmation that these are good ways to model reality. Would you be interested in my posting more about this matter? It's on my research list; Peter Berger mentions it in both his landmark The Social Construction of Reality, as well as his 2014 The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age.

For 3., I'm drawing partially on Alasdair MacIntyre's 1977 Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy Of Science.

P.S. I have long been fascinated by the suicides of deep thinkers, such as David Foster Wallace. Do they see some darkness in reality, see no way to fix it, and finally give up? It is a working hypothesis which does seem to well-model at least some of the data out there.

P.P.S. I am regretting that I was sick for the Caltech class that you guest lectured at (Edouard Machery was teaching the course; I think it was called something like "The Philosophy of Neuroscience"). You spoke on your The Unreliability of Naive Introspection, which I reference quite a lot in various internet discussions where people think their abilities to introspect are certainly quite good. (Hmmm, this makes me wonder if Colin McGinn's The Subjective View: Secondary Qualities and Indexical Thoughts is relevant...)

Dirk Koppelberg, Freie Universitaet Berlin said...

I think the nature of repetitive dysphoric rumination characteristic of depression has nothing to do with the kind of self-critical reflection to be wanted in philosophy. It's quite dangerous and rather irresponsible to identify the dark and hopeless mood of depression with a deep and critical attitude. Everything we've learnt about Depression - not just from cognitive therapies - speaks against such an identification.

Callan S. said...

Philosopher : What a would be priest becomes when they find religion depressing rather than uplifting.

But then they find qualia and the absolute accuracy of self reflection (it's accuracy certified by...further self reflection!) and become happy priests all the same! *boom ting!* Thank, you! Try the veal!

I kind of think perhaps it's more about lean thinking. Depression kind of leads to lean thinking as a side effect. While the practice of science is essentially the practice of lean thinking. Cutting off all the fat. No comfort food.

Scott Bakker said...

Self-knowledge as disease!

The 'depressive realism' angle strikes me as a good one. It also could be the case that the mechanisms underwriting rumination are the same mechanisms we've exapted for the purposes of philosophical reflection. Nietzsche would have liked the notion of philosophy as a regimentation of depression, I think.

Wesley Buckwalter said...

This is a really interesting hypothesis. Maybe it's a more specific application of the tortured artist idea? (a nice piece on this

While it might orthogonal to your hypothesis that mildly depressive thinking styles can benefit philosophical inquiry, have you wondered about whether there is a causal relationship as well? Specifically, it could be that academic work conditions (anxiety, poor work-life balance, isolation, heavy internet/social media use, etc) create environments that increase mental health risks for philosophers? I recall a recent guardian article about this:

Ricki Bliss said...

The Winter 2015 Special Collector's Edition of Scientific American called Mind was about genius. In it, several articles addressed the purported relationship between creativity, intelligence and psychological disorder. Apparently, it is widely agreed that it's a real thing - with a lot of disagreement on the mechanisms involved. A researcher at a university in Hungary has even isolated the gene which is claimed to form a genetic basis for both creativity and psychosis. There is a lot of interesting information in the edition. I recommend reading it.

Colin Farrelly said...

The rumination-depression link ( would seem to suggest that philosophers could be at a higher risk for depression as the skills that exemplify philosophical thinking (e.g. mull issues over at great lengths) can put one at a higher risk of depression.

Add to this the working conditions of academic life- which can be sedentary and solitary- and I think the risks are significant.

Howie Berman said...

Hi Eric:

My class last night discussed Sacks' piece- we, or I did, concluded that in that piece he was to a degree an unreliable narrator, used distancing language in places, and was girding himself to face his death as he lived his life, cope with the intense fear, understandably.
Also, as to philosophy and depression, do you regard philosophy therapeutic for depressive or as simply going along with that mindset?

Rob said...

"Costs and benefits of realism and optimism"


Howie Berman said...

The Denial Of Death hypothesis is relevant. It states that reality naturally makes people crazy or depressed. If philosophers are those who better understand reality they should be depressed more and to a greater degree.
The Denial of Death has inspired a viable research paradigm but a lot of it has been discredited as has a lot of Freud

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that comment, Dirk. I hope I can encourage you to amplify. I certainly wouldn't want to promote falsehoods that are personally harmful to people! You write:

"I think the nature of repetitive dysphoric rumination characteristic of depression has nothing to do with the kind of self-critical reflection to be wanted in philosophy."

Now, I did try to be careful in how I phrased this. I wrote that "repetitive dysphoric rumination" is a different and counterproductive cognitive process and that self-critical reflection of the style advocated here is only its "correlate and cousin". So to say that I "identify" the two is too strong. You might disagree with "correlate" or with "cousin". "Correlate" is an empirical claim. I've based it on my experience of people I know and of my own variations of mood. My sense of the empirical literature is that, with exceptions, there is evidence that *mild* depressive tendencies (my emphasis in this post) do correlate with more and/or more accurate self-assessments; if you know of good evidence on the other side, I'd be interested to take a look. My claim that dysphoric rumination is the "cousin" of self-critical reflection of the sort advocated here is more of an analytical claim -- that they have a family resemblance. I guess I would agree that the most severe and repetitive and pointless dysphoric ruminations have little in common with nervously working through all the details of what an opponent might say. However, I'd also suggest (if you know of reasons to doubt this, I'd be interested to hear) that there is a natural spectrum of cases from productive self-criticism driven by mild self-doubt and anxiety, on one end, to counterproductive repetitive rumination on the other end.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those references, Luke. I will put them on my wish list for reading, though I won't be able to prioritize them right away. It is possible that I will want to pursue these thoughts further, and they will make good starting points. Denial of Death strikes me as especially potentially interesting.

Too bad we didn't meet at CalTech. I wish we had!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: "lean thinking" -- interesting way to conceptualize it. Maybe a bit Nietzschean.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott: Yes, this fits in a way with some of your recent posts! (I was trying to be a bit more upbeat, but I suspect I failed.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wesley: Thanks for those links! The connection between mental illness and creativity is interesting; I've seen arguments on both sides. It is something to be careful with (as Dirk above suggests I might not have been), since one doesn't want to underplay the negative aspects of mental illness, especially if it involves drawing false analogies (not that that's what Sussman is doing).

I wonder whether academic work does tend to encourage depression. Maybe it does; but working at Walmart or being a 70-hour-a-week lawyer might be pretty rough, too (in very different ways!), so I wonder what the comparison group is. Adjuncts have, I think, excellent grounds for complaint about their working conditions; it's not as clear to me that tenure-stream faculty do except insofar as the large majority of employees in our society do. This isn't to deny that academic work carries mental health risks, though! -- risks perhaps in its own distinctive profile.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ricki: Thanks for the reference! I agree it's an interesting issue. See also Wesley's comment above and my reply.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Colin: Yes, I agree with that. See also Wesley's comment and my reply.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howie: Sacks is a subtle writer -- among the best essayists ever, in my opinion, so it doesn't surprise me at all that you see that depth and ambiguity in his work. For this post, I was thinking about the possible relationship between certain forms of mildly depressive thinking styles and careful philosophical thinking about weaknesses in one's arguments -- so what a relative of depression can contribute to philosophy. Philosophy as a cure for depression, I suspect is a very complicated issue. My guess is that philosophy is not inert but rather bivalent: Sometimes enhancing and sometimes diminishing one's depressive tendencies, probably in complex ways that interact with other features of one's character and thinking. (Total cop-out, I know!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Rob: Yes, thanks for that link! Other people have pointed me to that one, too. Lisa Bortolotti is terrific and well-informed.

howard berman said...

In the ancient world philosophy had a therapeutic purpose: as in Stoicism and Epicurism.
Might modern philosophies carry that weight?
As in analytic philosophy?
Some trained in philosophy have provided counselling

Dirk Koppelberg said...

You are right to insist that you didn't "identify" repetitive dysphoric rumination with self-critical reflection. So I correct this claim.
Unfortunately, I'm not quite clear about what you mean by saying that typical depressive rumination is the "cousin" of self-critical reflection and I'm even less sure whether I understand that this is supposed to be something like an analytical claim. I especially doubt whether appealing to the notion of family resemblance is helpful here since I think that the relevant mental phenomena belong to different categories.
Phenomenologically speaking, depressive rumination belongs to the category of mood, a quite specific mood characteristic of depression whereas self-critical reasoning deals with carefully weighing the pros and cons of a certain assertion. In a depressive rumination this ability is widely lost; here a subject's 'thoughts' are no longer carefully examined but compulsively driven. This makes a huge difference, both phenomenologically and epistemically.
Of course,there is the ongoing debate about depressive realism and melancholic epistemology. Just two short remarks to these items: First, as far as I know, most, if not all the relevant empirical studies refer to rather mild forms of depression. (Are so called mild forms of depression depression in a clinical sense or are they passing melancholic moods? Here arise difficult problems of classification and diagnosis.) Second, the topic of pragmatic or prudential self-assessment is a special one and might turn out quite different from the topic of self-reflection apt to philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Readers may be interested in this piece from the New York Times Magazine, "The Upside of Depression," now five years old. While I can't speak to how Drs. Thomson and Andrews' research has since been received, it does strike me as interesting that Darwin's own mental life may best illustrate their wager (should we say "finding?") --that depressive ruminations help clear, focused thinking.

The article, in addition, does a good job of sketching the "long intellectual history" of the idea that depression can be beneficial.

Dylan Doherty said...

One worry I have is that while some elements of the depressive thinking style are shared with critical self-reflection, they can also have a destructive effect on one's work. Self doubt in this case just leads one to think that one's thoughts are worthless.

Reflecting on my own experience, the depressive thinking style works best when accompanied by the manic thinking style, where one's ideas flow with electric energy and one has an almost implausible confidence in one's ideas. While the mental illness associated with the oscillation of these two thinking styles has been very detrimental in the past to my work, I can also see how a milder version of oscillating between depressive and manic thinking styles is very conducive to philosophical work.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howie: Maybe so. In certain moods, many people find the Stoic tradition comforting.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dirk: Thanks so much for expanding your valuable comments on this! I agree that "In a depressive rumination this ability is widely lost; here a subject's 'thoughts' are no longer carefully examined but compulsively driven" -- at least in the most severe cases; and this is counterproductive and so different from critical self-examination as probably to be worth considering a difference in kind. With this in mind, I would be willing to amend my claims to exclude *that* type of depressive-style thinking. I wish I had been clearer about this in the original post, and I appreciate your having pushed me on the issue. (I have amended the post to flag our exchange for future readers.) It really is mild depression, or really even more subclinical, slightly depressive thinking (and not even the worst forms of that) that I have in mind.

I'm not sure I agree with your concluding remark, however: pragmatic or prudential self-assessment and the sorts of self-assessment involved in careful philosophy seem to me to come from a similar space, *if* one is looking at the special subpopulation of people who make professional philosophy their careers and thus are personally and pragmatically invested in philosophizing well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Feb 26 01:42 pm: Thanks for the link to that piece! Darwin is indeed an interesting case.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dylan, you write:

"Reflecting on my own experience, the depressive thinking style works best when accompanied by the manic thinking style, where one's ideas flow with electric energy and one has an almost implausible confidence in one's ideas. ... I can also see how a milder version of oscillating between depressive and manic thinking styles is very conducive to philosophical work."

I am inclined to agree with all of that. In fact, that was the gist of a post I did on a similar topic in 2006.

Simon said...

While Depressive realism maybe true in some cases, I've also thought that the reverse order is also true in other cases.

Some individuals that score low on positive self-deception and conformity bias will have a better appraisal of their own flaws and those of the society they live in.

Seeing that you aren't above average, full of flaws inconsistencies and hypocrisy etc,-given our cognitive biases is IMO a default setting- as well as not participating in nationalistic self congratulation and a conformity mentality, will lead some to mild depression, cynicism or melancholy.

Personally knowing how flawed our thinking can be and our inability to tell the difference between rationalizations and critical thinking; combined with our short term thinking that sees society repeat the same damn mistakes over and over again. I cannot help but become melancholic.

Anonymous said...

Anyone with a splintered mind would by self-definition be deeply depressed!
And as Humpty Dumpty told us: all the kings's horses and all the king's men (that is no amount of or kind of thinking however seemingly insightful) can ever put Humpty back together again.

One of the Upanishads also tells us that whenever there is a presumed other, fear spontaneously arises. Which is to say that we are all possessed by a hell deep fear-and-trembling, or sickness until death.

Dirk Koppelberg said...

Eric: Thanks for your helpful and sympathetic conciliatory remarks. What I was trying to convey in my last remark is the following: Most empirical studies on depressive realism deal with the influence of mild forms of depression on the pragmatic or prudential self-assessment of their subjects. Epistemic self-reflection in philosophy might be committed to different values or even to one fundamental value, namely truth. Of course, I'm well aware that here everything depends upon being justified to draw a clear line between pragmatic and epistemic standards.

Brian Domino said...

This is a great question, and one with a long history. Aristotle (or possibly someone else) asks “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics, and some to such an extent as to be affected by the diseases caused by black bile […]?” (Book XXX.1, 953a10-13). I think this raises interesting questions for therapeutic philosophy, and for the practice of philosophy itself.

Anonymous said...

probably noting three likely distinctions the first (and about 1% of cases) is severe (vegetative) depression of the kind that William Styron wrote about (and William James may have had) and this largely disrupts thinking, the vast majority of cases are people who are suffering from anxiety which exhausts them and otherwise makes them feel low/depressed but as we've seen not treatable with antidepressants and not remarkable in terms of effects on thinking , the 3rd (and in this context most interesting/useful)is something more like a character-type (cog-bias) sometimes called depressive-realism and here fallibalism, nihilism (philosophical; like Heidegger on anxiety/boredom), are more likely and more likely to become productive in terms of waxing philosophical in the way that Dewey noted that failed/alienated habits often become spurs to reflection, tho less likely to become leaders in institutions.

Thomas said...

First of all, a very interesting blong post Eric (if I may),

I do believe that the asssumed correlation between a mildly depressive character trait and choosing philosophy as a profession is pretty spot on. Personally I`m also one of those who got drawn into philosophy by reading Sartre and Camus (aka the typical gateway drug) while facing the also not so uncommon difficulties of teenage angst.
What I`m wondering though is whether the pessimistic realism that stems from a mild depression needs to be accompagnied with an equally (and maybe overly) optimistic assesment of your own abilities. The way philosophy works every subfield is structured around a few big names and their entourage. Most of them are considered as highly capable thinkers. If you "want to make it" in Philosophy, it`s uavoidable that you attack some of those big names in your papers (of course in a more or less charitble way ;-). Also you need to be convinced, that the ideas that you develop in those papers will advance the discussion in your field. So if you tend to be overy critical of your ideas it`s unlikely that you will find the motivation to spend multiple hours a day working on the same ideas in order to write a thesis or a paper. Instead you might feel more comfortable to constrain yourself to reading the work of those higher beings.
What`s also important to add is that while philosophers tend to be sceptical of their own ideas, they are likely to stick to them on a global level. Mostly what gets revised is the way how the necessary and sufficient conditions get spelled out or how you respond to certain counterexamples and so forth. So basically very few philosophers start a paper with "my aim is to show that introspection is an infallible source of knowledge" and end up with "introspection is totally unreliable". Based on my own expereinece, during the course of writing a chapter of a thesis or a paper I often notice how my self-asssesment is steadily in flux between arrogance (..."this idea will revolutionise everything") and self-bashing (..."this idea is completely flawed and pointless" or "x already said the same but in a much better way so I`m just wasting everybody`s time").

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

By email, Dirk Koppelberg adds:

Eric, I think, perhaps the most important point may concern the way we delineate the differences between different forms of depression and the thinking or reasoning processes characteristic of them. Maybe that in so-called mild forms of depression our cognitive processes are modified in a way that improve certain styles of thinking. I'm afraid that in really severe forms of depression our ways of thinking are so radically impaired that it's not clear that we are engaged in the activity of thinking at all - at least, if we put some reasonable constraints on what we mean by thinking. - I wonder whether the depressive mood of rumination is adequately characterized as a type of thinking.

He gave me permission to post this here. I am inclined to agree with this comment of his.

Unknown said...

Things being inherently inter-connected I find them difficult to describe linearly, where to begin?
As far as my thoughts go, diversity seems the end-all best idea of all time, from whence all came, so, any state of mind will explore things further, dead-ends and all.
A depressive state will presumably have less 'self' to get in the way of this exploration, comparable to listing lazily through infinite space, something which would horrify and make others recoil. A more unbridled, unhindered state of exploration, to the point, and because of, self-detriment and self-imposed 'damnation'.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the terrific continuing comments, folks!

Simon: I agree that "depressive realism" is a somewhat mixed picture; see also Bortolotti and Antrobus 2015. On whether a clear look at reality is depressing -- maybe so, but I also think that there's some truth in Nietzsche's view that the causal direction is more personality-to-philosophy than philosophy-to-personality.

Anon 01:43: Might someone with a splintered mind be partly depressed, partly upbeat?

Brian: Thanks for the Aristotle quote! I had missed or forgotten that one. Very interesting to see it go far back into history.

dmf: That's a helpful trichotomy; seems about right (though I wonder if the second two blur into each other, and I might not be so pessimistic about treatability, at least in a lot of cases).

Thomas: Wow, that seems spot on to me! It's a strange, almost paradoxical constellation of views, and yet it seems to be fairly common.

Karl: Interesting imagery. I like the idea of listing lazily through infinite space, exploring the wide diversity of ideas.

Anonymous said...

hey eric, depressive-realists (a minority of overall population) are certainly more likely to get worn/anxious but the majority of anxious/depressions are not depressive-realists, well from my own clinical practice and research by sources other than big-pharma i think the record on antidepressants has been pretty clear, folks certainly might get some help from social-therapies and the like to sort thru alternative relations than those they currently are suffering, hell they might even fall into politics that let them address some of what weighs them down or things may just shift with time, so called "adjustment" disorders, in this case 309.28 With Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood...

Anonymous said...


I guess I am in the position described above: moderate depression for the past 5 years and currently writing a philosophy PhD dissertation.

I realize that without the depression I could never have come up with the ideas I have come up with so far. On the other hand, depression is no walk in the park and between being able to think the way I think and being mentally healthy, I would definitely choose the latter.

Any idea where I can find some more information on this issue?

chinaphil said...

In this post you concentrate on the analytical, critical side of philosophy. I can certainly see the argument that a slightly negative cast of thinking would help to motivate one to engage in critical appraisal - though I find it a bit hand-wavy. This sort of thing seems to me fairly susceptible to empirical enquiry:-

Stick a bunch of students in armchairs and either (a) measure their moods; or (b) induce certain moods using music, lighting, etc. Give them some stimulus, and ask them to draw a conclusion, then defend it. Measure how well they do so.

(Obviously each step in that process has its problems, but none of them seem obviously insuperable to me.)

When there is experimental work to be done, no conclusions should be drawn without doing it! Of course, an informal blog post is precisely the place to develop these ideas, but I think a nod to the experimental implications would be helpful.

The other issue is that the critical part of philosophy may only be a part - and may even be the lesser part - of doing philosophy. In terms of time spent, of course you invest more hours in refining and defending an idea, redrafting papers, etc. But I think one could argue that all of that defense and refinement is in the service of the inspiration, the creative new idea that animates your paper/book/lecture.

(There was a recent post by Marcus Arvan complaining about the lack of rigour in many of the great philosophical works, and wondering if rigour really is what it's all about.)

This post doesn't give any attention to the creative side, and intuitively one might think that depressive-style thinking is inimical to creativity, but again it's hard to know without doing any tests.

Similarly, it's interesting that I don't see the word openness anywhere in the post. One of the hallmarks of good thinking is supposed to be openness: you have to read and appreciate others' ideas to see how they can fruitfully intersect with your own. In general, depression is associated with closedness, though whether that's also true for a "depressive style" is not clear.

So possibly the way to think about this would be to try to move beyond Aristotle's melancholics and tortured artists, and to pinpoint exactly which parts of the process depressive/extroverted/calm/acquisitive styles of thinking might help with.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

dmf: I don't have a particularly informed opinion on the effectiveness of anti-depressants, but I do know people who seem to have found them personally useful. I definitely agree that depression and anxiety, especially when severe, can be not at all realistic.

Anon Feb 27: I'd recommend chatting with friends (some of whom might have similar issues) and with your school's counselling center. There are also lots of books out there on coping with depression, though what people find helpful varies so much that (in addition to having no particular expertise on that literature) I hesitate to recommend any one in particular. You're not alone!

Chinaphil: Those are interesting ideas for follow-up work. I agree that addressing this sort of thing would be important in a larger project on this topic -- and maybe I will look into it further in the future. I also agree that the critical part isn't all there is to philosophy. I'm more ambivalent about how that relate to the mildly depressive thinking styles here. It's *possible* that they tend to be counterproductive for that.

Anon Mar 1: You're not alone in this, and I'm glad that you are able to make something useful come even out of your lowest moments!

Anonymous said...

es, not against antidepressants or even the more aggressive treatments as needed they certainly can save lives, just pointing out that for most folks they did little to nothing and that's not surprising given the varieties of folks who tend to get labeled as depressed but are suffering from something other than whatever antidepressants and the rest effect (tho how and why we still don't know).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Okay, thanks for clarifying! I don't think I disagree with that.

Dawna james said...
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Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dawna: Your comment seemed a little spammy. Please feel free to repost with a clearer connection to the content of the post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting take on this Eric. I agree that there is something to your idea. But I'm curious about the exact nature of the causal relationships between philosophy, academia in general and depression and/or anxiety.

After seeing this piece about, time perception in depression, I wonder if something like this is a factor. I'm not necessarily endorsing that research, I just think it's an interesting idea.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting idea, Samuel. Thanks for the link!

Unknown said...

This may or may not have been posted in the comments, but it's worth calling attention to just in case. You clearly know your stuff when it comes to psychology (I get this sense from this entry, but also from reading your work on dispositionalism - I'm a fan). But it strikes me that you talk of 'depressive' thinking styles without specifying them.

Take the following textbook case of what we might hope to counter in CBT.

For example: 1) girl you care about leaves room 2)conclude that the reason this happened is because you were boring. This is a classic case of self-destructive thoughts. Depression-prone people often infer 2 from 1 to the effect of forming a belief in 2 (and I use the term 'belief' in the sense that you propose it should in your account of dispositionalism). The best possible way to make sense of this is that depressive people effect an inference to the best explanation. In order for this to be the case, they must already have a strong sense of their own lack of worth: this is what makes 2 the best explanation for something that could mean *anything*. In this depressive thinking style, people infer best explanations from low self-esteem that further reduce this self-esteem.

Where can we identify a 'style' of thought in there? Where is anything in there possibly useful for philosophy? I would suggest that what is at stake in the above example is a disposition to reason analytically. The 'style' of those thoughts has little that is special to it. The fact that people engage in those is unusual, and is usually a testament to the kinds of personalities that will turn their capacity for analysis against themselves.

The link between depression and philosophical propensity may not be in the way that people think. It may simply lie in the types of disposition to think they might operate, and the weight they attribute to their own conclusions in forming beliefs (again, in your sense).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Louis -- I agree that the type of thinking that you're describe there in terms of low self-esteem making some conclusions seem likelier than others is probably not very helpful to philosophy, except possibly in the following very moderate form: Not simply *assuming* that the person who criticizes your work is wrong, a fool, etc., and seriously considering the possibility that the error is yours. That reaction opens one up to hearing critique in a way that might be useful in the long run, and is also an internal attribution style rather than an external style, which (for negative features) is associated with depressive affect. Serious depression is quite a different matter.

Unknown said...

thanks for your response! A few ideas to shoot back:

With respect to depression I'm not sure that's the right way to go. The self-doubt at stake doesn't necessarily carry over to one's philosophical work. Here's a few examples:
-historical figures such as Wittgenstein (at least the early Wittgenstein) and Schopenhauer were undoubtedly very miserable, sufficiently so that they'd classify as moderately to extremely depressed on any recent DSM / OED. But they were extremely certain of their conclusions, it would appear.
-in the case I present the depressive develops beliefs based off her inference that become hard to shake off. So it appears she's particularly attached to her 'views', not open to them being wrong.
Depression may be helpful to philosophical work: it's been linked to creativity in general ('The Sylvia Plath Effect' 2011; although the method's dodgy). It's also linked to perfectionism, that might be a place to look. Personally I think depressive people, experiencing a dysfunction in their interpersonal relationships and relationship with the world, tend to analyze them. (I'm indebted to Heidegger's idea that analysis is grounded in a 'lack' or 'faulty interaction' for this way of making sense of this). This accounts for an enhanced awareness of things in a way that is certainly helpful to philosophy.


With regard to your comment about belief. Saying 'a' but I don't have a reason why *is* odd. But it's much more common than you seem to suggest.

In your paper (I forget if it's the first account or the 'acting contrary to our professed beliefs) you points out liberals would not become racists if they were presented with evidence that might support it.

When it comes to our 'deepest' beliefs like our religion or our political orientation it strikes me that most people can't come up with a good reason why they have this belief. A classmate of mine who I debated religion with in high school would tell me she believed in Christianity because it was a religion of forgiving. I often discuss American politics with a very conservative mate of mine: after all those discussions I'm not sure I can rationally articulate the reason I'm left wing all that well.

So when it comes to a belief that the door is open 'a' but I have no reason to is odd. But when it comes to our deep beliefs, such as (maybe) the philosophical views we've spent our lives defending, it's quite common.

As you say 'dispassionate rationality is not the rule when it comes to cognition' (I love that quote, if you have any literature to support the claim I would be most grateful).


Finally, I'm glad you're doing work on the behavior of ethicists.

It would be good to consider the behavior of ethicists of different orientations. If Stocker (1971) is to be believed, as I think he should be, rule-based ethics cannot guide behavior effectively. We can't live by those ethics. These theories are mainstream in the anglo-american world. So it may not be that surprising that ardent defenders of consequentialism don't act more ethically.

Someone who really believes in Virtue Ethics, as opposed to this, would at least have the possibility of acting according to her theory. (Keller makes the claim that Stocker-type problems apply to V.E as well, see my article in for a response that his arguments fail).

So it would be nice to explore this possibility.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful, interesting comment, Louis! A few brief replies:

* I agree that mildly depressive personality (rather than severe depression, a different thing) is compatible with high certainty about one's philosophical conclusions -- but impressionistically, I'd guess that there's also, on average, more self-doubts and rumination about those conclusions than among more upbeat personality types. But this is an open empirical question, when it comes to philosophical topics.

* I'm inclined to think that saying "X, but I have no reason why" is rare because usually if one doesn't have one's real reason to hand one will cook up a rationalization post-hoc. Then maybe only long exploration (perhaps particularly in dialogue with a disagreeing interlocutor, as in in your case) will reveal you not to have the reasons you think you do.

* I have a tiny bit of data on virtue ethicists vs. consequentialists vs. deontologists, in Schwitzgebel & Rust 2014 (our survey study in Phil Psych). The data are very limited, but we didn't see any strong patterns of difference. The closest thing to a pattern was for virtue ethicists to report slightly less ethical behavior on some issues.

Sukalyan said...

I have found your observations (Ref. John Fischer) about the thinking mechanism of the non-depressed to be holding absolutely true.
I do not know the demographic scope of your research behind this observation. But I feel that it must be largely true for all the urban forms of society (I do not have any data regarding social forms non-urban).
I would like to share some first-hand experiences.
I am from Kolkata, India. I have depressive tendencies. Along with these things, I find myself to be by far a better listener than most of the people around me, having sort of an unrelenting attitude towards resolution of issues which creates disturbance in relationships between and among people. I am very sensitive towards and always aware of such tensions which might be churned from the behaviors, both of mine and others. Also, I can see it as clearly as anything that resolution of such human issues call for a democratic attitude of giving space to different opinions and I can quite easily act accordingly, and also, I am sort of a vociferous advocate of this approach. But most of the people, though they endorse my views think it to be a crackpot to act towards such a goal with total commitment. In any level of discussion about the sort of commitments people should have towards addressing such issues, people always stall a little short of leaving out a little something for others – and for reasoning such acts they point out towards the possible less profits (of whatever kind) that would have been derived if space is left for others.
I relate such reasoning with the word “glib” in your blog.
Now I want you to throw some light on certain areas related to the above specified point of view of mine which I am unable to understand. These type of points of view like mine often entail a good deal of mental hardship, which is quite easily discerned as crazy or even dumb by most of the “normal” people. It requires one to come out of one’s comfort zone. There is a lot of propaganda for this idea of coming out of one’s comfort zone in contemporary literatures, corporate training programs, print and electronic media and this is not an absolutely new thing – it has been so for quite a few decades I presume. Then, how so that majority of the population worldwide are not yet buying I (Among many others, I would like to mention one of our contemporary thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti, videos of who’s public talks and discussions are available freely). My arguments for total commitment for change in attitude seems to be bouncing back from a wall – that point where everyone stalls a little short of the radical change (I believe that I have bought the grand idea already). I cannot put my finger on the exact psychological element which causes this behavior – is it indifference or insensitivity or something else which is clad by indifference or insensitivity. Is there something which makes the normal, non-depressed people feeling insecure to be out of their comfort zone? Is a normal person more vulnerable than the other kind? Or is it so that a normal person is lesser being as awareness and consciousness is concerned?

Sardonicus said...