On Critical Abyss-Gazing: Depression & Academic Philosophy

Author: Jake Jackson
Original: PhDisabled


Content note: This post involves frank discussion of the experience of depression and includes reference to the recent suicide by Robin Williams.


A few months ago, the night before a conference in which I was participating, I let slip to the Chair of a philosophy department that I often have trouble sleeping. He asked why.

Realizing I may have revealed more than is perhaps savory for having just met, I stammered: “Why, I’m an existentialist!”

The catchphrase fit. After all, the next day I was presenting a paper that dealt with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on (un)certainty and faith. He then laughed, made a joke of it himself, but gave a knowing-yet-compassionate look.

I was safe. Even in the form of a joke, this was perhaps one of only two instances where I have openly implied the presence of my lifelong depression to a tenured faculty member in my field without regretting it or worrying about how it might affect their perception of me.

This post seeks to question the way that academic philosophy perceives depression. I am not writing this with statistics or numbers, but instead from the subjective phenomenological perspective of someone who has depression and who works in – and aspires to build a career in – academic philosophy.

I seek not to grind an axe against any particular persons or institutions, but instead want to focus on the sort of social context confronted by those with depression, based on my lived experiences.

Depression is an alienating illness, especially when coupled with anxiety, as happens frequently. In my experience in academic philosophy circles, that alienation is amplified since mental health is not spoken of as a real entity. It is instead catalogued and discriminated by logic and reason as something other, an outside factor. The depressed are outsiders.

Depression is treated with a deafening silence, both inside of the academy and outside in society at large.

There is a social unseemliness to discussions of depression. Mental illness is a two-fold problem, private and yet public: private in that it is often suffered alone, public in that its effects reach out further than just the atomized individual.

Social behavior is socially determined, or at least, prescribed. This naturally turns the personal experiences and troubles of every private individual into a public concern. When someone admits to experiencing depression, whether chronic or a phase, this fact becomes a public concern. We look to role models, finding only a public-shaming of role models who suffer mental illness. Public figures who admit to mental illness are asked rushed questions on the intimate details of their struggle. Everyone has an opinion on mental illness, and most of them are not only wrong but directly harmful to both individuals who suffer silently and society at large.

We are not beyond a society that sees mental illness as a stain within one’s soul, some present-age demons who continue to torment mortals. Mental illness still stands as something to be ashamed of because we want to believe in karma or something similar. We want to believe that the ills that we suffer are somehow dependent upon something we deserve.

Those of us who are more scientifically inclined want to believe that we can redeem and fix mental illness, as if it were machinery. If we could only figure out the brain, then we believe that we could “normalize” it, or better, “cure” it.

We wish for so much that it blots out the actual condition. All this wishing and hoping is a flight from the actual day-to-day concerns of depression. As Nietzsche states “Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the suffering of people.”

Anything that disturbs a social norm makes everyone uncomfortable or at the very least brings up strong opinions. The recent suicide of Robin Williams has shown us yet again that the public doesn’t like talking about depression, certainly not in honest terms. Any suicide, but especially one of a public figure, becomes hyper-moralized. Now is the time for people to condemn Williams with words such as “cowardly” or “selfish” for taking his own life, but then also “brave” for struggling with his depression for so long. Other foolish moralists will say that depression is a divine gift as it comes along with comedic ability, hand in hand.

These moral arguments come out again each time in vain. They are in vain since they try to rationalize the brutally irrational. The overbearing social stigma of depression makes a lot of sense at times. It is very uncomfortable to think that one can be one’s own worst enemy, that the mind can so pessimistically stand against reason or external pleasures. It is, indeed, unseemly.

However, it is this very unseemliness that is the reason that depression should be more openly discussed. It is constantly suppressed socially into restrictive norms that only exponentially increase depression’s own horrid effects of alienation and resentment.

Having high hopes for a radical social change regarding mental health is perhaps going to be nothing but a disappointment. This, however, does not mean that one should give up hope for change and radical action.

I think it should be the job for philosophy to demand that society’s discourse regarding mental health gets less awful. Good philosophy should offer alternatives for social problems, or at the very least scold the often careless ideologies that cause social problems.

But first, academic philosophy itself needs to turn its gaze to depression and how it is treated within its own ranks. We treat it with silence. No one finds it polite to speak on it, unless talking about the personal lives of the dead or as a dry systematic theory. We philosophers prefer to hold depression at arm’s length, even though it often lives so close within our chests as a tightening knot limiting our actions.

Depression is brutally irrational. It does not care for one’s successes, relationships, or anything else that is valued for a so-called good life. No matter how much one moves towards eudaemonia in one’s life, depression is there, lurking. As Winston Churchill described it, depression follows one around like a big black dog ever obedient to its master.

Depression drives me to gaze into abysses.

My philosophical interests rest at the intersection of ethics, phenomenology, and existentialism. I work heavily in Nietzsche and late Husserl, but have recently expanded into working on Kierkegaard and Sartre. None of these historical figures are light reading in any sense of the term. Nietzsche was clearly the king of the abyss and suffered a horrifying debilitating illness which destroyed his mind and his body. Towards the end of his life, Husserl lost a son to the First World War and witnessed his rights dissolve as a Jewish intellectual in Germany. Kierkegaard struggled with his faith and anxiety throughout his life’s work. Sartre fought in the Second World War in the French Resistance and was notoriously bitter in his personal relationships. None of these figures are happy role models. A certain sadness produces good work, it would seem. That same certain sadness reflects on the page. I could, perhaps, “lighten up” and go towards lighter fare, work on thinkers who don’t reach such sad depths, but I don’t find much interest in such things. I instead stay the course in developing an ethics that looks right into horrible things that people do.

My depression drives me towards a weighted sense of responsibility and is the reason I work in philosophy and ethics.

But we do not want to talk about it in the Academy. Despair and anxiety are seen as more suitable on a dissection table in a sterile setting. Even if depression is what drives us towards prolific writing, we stay quiet on its daily presence. We speak instead of depression as the motive for past generations, holding off from any honesty about ourselves and our motivations today.

In my MA program, I had several interactions with other graduate students in philosophy with different approaches towards depression, but universally, it is treated as a shameful subject. Many act horribly insecure about their mental health, either secretive or, worse, bullying others who show any sign of depression, perceiving it like a weakness and those who evince it as prey.

I did speak with colleagues about my depression and anxiety. It hardly went well. One especially insecure classmate spoke with a nostalgia for the days when depression was called melancholia. In other words, he pined for the ‘good old days’ of misdiagnosis and mistreatment at the hands of deliberately ableist pseudoscience. Another former classmate who studies the intersections of psychoanalysis and philosophy quite hypocritically mocks anyone who is honest about their feelings. So moving forward, I buried mine.

Consequently, I let my depression take too much hold over me during this program. Things got particularly low when I faced a major setback in my studies at the very same time that I had a dramatic falling-out with some family members. My worsening depression alienated me from friends and colleagues. It fed itself. At the insistence of my spouse, I finally sought professional help which allowed me to put my depression and anxiety into a much more manageable condition. Even so, I stayed ashamed of my condition throughout my MA program. I avoided talking to anyone in my department about anything at all, let alone my depression.

At the point where I began antidepressants and laid off of drinking for a couple weeks to regulate, one of my classmates noticed. I mentioned that I was on a new medication; I did not mention what. He too gave that knowing and understanding look.

Both of us looked at each other knowing that we were struggling with the same condition, but saying nothing. Never did we say a thing about it.

There’s a certain intersubjective co-understanding here: the depressed recognize the depressed easily. But ashamed, we say nothing in fear of outing ourselves, admitting anything in honesty. Perhaps it was the program I was in, but insecurities ratcheted up and became more secret, more insecure and ready to explode.

Instead, I spoke to others outside of my department through internet communities that understand and employ an important sense of honesty regarding disability. It just wasn’t ‘proper’ to talk to those who I knew in my program.

All of this shaming stigma needs to stop. Academia, academic philosophy particularly, can get bad enough as a stressful environment. All of our insecurities already rest within the Ivory Tower itself, let alone even trying to stay within it. Impostor syndrome is rife, yet shame in mental illness is pervasive. At the very least, all this mental illness-shaming seems like a waste of time and energy. At the very worst, it creates a subculture of alienated, disillusioned individuals who cannot trust one another, or their own attempts to see the strength inherent in the hard work they invest in living – surviving – with depression.

Soon after the First World War and losing his son, Husserl wrote to Arnold Metzger that:

“You must have sensed that this ethos is genuine, because my writings, just as yours, are born out of need, out of an immense psychological need, out of a complete collapse in which the only hope is an entirely new life, a desperate, unyielding resolution to begin from the beginning and to go forth in radical honesty, come what may.”

Mental illness must be treated with a collective commitment to radical honesty that comes from recognizing our shared responsibility to ourselves and each other.

We academic philosophers must pick up this radical honesty when it comes to mental illness before collapse.

We need to look into our motivations more critically in order to live more ethically together. If we are to claim ourselves as a higher critical institution of people, we must open the discourse on mental health. This is not a call for sympathy, but for honesty among all parties involved in academia. Now, as I start a new PhD program, I am hoping to overcome oppressive silence with radical honesty, staying open before others and combating shaming stigma whenever I find it.

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