A few thoughts on depression, and philosophy
The subject of depression has got a fair amount attention in the media in recent times, something much to be welcomed.
High-profile figures like former spin doctor Alastair Campbell,ex-footballer-turned-pundit Stan Collymore and the writer Marian Keyes have made their sufferings public and given a lot of encouragement to others who have gone through similar experiences.
I’ve been a sufferer myself in the past and certainly welcome these interventions, especially for the way these people have candidly revealed weaknesses in themselves, thereby making it easier for others to do the same. Campbell wrote a little book called ‘The Happy Depressive’, exploring his own experiences and depression as a public policy issue.
I won’t go into that book in detail here because I want to take a brief look at depression from a different angle, but one quotation wouldn’t go amiss:
“In the US, trust in other people being ‘nice’ has fallen from 60 per cent to 30 per cent in fifty years. It is the same story in the UK. In 1959, 60 per cent of people felt other people could generally be trusted. It has now halved. [Professor Richard] Layard [a Labour peer] believes that decline has matched the rise of consumerism which has been accompanied by a rise in the obsession with status, and envy of those who do better than us.”
A great many people, including me, agree with him – but these are themes that barely get discussed in our everyday political knockabout. We should be trying to do something about that.
However, that is something of a tangent for my focus here, which is on how depression manifests itself and a link from depression to philosophy. If I want to be pretentious (something I do enjoy sometimes), I might call it the ‘existential’ aspect of depression – the experience itself.
I say ‘experience’, but being properly depressed is almost like a negation of experience. It is a partial breakdown in the human operation, with a dulling of the senses and a shutdown of everyday human feelings and emotions. Lewis Wolpert called depression, in the title of his book about it, ‘Malignant Sadness’. But, in a way, depression is beyond sadness. Sadness is emotion and depression is not emotional at all: that’s part of the problem with it, not least because an emotional reaction might provide a stimulant to do something about it.
When you are depressed, everything becomes difficult: a task; something to be overcome with effort. Activity that is transparent and barely thought about in ‘normal’ life becomes wracked with difficulty and subject to questioning, sometimes punishing questioning.
In the title of this post, I also referred to philosophy. The relationship of philosophy to depression is fascinating on many different levels. For one, our lives take place within customs and practices in which we are barely aware about how our thoughts and justifications are shaped by ‘some defunct philosopher(s)’ (to misquote the economist John Maynard Keynes).
The philosopher Martin Heidegger had some particularly interesting things to say that have great significance to depression in my view.
As Hubert Dreyfus explains in this fascinating video of him in conversation with the polymath presenter Bryan Magee (which is also available in book form):
“[Heidegger] said to his students, in effect: ‘When you come into the classroom you must turn the door-knob, but you don’t perceive the door-knob, take it to be a door-knob, believe that you have to turn it to get in, try to turn it, etc. All we observe is, here you are in the classroom and you couldn’t have gotten here without turning the doorknob. You have no memory of doing so because the whole activity is so transparent it does not have to pass through consciousness.’ We might add that a driver does a lot of fancy footwork with the clutch, but he may, at the same time, be absorbed in a deep philosophical conversation. His coping need not enter consciousness.”
With depression however, this transparent activity breaks down. Driving the car becomes fraught with doubt and difficulty; turning the doorknob becomes a task in which the mind is engaged rather than taking it for granted as Dreyfus/Heidegger explains above.
What is particularly interesting to me is that Heidegger’s philosophy is partly predicated on a rejection of one core tenet of mainstream traditional philosophy: that people are primarily thinking and knowing beings. He says that this aspect of our existence is one step behind the primary dimension (though he didn’t use the word dimension) – that of ‘Being’ itself, which incorporates significance, meaning and relations to people and objects, before any thinking enters the picture.
In his major work Being and Time, Heidegger criticises the philosophy of Descartes (who famously said, “I think therefore I am”) on this very level, for approaching human existence as something which is fundamentally about thinking and something which is thought.
“Mathematical knowledge is regarded by Descartes as the one manner of apprehending entities which can always give assurance that their Being has been securely grasped. If anything measures up in its own kind of Being to the Being that is accessible in mathematical knowledge, then it is in the authentic sense”.
Heidegger regarded this as absurd – for him, what comes first and ‘is’ in an authentic sense is our existence. We don’t need to know, measure, or prove that.
In one sense, what can happen in depression is Descartes’ philosophy becoming manifest in the human being; while at the same time Heidegger’s is lost.
What is essentially human in us gets lost, and we become wrapped up in seemingly endless thought that goes nowhere.
For me, this sometimes meant trying to justify and prove what I did was the ‘right’ thing to do.
But existence is not something which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: it just is.