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.  

Heidegger says:

“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.


  1. Ecclesiastes 1

    New International Version (NIV)

    Everything Is Meaningless

    1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:

    2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
    “Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

    3 What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
    4 Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
    5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
    6 The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
    round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
    7 All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
    To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
    8 All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
    The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
    9 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
    10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
    It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
    11 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
    will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

  2. 24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

  3. This is a lovely analysis of process, a lot of which I live - even now - on a daily basis. But I've come to see it as a gift, rather than a downside - and so it's actually become something I'm quite fond of.

    I stumbled across your blog via Paul Cotterill, who in turn found it via Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling. Approve muchly of the idea that free thinking, time & place and the Left should go together.

    You've made my week. Perhaps even my year!!!


  4. Hi Miljenko, thanks a lot for the nice comments.

    I can see where you're coming from in terms of being a gift, since depression does drive the mind into some very interesting places, and is something you really cannot ignore. On the balance though, I much prefer being out of it; however I wouldn't ever say I'm completely out of it for good.

    cheers, thanks again - and really pleased you liked the article and the idea for the site.


  5. Ditto the last comment-er; I also really enjoy these posts. I agree that behind thinking is 'being'; a much more holistic way of considering existence and one in the eye for rationalism maybe...
    I have never suffered from depression but I am reading St John of the Cross at the moment, on 'the dark night of the soul', perhaps an early description of spiritual depression in which it appears that the God who animates the universe, and me, has withdrawn for some inscrutable reason.
    Thanks Ben. Keep writing :)

  6. Thanks Claire - and nice to hear your thoughts again. I also like finding out the origins of these sayings that we take for granted. Dark night of the soul is a good one!

  7. Depression does not require a particular time, a specific age or neither a specific time to occur. It is unenviable in some scenarios and can have an equally adverse effect on individuals.


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