Can Philosophy Fix Your Depression?

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

You awake one day with a sense of dread, at first pinning it on the common annoyances of work, unaware of the descent you will experience over the next few months. The sleepless nights, the lack of joy, the inability to communicate your feelings to the seemingly happy and content figures that surround you. A rift develops between your former and present self. Hobbies no longer satisfy your desire for weekend escapism. Your loved ones notice peculiar behaviours but, unlike missing an arm, the symptoms aren’t noticeable enough to warrant a concern. And of course you wouldn’t want to bring them down.

Talking about it only makes it real.

Every now and then you feel elated, overjoyed with life and almost godlike. Your mania further drives away and confuses the only ones willing to listen. In twilight moments of self-reflection you see the totality of anguish. Your x-ray vision of despair lasers through the impermanence of it all, the insistent misery of being; your only sense of comfort, of stability, is your acknowledgment that there truly is nothing to be hopeful for.

David Foster Wallace likened the situation of those seriously depressed to the scenario of jumping out of a burning building.

“Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. ”

I. Monkeys with Anxiety

What is depression? There’s of course the strict division of depression into its characterization as a state or mood vs a full-fledged disorder. While the former is but an expected component in the tapestry of human experience the latter is crippling and formed through genetics and environmental stressors.

Major depressive disorder carries with it symptoms of sadness, tearfulness, hopelessness, anxiety, states of insomnia, thoughts of death, and a lack of interest in activities that one had once enjoyed. Additionally, in order to separate it from sadness, the symptoms of depression are generally persistent across more than a few months.

Depression is complex. Although thought to be primarily caused by chemical imbalances, scientists have found that the very structure of the brain and neurology (especially such signs as a shrinking hippocampus) also play a role. Certain genetic factors also contribute. Studies have shown that some individuals carry genes that are more likely to result in sustained despair after a trauma compared to others.

Interestingly, many of these genes also have links to inflammatory properties, suggesting (at least according to evolutionary psychology) that depression may actually have stuck around in our gene pool as a way to keep people healthy and less prone to sickness. This explains why the often-prescribed preventative measures for depression; exercising, sleeping enough, and lowering blood sugar levels are also anti-inflammatory activities.

Overall, pharmaceutical solutions such as Prozac have been known to offset these imbalances. It appears to be that, in many cases, the solution to the problem of depression is medication.

Likewise, depression has a feeling of unfounded dread and despair. Unlike those who are sad, who can locate the source of their sadness, the depressive is unable to identify why they feel depressed. They may latch onto universal issues of the human condition, such as an apparent lack of meaning in existence or the tragedy of death, or may even project their despair onto insurmountable conflicts such as climate change, economic crisis, or crime waves.

Schopenhauer captures this:

“the vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists.”

This inability to find a source for the sadness does not mean that there is an absence of a certain personal cause but rather there may be an uncovered stressor in ones life such as a problematic relationship or unsatisfactory job or even a repressed trauma. It is generally the work of the therapist to offer the patient adequate space to confront these incredibly uncomfortable points of contention.

II. The Philosophy of Depression

If depression can be treated pharmaceutically and therapeutically, what’s the point of philosophizing over it? After all, we don’t have a philosophy of Lyme disease. It should be treated rather than intellectualized and I would by no means encourage one to pass up professional help for an evening with Schopenhauer.

And yet, depression is very different from other ailments. At times, it has merged into the avenue of genius, especially when we take into account the works of Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill and Wittgenstein. In fact, that aforementioned laser-focus through the BS of life that depression gives you can be of benefit, as a healthy dose of philosophical pessimism. Are we to dismiss all of our dark discoveries about the world as soon as our serotonin levels have adjusted?

Arguably it could even be advantageous as those who believe in depressive realism see it: the theory that depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than the non-depressed. Especially under fMRI scans, depressives can make more accurate judgements of causal attributions of positive and negative social events.

Of course, in terms of pursuing capital T truth depression might be beneficial but in the domain of living a good or happy life it does seem to be better to assume that ignorance is bliss. These larger ‘truths’ that can only add to the weight of our despair are the classic existential dilemmas of life: ones impending death and the death of loved ones, the anxiety of absolute freedom, the inability to truly understand one another that takes upon the painful experience of isolation, and, last but certainly not least, the meaninglessness of it all.

Existential psychotherapy seeks to alleviate ones concerns with these irresolvable observations. If the diagnoses of chemical imbalance appear to miss the mark, this form of therapy is used when those who are depressed simply cannot live with the unbearableness of the human condition. It borrows from humanistic psychology, existentialism, and phenomenology to remind the sufferer that, for instance, one should spend less time thinking about life after death and more time living their life before it through a healthy recognition of ones mortality.

It also helps people construct their own meaning and turns our freedom into responsibility.

But why do we have to do all of this thinking in order to not feel the weight of our tragic lives? Is it not already so obviously tragic to exist; to be without consenting to?

III. The Absurd

David Foster Wallace uses this classic joke to open a commencement speech.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” Wallace uses this not to assert that he is the wise older fish but rather to make the case that the obvious, most important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see or talk about. It is the depressive who carries with her this simple and useful awareness. That life is utterly absurd.

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian philosopher (although he preferred not to be called one), popularized this term in his philosophy of absurdism. Camus argued that there was a certain incongruence between man and the universe. Namely, human beings always strive for some sort of purpose and, unfortunately, we are unable to find such meaning in the universe. The product of this rift is “The Absurd”, a fundamental disharmony at the core of existence.

Especially in the last few decades, as humanity finds itself at the deepest end of the pool with little to cling on to, the absurd creeps into every waking moment. Hopes to find meaning through God, meta-narratives and even the notion of ones individuality have all come under the microscope. Camus argues that hope is the real issue behind this.

He refers back to Nietzsche’s story of Pandora’s Box. All of the evils of the world, the plague, flooding, famine, have been unleashed by Zeus while the remaining evil is left in a box. Why is hope so evil?

It is, after all, the reason why humans let themselves be tormented — because they anticipate an ultimate reward”.

Instead of valuing ones life here and now, individuals hope for a better life beyond, such as in an after life. According to Camus, only once we realize that our hopes of being immortal and significant will never be satisfied, that is once we recognize the Absurd, can we live a good life. “The world is beautiful and outside there is no salvation” he writes.

Camus himself would attempt to live without hope and take part in the earthly delights of adultery that would contribute to his wife’s later suicide attempt. In fact, Camus’ tumultuous attempts to live beyond hope, something the depressive may struggle with regularly, uncovers some issues with no longer hoping. For instance, we may end up hurting others through our hedonistic indulgences into the present, as Camus could attest. And, significantly, ‘not hoping’ seems almost entirely impossible from a psychological standpoint.

IV. The Strange Hope

Camus even recognized man’s inability to live without hope even if we wanted to. It is very likely that we are always hoping for something and that, psychologically speaking, it may be almost impossible to stop hoping. It has been suggested recently that Camus’ philosophy of absurdism allows space for this inability, in what has been called a “Strange Hope…directed towards the possibilities inherent in the present “.

This line of thinking is taken up in the philosophy of the French existentialist Gabriel Marcel. Marcel saw the human being in a strange predicament. He recognizes that he’s an existing thing and yet desires to prove that his life is more significant than this. This is very much in line with Camus’ “Absurd”.

Marcel argues that the individual, in striving for greater significance, initially believes that the things around him can give him meaning and value. Suddenly the desire to possess surmounts the desire to simply be. Life then becomes a series of instances to possess, to control and own the things that he believes will give value to his existence.

This drive to possess in order to satisfy the hope for meaning originates at the very heart of the Marcelian distinction between problem and mystery. For the most part, we see this absurd discrepancy, between being and becoming something meaningful, as a problem to be solved. The depressive, for instance, sees depression as a problem, an obstacle to conquer. This, he argues to a certain extent, is a product of the technical character of modern society, the urge to systematize everything into problems awaiting a solution. A problem does not involve the person who is asking the question or pressing the issue. In fact, the identity of the questioner can be altered while the problem remains a constant.

Marcel urges us to reframe our problem with existence into a mystery of existence or being. A mystery, unlike a problem, is meta-problematic. The identity of the questioner is integral to the question being raised. This is the mystery of being. One cannot address what being is and who one is separately. They are only coherent as questions when taken together.

Furthermore, solving mysteries is very different from solving problems. Mysteries may not even be open to solutions. However, they demand participation and involvement; they require our entire being. When confronted by a problem, such as feeling sick, we hope to feel better. However, when we are confronted by a mystery, such as depression or life, it’s not always entirely clear what we are to hope for. Marcel favours this hope, a general and absolute hoping, “the act by which […] temptation to despair is actively or victoriously overcome”. Instead of hoping for X or Y, we simply hope. There is no anticipation for a specific event but rather a strange but profound assertion that “everything is not necessarily lost”.

This does not mean that the person who hopes in this way accepts things as they are. Marcel viewed this strange hope as an active patience. It analyzes, probes, and actively strives towards being, all while accepting the mysterious character of its very work. This is not optimism, that anticipates or desires a certain outcome. The optimists desires can be ruined by a turn of events but the one who embraces this vague hope, the hero that maintains their hope, surmounts the despair embedded in all mysteries.

Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me.

When all hope seems lost, we nonetheless hope for something to hope for. Hope then, as Homer Simpson has also championed alcohol to be, is truly the source of and solution to all of our problems. And, as Jung writes

the greater and most important problems of life are all insoluble. They can never be solved but only outgrown….This does not mean that the problem is robbed of its reality, it means that instead of being in it, one is now above it”.

We are the mystery of our being. We are the hope that strives for its resolution. We are, perhaps, our only hope. And as long as we remain breathing, so to will this undying light, whether psychological or metaphysical, guide us through despair, urging us to push on. At times we may find strife in hoping for a better day, for an alleviation from depression, for sunny mornings and tender kisses. Nonetheless, in complete recognition of your personal struggles and your nightly flights of anguish, your sense of worthlessness, your dread, even in the depths of your hopelessness I ask you to betray all logic and reason; I ask you to nonetheless hope.

Epilogue

When he would over-philosophize and feel an unbearable dread in his heart, the philosopher David Hume, would retire to his quarters and play games with his friends and laugh and eat.

And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

I didn’t intend to compose an argument against or solve anti-natalism, nihilism, or the deep loneliness you’ve been feeling about that girl from work leaving you on read. I don’t think the mysteries of being should be solved anyways. Over-intellectualizing can imprison someone into a life of contemplative unhappiness, sacrificing ones few breaths on Earth for a chance at some sort of higher order truth.

We mustn’t forget to live, to laugh, to listen to good music, to mess up, to create beautiful, and ugly, art. I cannot hope to solve your depression and urge you to seek the resources that are available. And philosophy can’t also hope to solve your problems, its not always very medicinal. Just take a glance at all of the philosophers that have taken their lives. In some respects, only you can help yourself. Only you can decide if life is good. I wish I could convince you but words always have a great way of impoverishing the most necessary of truths.

After this long rant and to paraphrase the closing paragraph of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus’, I leave you at the foot of the mountain. You do always find your burden again. But you possess a strange hope that rejects the need for Gods and instead raises rocks. You too conclude that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to you neither sterile nor futile.

Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world.

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill your heart.

I imagine you happy.

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