by Megan M. Garwood
Traditional branches of philosophy include metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and logic. In academic discourses, these branches are generally treated separately. Brilliant scholars dedicate their lives to studying within these disciplines. But there is overlap, intersection, cross-germination. Logic is the basis for parsing ethical dilemmas. Metaphysics, one could argue, is the foundation of aesthetic appreciation. For the purpose of this essay, I would like to discuss the cleavage between ethics and aesthetics, and how value judgment exists beyond these realms.
Ethics is the study of moral predicaments, problems and principles. Three major areas of study include normative ethics, meta-ethics, and applied ethics. Normative ethics concerns value judgments—what one ought to do or what one ought not to do. Here, we find concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. Meta-ethics (a personal favorite of your humble writer) comes from the root meta, meaning “after” or “beyond.” This area concerns the origin and meaning of ethical concepts. It asks whether the truth values of ethical categories can be determined. Finally, applied ethics is an examination of what one ought to do in private and personal life, while it also includes questions of social policy, international justice, and so on. These theories help construct standards within the confines of everyday life.
Aesthetics, like ethics, involves value judgments and normative claims. When one experiences a natural setting, a film, an artwork, a song or a novel, this aesthetic experience inevitably evokes emotion. The desire to communicate this emotion is a natural and healthy reaction. Such experiences generate a social practice of sharing. Beyond expressing emotion, aesthetic judgments have a normative force that purports to be valid for others, and we can be called upon to justify our aesthetic judgments. Communicating our aesthetic experiences becomes the fabric of our social interactions and mimics our ethical interactions.
Conversely, the obligatory basis of ethics has great bearing on the study of aesthetics. Pathos bridges the ethical and aesthetic. This becomes clear, as is often the case, when things go wrong. Depression is a prime example.
People have the desire to construct socially-accepted value judgments. Aesthetics reflects our similar desire to categorize artistic weaknesses and strengths. This applies to how we view people. For too long, psychiatric diseases have been considered weaknesses. This is particularly damning to academic careers, especially philosophy.
In late February, Peter Railton, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, delivered an autobiographical Dewey lecture. He spoke on how depression had shaped his career. He said, “It is fear of just such social embarrassment and humiliation that have kept me from calling depression by its right name.” He described the depths of it in detail, “it isn’t sadness or moodiness, it is above all a logic that undermines from within, that brings to bear all the mind’s mighty resources in convincing you that you’re worthless, incapable, unloveable, and everyone would be better off without you.” He pleaded for greater openness about depression (both to enable those who are depressed to seek help, and to encourage others to recognize that depression is an illness that can be treated or managed, and not a disqualification or personal weakness.
Secrecy about depression is pervasive in the writings of many great philosophers. David Hume (1711-1776) confessed in an anonymous letter to a physician that he was suffering from “a weakness rather than a lowness of spirits which troubles me… a coldness and desertion of the spirit.” He did not use his name out a fear to expose a weakness that could injure his credibility.
In 1873, John Stuart Mill took the extraordinary step discussing his “mental breakdown” in the fifth chapter of his autobiography, though the thinking of the time failed to go beyond the idea of someone’s “nerves” failing because, for example, of overly strenuous study. Mill wrote of the experience of his breakdown, “one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent” and “[f]or some months the cloud seemed to grow thicker and thicker.” These symptoms we now associate with depressive disorders.
The philosopher William James (1842-1910) dedicated himself to the ontology of happiness. He offered a prescriptive theory, in which he suggested that happiness was a choice, and consisted in orienting yourself to a higher purpose, “even if that purpose cannot be rationally proved to exist.” Interestingly, James embraced depression. He claimed that restoration from depression led to greater happiness because the sufferer becomes “a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) came from a family prone to depression. Three of his brothers committed suicide. A patented perfectionist, he toiled over logic, mathematics and the philosophy of language. He was troubled with the limitations of language and its effect on expression. Until his death from prostate cancer, his family worried about the possibility he would take his own life.In concluding his Dewey lecture, Railton suggested a novel philosophical solution to the problem of depression: He recommended seeking help. For several years, Railton lived without appropriate care and found life almost impossible to bear. He was unable to reason himself out of his state. It took an external hand to remind him that he was a talented, intelligent person, and that depression had distorted his perception of himself and the world.
As a past student of Railton, I could never fully express his empathy for students and passion for the discourse. He truly changed the way I looked at the world, how I thought, and how I approached problems, that was with self-confidence. He made his students believe that we could tackle difficult tasks. Now, once again, he pushes boundaries of our minds and asks us to approach disease with the same understanding and vigor that we approach the toughest problems in our fields.
Railton’s lecture is only an introduction to a much larger topic, and that is derived from integration of psychiatric diseases and academic theory. Firstly, studying this genealogy of philosophical theories of depression provides a foundation to be a thoughtful, yet happy, human being. Ignorance is not the only bliss: Understanding ailment renders solution. Studying the history and theories of depression and happiness can help us negotiate our individual struggles.
Secondly, current philosophers and psychologists are collaborating to hypothesize helpful treatments for depression. For example, in my next essay, I will take a closer look at “Navigating Into the Future or Driven by the Past,” by Railton, Martin E. P. Seligman, Roy F. Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada. The essay discusses our reliance on therapy focused on decisions determined by deliberations of the past, rather than future possibilities.
Finally, depression and other psychiatric diseases physically affect the body. Scientists have been experimenting with the connections among perception, eyesight and depression. This has interest to an art audience, as perhaps these diseases have influenced historical artists’ palettes and composition as much, if not more, than artists’ intentions. I will look at perception in another article as well.