by John Clark
Philosophy is in decline. You hear it all the time. The evidence is regularly trotted out: fewer graduates; no jobs; no prospects; a lack of interest from the culture, etc. It’s become a tedious verity.
But hold on, how can that be? The oracle of the humanities cast out of public discourse, lost and forgotten. Really? Do we collectively not love wisdom anymore? In our modern world, have we cast off the mantle of being wise earth-dwellers; of being Homo sapiens? Have we somehow come to be above it all? Are we no longer enamored of our collective role amongst all creatures on the planet of being reasonable? That can’t be right. What are we if not wise? Knowledge and good choices, these things are timeless, inescapable. What’s happened to us? What’s happened to our collective minds to permit philosophy’s decline?
Something’s very wrong. We’ve become alienated from ourselves. Philosophy must be sick. There’s an illness afoot, a broad mental affliction that’s spread amongst humanity; dare I say it, a pandemic. No, not that one, a different one; one that’s been around much longer; one that’s been building for centuries; an illness of mind, of culture, and of society. It’s the only thing that can explain our collective lack of interest in wisdom; the decline of our love for the essence of who we are.
We need a doctor, and Galen comes to mind. He famously said, “The best doctor is also a philosopher.” Perhaps medicine can help. Alas, medicine is sick too. Physicians are killing themselves at an alarming rate. Burnout in is pervasive and expanding and is more prominent in medicine than in any other profession. Doctors are suffering and dying. The healers themselves are ill and in need of healing. Perhaps the pandemic of mind has also afflicted them.
I’m a doctor. I burned out. I became mentally afflicted and was in decline. It wasn’t pretty. I’ve tried to recover. Thankfully, I was saved … by philosophy. I’m serious. Healing my mind came in the form of healing my wisdom and my knowledge and my sense of the good. I discovered that medicine needs philosophy to be well. But I’ve also come to believe that philosophy needs medicine to recover from its own decline. Philosophy and medicine can help one another. The best philosopher is also a doctor, one who understands disorders of thought and what’s good for humanity. And humanity needs both to work together so as to heal our collective wisdom and not only save philosophy but medicine and indeed the world.
Healing first requires a diagnosis; a thorough understanding of the illness before the appropriate treatment can be applied. From within my own burnout and recovery, I made such a diagnosis, one born of a simple observation from within my own disintegration: that it was through being more emotional rather than less that I got better. Profound questions arose, not the least of which was “what is an emotion?” Such questions inexorably lead to questions of knowledge and the good, timeless philosophic questions. They led me to my self-diagnosis as well as medicine’s. Yet through my inquires they also led to a diagnosis of the ills of philosophy and its decline, and you’re not going to like what I found.
It’s the illness of hyper-intellectualization, of extreme estrangement from our passions. It is a pathologically abstracted mental state born of excess objectivity, unyielding detachment, and a profound lack of sensitivity to life. Its symptoms are those of being becalmed of mind, nihilistically unmoved, and lost in doldrums of knowing. Thus, by nature, it is both an ethical and epistemic illness. Ataraxia is here used less in the epicurean sense of perpetual tranquility born of “freedom” from “negative” emotions (e.g. anxiety) and more in the stoic sense of freedom from mental/emotional disturbance (though both are still here considered mentally incarcerating and unhealthy in their own way). To understand the etiology of such an illness, one must have an understanding of the human mind as well as disorders in its currently dominant formulation in the culture in terms intellect and emotion and how each contributes to knowledge and the good.
The human intellect evolved to solve problems. It employs a willfully executed mental process assessing perceptual input that is conscious, slow, methodical, reductive, abstract and designed to produce objective mechanistic knowledge that enables one to exert control over the future (i.e. plan). This process is generally referred to as thinking. Technology is one of its byproducts. Inevitably, intellect considers as anathema its converse: a mental process assessing perceptual input that is subconscious, spontaneous, fast, intuitive, wholistic, relational and designed to produce subjective economic knowledge (knowledge of gain and loss) applicable to the present. I am speaking, of course, of emotions. Given the centrality of willful control to the intellect, burnout and ataraxia are afflictions of the hyper-controlled mind and its suppression of the spontaneous mind. The signs and symptoms of such hyper-intellectualization and its ills can be observed, from ancient times to the present day.
In terms of philosophy, examples of hyper-intellectualization are myriad. Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher deemed by some the father of modern science for his observation-based, atomist theories of matter, deemed knowledge garnered through sensual experience as “bastard” knowledge that is inherently errant, while characterizing knowledge obtained through the application of the intellect as “legitimate.”1 Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, elevated the unaffected mind in terms of the classic Stoic calm: “A bad feeling is a commotion of mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.”2 René Descartes’ epistemic struggles led to his project of doubt that ended with his seminal thought “I think therefore I am,” which conspicuously excludes feelings from among the self-evident truths defining our existence.3 But, it may have been Baruch Spinoza who was the most strident in his declaration of the primacy of the intellect in his 1677 Ethics,
Without intelligence there is not rational life: and things are only good, in so far as they aid man in his enjoyment of the intellectual life, which is defined by intelligence. Contrariwise, whatsoever things hinder man’s perfecting of his reason, and capability to enjoy the rational life, are alone called evil.4
Modern philosophy hasn’t been much kinder to the emotions. Nietzsche’s nihilism, so influential in modernity, expresses a denial of emotion by way of its dismissal of morality: “(M)oralities are … merely a sign language of the affects.”5 Jesse Prinz, in his Gut Reactions, excludes uncontrolled emotions from the realms of cognition by declaring, “If emotions are cognitive, they must be under cognitive control.”6 Ronald De Sousa, in his The Rationality of Emotion, also argues against emotional cognition by stating that “emotions are not beliefs”7 and as such cannot be justified or true and thus can’t be a form of knowledge. Even modern dual process theory, which purports to incorporate emotionality into our global mental function, subsumes emotion under an intellectual paradigm, exemplified by Daniel Kahnaman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011).8 The emotive mind doesn’t think but feels, and all of these philosophies highlight the Western refusal to accept emotions into the category of knowledge, that most vaulted tier of human mental life.
To be sure there have been philosophical reactions against this kind of hyper-intellectualization. The notion of embracing motivation through spontaneous mental abandon as opposed to intentional free will is embodied in the German Sturm und Drang (storm and drive) movement of the late 1700’s that rebelled against the rational constraints of Enlightenment and embraced the free expression of extremes of emotion in guiding motivation. This movement gave birth to the German Counter-Enlightenment and the Romanticism of the early 1800’s with that movement’s reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature and it’s mechanistic offspring, the Industrial Revolution.9; 10 Trust in emotion lies at the heart of such philosophical movements as Transcendentalism in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, with its belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature and the reliability of human intuition.11 Such counter formulations of the human mind in terms of intuitive affect can be seen as calls for balance. Yet they have largely faded as time has passed and remain as little more than echoes of a bygone ethos.
Intellectual dominion hasn’t remained confined within our minds but has flowed out to dominate our culture. Humanity has come to deeply identify with its intellect and regard itself though a reductionist, mechanistic lens. Brain science is all the rage as we express the essence of who we are in terms of one singular, disembodied human organ. Science, the paradigmatic process of intellectual knowing, is recruited to answer virtually every inquiry, and technology, scientific intelligence’s greatest by-product, is deployed to address virtually every problem. Billions are fed on cultivated and domesticated food, live in constructed habitations, travel vast distances in elaborate machines, surrounded themselves with all kinds of advanced appliances, and communicate through virtual means. Human technology has come to profoundly impact the planet itself by illuminating the night, altering the atmosphere, and terraforming the land. The noosphere – the area of the earth influenced by the human intellect – can now arguably be said to blanket the entire planet and has established what some have called the age of the Anthropocene.12
The future of humanity is envisioned largely in intellectual terms. There is in popular culture today a common myth regarding the unlocked mental potential of human beings, potential thought to lay in the sphere of intellect.13 The fact that there is vigorous human effort being expended on artificial intelligence but nothing is ever heard of artificial intuition evinces humanity’s bias for the controlled, volitional aspect of its mind. Scientific positivism, while tarnished, still pervades our culture. There is even mythical, futuristic talk of a coming singularity when our exponentially growing collective intellectual knowledge will, through technology, somehow empower humanity to “transcend biology” and become something “post-human.”14, 15 These ideas posit the human intellect’s capacity to escape not only our bodies but our given nature. Finally, tech entrepreneur Byron Reese, in his book Infinite Progress (2013), gives words to the secret Icarian dream of human consciousness since its emergence regarding the intellect’s ability to solve the ultimate problem facing human life:
Since technology grows exponentially, not in a linear way, we will see dramatic improvements in our way of life in just a few years. … There is a real chance you will never die, since mortality may be just a technical problem we solve.16
Is any of this dysfunctional? While the power of the intellect is indeed showcased by all these achievements, one need not look far to find any number of ills inflicted by our hyper-intellectualization. Some examples:
- Following an intellectual bias in conceptualizing ourselves, we have deconstructed human nature, sub-atomized our understanding of ourselves, and reduced ourselves to biological machines. In so doing we have annihilated the emergent value of our humanity. The parts of us not amenable to rational, mechanistic understanding and control are being ignored and forgotten.
- The advancing capacity for manipulating the human genome in the service of some arbitrarily genetic ideal threatens to make us forget our naturally wild, created human nature and to limit the rich resource that is our individual variation.
- Technology has pulled us away from our immediate circumstance into an abstracted reality. For the purposes of being connected, countless humans walk around mesmerized by tiny glowing “smart” screens that make them both disconnected from their relations and unaware of their present situation. This mental abstraction is evidently sickening the human mind. 17, 18
- Millions have violently died in modern, mechanized warfare fought for control over natural resources and conceptual markets; wars made necessary by rational, population-based strategies that are inherently unmindful of intimate human suffering.
- Through the numeric insulation of the stock market, we have abstracted financial decisions from their real-world, human consequences and in so doing have damaged our empathy. The social responsibility we have for the relational effects on both others and our globe by our investing has been rationalized into an insensitive, arithmetic haze of guiltless oblivescence.
- By the abstract leveraging of unrealized future income into the present day, we have lost our grasp on the hard, financial realities of the present moment and created a toxic fiscal brew that threatens economic catastrophe.
- Through the reductionist investigation of the nature of matter, we have unleashed the deranged nuclear capacity for the atomic annihilation of our whole society.
- Uninformed human technological effect on our world has unknowingly created widespread havoc in the form of such disasters as: The Dust Bowl; The Great London Smog of 1952; acid rain; the ever-growing list of vast environmental oil spills; the Bhopal chemical plant disaster; the Chernobyl nuclear explosion; the eutrophied Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone; the Pacific Gyre garbage patch; the sixth mass extinction of life on the Earth; and more.
- The widespread burning of long-extinct fossilized life on earth as well as the earth’s living forests in order to fuel our efforts for control is polluting the very air that blankets our globe on which we so intimately depend and threatens our species with its own globally heated extinction.
Madness traditionally has been considered a state of being “out of your mind.” But there is a different kind of madness, one that comes from being too much in control of one’s mind. The unbalanced human striving for power and control over the mind and over existence has created a self-inflicted cognitive impairment that is perversely leading humanity to alienation, chaos, and self-destruction. Call this cultural affliction the Dementia Imperium; the madness of control. It is the hieratic offspring of Descartes’ cogito, a result of assessing existence purely through the act of thinking.
Our species is losing its passionate, intuitive knowledge of value by way of rational reduction and intellectual abstraction. We appear not to know what we are doing to ourselves in our hyper-intellectualized Lethean haze and have forgotten our place in the world. We seem to have lost our instinct for survival. The dominant culture collectively sails on undeterred from its course as if demented, staying rigidly faithful to the idea of intellectual salvation and oblivious to the tempests laying on the horizon. Together, we have lost our minds.
Consider the metaphor of “burnout.” Something fiery, hot, bright, dynamic, energetic, and enlivening has gone out. What in the human psyche fits this description, if not our passions? Medicine heals itself by coming out of its hyper-controlled head and into the uncontrolled wilds of the heart to rediscover the empathy that is its raison d’être. It must relearn how to be vulnerable and affected by the suffering of others, which is both frightening and hard. Yet medicine is familiar with struggles between the uncontrolled and the controlled; between mystery and knowledge. Patients come to us with a mystery in the form of their symptoms, and the physician must strive to come to a state of knowledge in the form of a diagnosis, if any healing is to begin. A key aspect to such medical wisdom is the sober acceptance of the uncontrolled. The manifest fact of a universal human mortality makes the reality of this painfully evident in medicine. Healing medicine in the face of such uncontrolled reality requires accepting humanity’s powerlessness and our collective unknowing while at the same time exercising compassion.
Extending this medical lesson to the culture, to heal from the Dementia Imperium, we must rediscover that our passions are the ground of our compassions and that the health of our societies depends on the latter; that hope for a brighter human future depends upon our commitment to not just the individual good, but the common good. Extending medicine’s lesson to philosophy, there is wisdom in accepting the uncontrolled aspects of the mind. We can be reasonably passionate. Therein lies a good. To heal from ataraxia, philosophy needs to accept and embrace the wilds of the mind. It needs to make peace with the wilds of the mind and to manage the conflicted interplay between them and the domesticated intellect, to find a mental balance that’s neither too instinctual nor too rational. Wisdom and Reason both are found in such balance. There is no other way.
The decline of philosophy is found not in any errors of rationality but in its alienation from the human experience. Philosophy itself is struggling with burnout. Its fire is waning through cold, intellectual domestication. If philosophy is ever to heal, it will need to have the courage to break out of this insipid prison. If it is ever to to be whole and healthy, it will need to free itself and let itself go wild. It must boldly venture out into spontaneous untamed regions of human awareness to discover, not humanity’s controlled, constructed, and civilized self, but it’s wild, natural, and fierce one. Philosophy needs to emerge from its safe, orderly tower and come out into the frightening, conflicted, dirty, painful, bloody and beautiful world that we live in.
Dr. Clark is a practicing physician with a BA in biochemistry from UC Berkeley and an MD from UC Davis. He has worked for twenty-five years doing full scope family medicine in Salinas, CA and is an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine through UCSF. He teaches an Art and Philosophy in Medicine course to medical students and residents though Natividad Family Medicine Residency Program in Salinas.
- Fr. 135 (Bakalis (2005)): Theophrastus 12, De Sensu [On the Senses], 49–83.
- As quoted in Tusculanae Quaestiones by Cicero, iv. 6.
- Descartes, René. A Discourse on Method. London: J.M. Dent, 1912. Print
- Spinoza, Benedictus De. Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order. Part V, Appendix V, 1667.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil. 1886, p 187
- Prinz, Jesse J. Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. p 48. Print
- De Sousa, Ronald. The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1987. p 173. Print
- Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Print
- Garland, H. B. Storm and Stress: (Sturm Und Drang). London: Harrap, 1952. Print
- Pascal, Roy. “The “Sturm Und Drang” Movement.” The Modern Language Review2 (1952): 129.
- Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007. Print.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Age of Man.” National Geographic Mar. 2011: 20-25. Print
- Beyerstein, Barry L. (1999), “Whence Cometh the Myth that We Only Use 10% of our Brains?”, in Della Salla, Sergio, Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain, Wiley, p. 11
- Vinge, Vernor. The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive the Post Human Era, 1993. http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Global/Singularity/sing.html. Retrieved 28 Sept., 2015
- Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking, 2005. Print
- Reese, Byron. Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group, 2013. Print.
- Kuss, Daria J., and Mark D. Griffiths. “Online Social Networking and Addiction, A Review of the Psychological Literature.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 8, no. 12, 2011, pp. 3528–3552.
- Twenge, Jean M., et al. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Psychological Science, November 14, 2017.