Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture (updated)


A number of people have remarked (here and elsewhere) on the Dewey Lecture delivered by Peter Railton (Michigan) at the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division Meeting this past week. Professor Railton has been kind enough to provide me with a copy of the lecture, which he emphasizes is a draft.  I have posted it here (UPDATE 2/27/15: this is a link to a slightly revised version of the draft originally linked to).

At the start of the lecture, Railton notes that “Dewey Lectures are supposed to be different—following Dewey’s idea that education is a process of living, not the preparation for living, the Lecturer is asked to talk about his or her own life story, and interweave this with larger developments in the field.” Railton then goes on to do just this, addressing social, professional, and personal matters in a very moving way, culminating in a discussion of depression.

He writes:

Why should I contribute to making it harder for others to acknowledge their depression and seek help? I know what has held me back all these years. Would people think less of me? Would I seem to be tainted, reduced in their eyes, someone with an inner failing whom no one would want to hire or with whom no one would want to marry or have children? Would even friends start tip-toeing around my psyche? Would colleagues trust me with responsibility? I’m now established in my career, so some of these questions have lost some of their bite for me. But not all of them. And think of those who are not as well-placed as I have come to be. Think how these questions can as resonate in the mind of a depressed undergraduate or graduate student, trying and failing to do his work, trying to earn the confidence and esteem of his teachers, worried what his friends and parents will think, afraid to show his face in the Department, struggling to find his first job. Will he feel free to come forward and ask for help? Or think of a young faculty member, trying to earn the confidence and esteem of her colleagues, perhaps one of the 12-13% of women who will experience a depressive episode in association with pregnancy? Will she feel free to come forward? We’re beginning to accept parental or care-giver leave as a normal part of a career—will faculty feel equally able to request medical leave for depression?…

What does it say to our students or colleagues, how does it contribute their ability to seek care, or to escape a sense of utter loneliness and inability to make it out the other side, if even grey grown-ups like me with established careers and loving families can’t be open about the depression that has so deeply shaped our lives, and who can make it clear by our very selves, there’s real help, you can make it, it’s worth it, you’re worth it.

Perhaps if enough of us, of all ages and walks of life, parents, children, brothers, co-workers, spouses, relatives, deans and directors, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, can be open about our passages through mental illness, a shadowy stigma will fade away in the broad light of day. We must call it mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness. And when we hear of mental illness, treatment should be the first thing that comes to mind, not shame and withdrawal.

Discussion of this and other issues raised in Railton’s lecture are welcome.

UPDATE (2/25/15): Inside Higher Ed has an article on Railton’s lecture here. Several philosophers follow Railton’s lead and discuss their own stories of depression and mental illness here. Eric Schliesser focuses on the political activism aspects of Railton’s lecture at Digressions & Impressions.

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