“Crazy Genius” Philosophers, Logic, and Mental Illness


Interestingly, having studied a lot of logic in graduate school, I observed that the culture of logic is more accepting of mental illness, though not for most people. Given the stereotype of the “crazy genius logician”—exemplified, for instance, by Kurt Gӧdel—neuro-typicality does not seem to be a precondition for success.

That’s Audrey Yap (University of Victoria) in an interview with Shelley Tremain about her life, her work, and the philosophy profession, at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog.

She adds:

Given many other aspects of the culture in logic, however, atypicality only seems acceptable if you are already a genius. It’s O.K., after all, for a genius to be awkward and difficult to work with; but it’s not O.K. for the rest of us.

Do others have the sense that “neuro-atypicality” is more accepted in logic than in other branches of philosophy? And what is the relationship between the perceptions of certain philosophers as geniuses and our perceptions of them as “neuro-atypical”? (And can we have this discussion in a way that doesn’t involve identifying specific living philosophers as mentally ill without their explicit permission to do so? And that does not involve pretending to know more about people or mental conditions than we do?)

Yap, who discusses her depression in the interview, says:

I think that depression and similar phenomena that are generally classified as mental illnesses will continue to be stigmatized so long as we participate in a culture that aims to cultivate genius and maximize productivity. The self-doubt and isolation that often accompany depression are hard to reconcile with the confident attitude and bold claims that are often rewarded as signs of a serious-minded and deep-thinking philosopher.

I see Yap’s concern, but my impulse here is to look for possibilities of inclusiveness—widening our focus, rather than shifting it. So I’d want to ask, “can’t we have both”? Cultivating genius—whatever that currently involves—helps us get some geniuses, right? And that’s good. The real problem (and maybe Yap would agree) is that cultivating geniuses solely in the way we’ve been doing it is the problem. We pay more attention to attention-grabbing characteristics and the persons who display them, and while that sometimes yields good results, it sometimes comes at the neglect of good philosophers who don’t engage in overt attention-grabbing behavior (recall this claim: “Being good at seeming smart is perhaps the central disciplinary skill for philosophers“).

The fix, it seems, would be to do a better job of paying attention to, encouraging, and rewarding more than just the bold and the confident. That doesn’t seem impossible.

Read the whole interview here.

well well well

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