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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LLH
LLH
6 years ago

“We’ll never know what this ideology of smartness has cost the discipline over the years in terms of the discouragement of creative minds of all ages who just didn’t, or wouldn’t, fit that mold.”

I cannot help but notice that Railton is echoing one of the most central themes from this DN post: http://dailynous.com/2015/02/10/the-intellectual-costs-of-misconduct/Report

J C McG
J C McG
6 years ago

Can anyone who was there tell us what the reaction was? Standing ovation I hope?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

I now completely understand why Janice Dowell said that she was unashamed to say she openly wept. Just reading it, I’m having the same reaction.Report

LLH
LLH
6 years ago

@J C McG I’m given to understand that there were in fact *two* standing ovations, lasting about 10 solid minutes.Report

Non
Non
6 years ago

Yes, definitely standing ovation, and more than half of the audience crying (me included) with Railton trying hard not to cry (not very successful on that account and therefore even more impressive) and telling us that he would prefer an arrest&beating from the police (like in his youth when in strike at Harvard) than to stand there and face this confession. But here he was.Report

Polo
Polo
6 years ago

There was definitely a standing ovation.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

There were indeed two standing ovations, one at the end of his talk and one at the end of the Q&A period.Report

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

Does anyone know if video or audio of the lecture will be posted online?Report

dankaufman!
dankaufman!
6 years ago

Holy shit! Peter Railton, you are amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
6 years ago

I know Peter a bit–he was my dissertation co-chair. He has also has been a philosophical hero to me for a long time. I think it fair to say that he is a reserved and private person and so this discussion was harder for him than it would have been for some. That added greatly to my admiration of him speaking up as he did despite it rather clearly being about the least comfortable thing he could. I was so inspired by his words and hope I can learn from his example. It helps me, I think and hope, to see real bravery in action. It helps me, I hope, to have a real life hero that I have seen in action that I can try to live up to. That is what his words did for me. But for others, who suffer from depression, I am sure his words did so much more. Let us keep up the momentum from his heroic action and expand the discussion of depression and changing the culture of philosophy more generally.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

‘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.’

I have to say, as a philosopher and someone who has suffered from depression (and to an extent still does) this passage really rubbed me the wrong way, especially the ‘no more of the essence of a person than any other illness’, though I’m probably being somewhat over-sensitive and I agree with the commendation for Railton’s bravery. (Much greater than mine

Firstly, as a person who’s experienced depression, I feel comments like the above are telling me which of my own feelings, often very deep feelings about hugely spiritually and existentially important matters, I am and am not allowed to identify with. Or at least implying, without any real argument, that I’m somehow more deluded to identify with certain feelings than others. It’s actually quite distressing to be pressured into taking a third person, outside view of your own feelings if you don’t want to, or to have people point out all the possibly a-rational origins of those feelings (as if all moods and emotions aren’t effected by those sorts of factors, and are often none the worse for them.) (I have to say that I’ve experienced more trouble from other people trying sincerely to be helpful who have this sort of attitude than I have with the much-discussed ‘stigma’, though I know that many other people’s experience on this is different from mine, and that experience that stigma will be worse than what I’ve experienced. No one has ever told me to ‘man up’ or ‘get over it’ within philosophy EVER, and people have consistently been kind and understanding when I, for example, needed to take time off, or lost my temper in the seminar room when suffering from very high stress and anxiety. But plenty people have tried to make me recognize the ‘true’ nature of my feelings as all and only illness and only illness in a way i’ve found quite alienating even though it was well meant.)

Secondly, as a philosopher, I feel much more comfortable when people don’t try to close off certain lines of thought on the grounds that they upset people and therefore must be taboo. (Obviously, this is not a license to be a dick, and far too many people in philosophy, especially men, especially men who identify strongly with mainstream analytic philosophy-as I do- take it to be one.) It seems to me that there are very real philosophical issues about whether depression is really best classified as an illness which ought not to be closed off by fiat. For example, is it really best seen as being similar to paradigm cases as disease, or simply a side of the normal functioning of the brain’s emotional system that happens to feel very subjectively unpleasant (and yes, I reiterate, I have experienced it, and know how awful it feels and that it impedes normal life in many ways.) Can it sometimes actually be in some sense a *fitting* response to life events, or even just general aspects of the human condition, even if it interferes with doing worthwhile things and feels awful? (I’d also note that we don’t want to contribute to the widespread popular impression that depression is known by scientists to be caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain and that it is easily treated with ‘highly effective’ anti-depressants, both of which are actually very dubious claims if you know the science.) I hope that thinking freely about these things and happening to come up with the ‘wrong answer’ (I’m not implying that thinking freely about them means by more likely to come up with any particular answer, or to disagree with Railton’s view) won’t become seen by people on the (let’s be honest) ‘left’ of academic philosophy as a sign that someone holds that people who are depressed could just change it if they wanted to, or that they are morally responsible for being depressed, or just lazy whiners, or that they’re weak if they take anti-depressants rather than ‘facing their real selves’ or something. Such views are often associated with doubt about the claim that depression is an ‘illness’, but it should be clear that they don’t actually follow from denying that claim, or from a view that depression is simply a strong and persistent pattern of negative moods and thoughts not best classified as ‘diseased’ but merely as unpleasant and unwanted (one can not want thoughts whilst identifying with them.)Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

tldr: Would you tell Schopenhauer that his pessimism was ‘just’ the result of a lack of serotonin.Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
6 years ago

11
“Secondly, as a philosopher, I feel much more comfortable when people don’t try to close off certain lines of thought on the grounds that they upset people and therefore must be taboo.”
Who said this, or anything like it? All I saw was his taking a position on a subject where you have a different position. He did not offer an extended argument for it because he was doing biography not a paper on moral psychology and personal identity. I happen to think that his view is correct and that we should have an attitude of defeasible deference to the relevant medical experts about what does and does not count as a disease. But my thinking that, and Railton’s expressing it does not stop you from providing an argument for the opposing claim, nor did Railton say anything like that you should not do so or that you should not be allowed to do so because it would hurt feelings. So get writing that article on ‘Depression, Identity and the Nature of Mental Illness’ because it sounds like a potentially interesting topic and no one is trying to stop you.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Fair enough, no one actually *said* that anything should be taboo, so maybe I was being a bit unfair and paranoid. But an opinion expressed on this topic very emphatically, in a talk which is basically about how to be a good person, professionally, carries a certain kind of weight attached to it. And we all know that telling people their view is *offensive* in a political or pseudo-political way, which is basically what Railton is doing, given the ‘talk about being a good person professionally’ context, even if he doesn’t quite use the word ‘offensive’, carries a certain implication that people should not have expressed a view that merely calling the view ‘false’ doesn’t, and can be very effective at making expressing certain views uncomfortable (sometimes correctly! but this is not one of those times in my opinion: depression is ill understood-I’m not especially sure Railton’s view IS wrong, I just have a strong emotional reaction to it-and so are normative questions about which emotions are and aren’t ‘fitting’ in what ways, when.)Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
6 years ago

I find your interpretation of what he is saying bizarre. You attribute to him a claim about what is offensive that he does not make, and then go into the implicature of saying ‘offensive’ (which he didn’t) versus ‘false.’ For a speech act to have the illocutionary force of silencing/excluding, I am pretty sure the speech act must first actually occur. I think you are being unfair, and more than just a bit.
But to focus on what is more important, I am very appreciative of the message from Prof. Railton, and I hope that it is taken up in the spirit in which it was very clearly delivered.Report

Anoymous
Anoymous
6 years ago

Just wish to thank Peter Railton here, especially because he mentions women and post-partum depression. As a woman in philosophy who has a. children and b. depression, especially post-partum, I could not feel more like an alien. I really do not want to come any more forward than that. I feel these are three handicaps: woman, children and depression. Sometimes I wonder why I did this to myself and did not choose an easier line of work. But here I am still doing philosophy. In any case, thanks again, maybe if somebody like Peter Railton addresses the subject, academia will open up a bit more to these so-called “weaknesses”. Though I doubt that I will ive to see the day…Report

Simon Hewitt
Simon Hewitt
6 years ago

A very basic point. Depression can be *both* a response to life events (as a depressed philosopher myself, I struggle to find a precisification of the word ‘appropriate’ which makes it true that it’s an appropriate response – it’s a horrible, disabling illness) and associated with low seritonin levels in the brain (I’ve never encountered any scientifically informed person *identifying* the two). This supposed dichotomy seems to assume some kind of mind-body dualism.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

I just want to agree with Anon’s first point and agree that on first hearing it I felt a sting of offense (warranted or not). Having a mildly serious condition, the points when I have had the most difficulty dealing with it have been when therapists were trying to make me impose that sort of third-person picture which I found hugely destructive.

That said, I think its important to recognize the diversity of mental illness, the diversity of people who have them, and the agency of all involved in dealing with those things on a personal level. We should also be mindful, as these issues draw more attention, to disparities in what kinds of conceptions and narratives of mental illness receive the most attention so as not to further alienate particular subsets of those suffering from mental illness silently. Just speaking personally, I think talking about mental illness as just an illness and not a part of people as individuals is often worst perceived by people whose relevant mental condition did not have a set start date (people who have dealt with it since early childhood often.) That is just a conclusion about how I see and some close friends who have similar conditions see it though–everyone has the right to deal with it in their own way.Report

Non
Non
6 years ago

If I may, I would like to offer a more charitable interpretation to Railton’s lecture even if I do not agree with everything he said ( e.g. I do not agree that people with depression should not be let to teach for the sake of their students). People here seem bothered about assumptions or affirmations regarding the relation between self and depression. This is a very difficult topic and likely to be controversial: it is enough to start a conversation about “self” or “real self” or “identification” for that matter. I thought that the intention behind Railton’s talk was much more simple and regarding the social environment rather than the relation of the self with depression. Namely, I saw it like proposing that the academic social environment should find ways to talk about depression without blaming/punishing/excluding those affected; the main point, as I see it, was to try to breach the powerful barrier of “don’t ask don’t tell” as a public unofficial policy, NOT to propose a vision or theory about depression or its relation to the self. Granted, he does say something along the lines “it is just an illness, not who you are”, but I think this is just a possible strategy he is offering towards seeing people getting rid of prejudice against depression. I think he would not be opposed to other strategies with the same intended effect. So, maybe it is the wrong strategy ( I understand that this strategy separates “the real you” from “depression” and therefore gets rid of the blame because the blame was associated with depression; some people might want to protest that as they do not see why we should associate like this in the first place; but I thought he only meant to push against the “I am worthless” thought by saying “it is not true you are worthless, this is just the disease speaking or cells misbehaving”). In his defense, I would add that I was speaking to him after the lecture and I have presented an alternative cultural view regarding depression (I am from Eastern Europe), namely the view I have met often that depression might be a state in which someone has an increased sensitivity to injustice/ugliness/unhappiness and therefore reacts appropriately to the perceived reality; my culture admits that it might be that depressed people are right and the others just do not want to see what they are seeing (because it is not comfortable) – I do not know if I am presenting this right, please think Dostoevsky, Chekhov and so on …The point is Peter Railton was equally favoring this point of view. So, I gather, he did not mean to exclude depression from phenomenons that might legitimately belong to a self.Report

B
B
6 years ago

Regarding Anon #11’s being bothered by Railton’s comment that depression is “no more of the essence of a person than any other illness”: There is an illuminating passage in Haybron’s book The Pursuit of Unhappiness about this issue. I’ll quote it:

“Consider how a normally happy person might react to a bout of depression: ‘This just isn’t me; I feel like I’m not myself anymore, like a different person has taken over my body.’ Interestingly, chronic sufferers of depression sometimes find the happiness brought on by a successful course of antidepressant therapy to be deeply unsettling. They may discontinue the therapy altogether. This phenomenon, called ‘uplift anxiety,’ reflects a feeling that one is naturally an unhappy person, and that one is no longer oneself. Essentially, it is anxiety over the loss, deep alteration, or displacement of one’s identity. One must either embrace a new identity or go back to being depressed” (p. 183).

I assume that most people who experience depression experience it as a foreign invader, as an illness that comes in from the outside; when these people are cured of depression, they then feel like themselves again. Railton’s comment is accurate with respect to these people. (Certainly my own battle with depression fit this description; I felt completely unlike myself when I was depressed, and upon being cured after having been majorly depressed for over a year when I was 21-22, I was ecstatic to get my old self back again.) But I also assume — and the quote from Haybron bears this out — that there are some people who are like Anon #11 in that they experience depression as a part of their identity, as part of who they are. For these people, it won’t seem phenomenologically accurate to describe their depression as being inessential to them, as being like an illness that comes in from the outside. I suspect that many people of this sort have probably had their depression off and on for a very long time, perhaps since childhood (see comment #18 from Grad Student on this point).Report

Charlotte
6 years ago

Why does there have to be a stigma attached. Can’t we confess this without having feelings of remorse or guilt?Report

77
77
6 years ago

I appreciate what you have to say, especially the presentation of the cultural alternative. I think these alternatives can definitely be helpful in opening up the conversation as to the nature – metaphysical and otherwise – of mental illness, especially to those (like me) who suffer tremendously from mental illnesses and all the baggage that goes with.

Now I do feel as if I missed something. I just now read Railton’s lecture, and maybe I missed it, but where does he say “people with depression should not be let to teach for the sake of their students”?Report

Philippe Lemoine
Philippe Lemoine
6 years ago

I realize that I don’t really know what depression is, even though several people very close to me have suffered from it. It would be nice if someone could recommend something to read about depression that is scientifically accurate but relatively short.Report

Non
Non
6 years ago

@ 77: sorry for not being clear about this. He did not say that in the lecture. In the Q&A he noted that his own teaching was affected by depression which prompted the question from the audience if he thinks people with depression should be let to teach if they want to. And he said no, which prompted the follow-up, namely that this seems like a strong reason to want to hide the facts of your state of mind. Railton’s reply was that institutions and practices should be created in order for these people to be financially sustained while not teaching. That was the exchange I had in mindReport

Monica
Monica
6 years ago

You might think about reading Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 2002. It is not a short read, obviously. But it is worth investing time into reading it. Something that is scientifically accurate but relatively short would most likely focus on “what works best to beat depression” after describing a checklist of symptoms. If some people will like essays and reviews, two come to mind: Dave Girard, Harnessing Depression (http://arstechnica.com/staff/2014/10/harnessing-depression-one-ars-writers-journey/), and Marcia Angell, The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why? (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/)Report

Layperson
Layperson
6 years ago

Grad Student, I’m curious where you see the third-person picture coming in. I can see how it would be frustrating if, for example, a therapist said something like “those feelings are just the depression talking, and so should be ignored,” especially when it’s impossible for an individual to tell where depression-induced feelings end and where more “legitimate” feelings begin.

But one of the things I appreciated most about the speech was its advocating a fuller view of people who experience depression/mental illness. I.e. Railton didn’t seem to advocate just a third person picture of depression. Though I don’t know if you agree with Anon’s criticism of the phrase, that mental illness be seen as “no more of the essence of a person than any other illness” was one of the most touching phrases to me, as another person who has suffered from it. It doesn’t suggest that the feelings of people with depression have to be cured away, but rather that people with mental illnesses should be able to publicly acknowledge themselves as such, if they want, and that this acknowledgment shouldn’t cause them to feel ashamed or scared.

I get Anon’s hesitancy to endorse a perspective that would cast certain feelings as “depression” and delegitimize them in that way, but the speech didn’t seem to do that, to me. Now, maybe what Anon is saying is that conceiving depression as an illness *necessarily* entails delegitimizing certain kinds of feelings, but if the solution in that case is that depression not be viewed as an illness, then I don’t know that I could ever get behind that. Basically, I agree that recognizing the diversity of people’s experiences with mental illness is important, and I think Railton’s speech is a step in that direction. But still, I’ve also wondered whether emphasizing the “illness” of depression does more harm than good, so I really am curious how you feel Railton contributed to that picture, because I don’t want to do it myself.Report

Dave Baker
6 years ago

Interesting comment, Anon #11 (although I agree with Patrick Mayer that Peter R didn’t imply that debate on this question should be avoided).

I sympathize with your position about the legitimacy of certain emotions that tend to be pathologized. My own mood disorder (anxiety) has a lot to do with existential fears about mortality, which I happen to think are fitting and justified. The fact that my life will eventually end is a very bad thing, and I’m justified in recognizing how bad it is, and in *feeling* how bad it is.

What I see as truly pathological is my tendency to pay a lot of attention to the fact of my mortality and dwell on it when I would be much better off attending to other things. Because it’s also fitting and justified to want to live a full life, and it is pathological (I think) to let even a clear-eyed understanding of something horrible about the human condition get in the way of living a full life. It wouldn’t be healthy for me to forget that dying is bad. That would be the rankest sort of self-deception. The healthy attitude, I think, is to recognize the badness of death and not pay overmuch attention to it in one’s day-to-day life. This is the place I find myself at the times when my anxiety is well-managed.

Without knowing anything specific about which feelings are involved in your depression, I wonder whether it might be a similar situation: perhaps a fitting and justified attitude tends to take on too much prominence in your awareness, and this (not the attitude itself) is where the “disordered” part of your depression is located?

I don’t know. Not knowing you personally, I’m sure I’m just projecting. But for people who do share my problem with over-emphasizing rational or justified negative attitudes, I should mention that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has been a godsend for me. It teaches skills that can give you a surprising degree of control over where you direct your attention.Report

Philippe Lemoine
Philippe Lemoine
6 years ago

Thanks, Monica. In case others are interested, Jan Dowell also recommended this website (http://www.nami.org/) in the comments of the other post.Report

newfie931
newfie931
6 years ago

@Dave Barker (#27): Your post is very helpful. Thank you.Report

Pietro Maffettone
Pietro Maffettone
6 years ago

I am a philosopher. I am grateful to Peter Railton. I have read his lecture, and was moved by it: I thought it displayed a great deal of humanity. The only thing I can do is to take-up his invitation. So I will say this: my name is Pietro and I went through depression for long patches of my life. I sought help, went to therapy. I was very, very lucky: the people around me responded with love and compassion, rather than pity and stigma. I hope that everyone will be as lucky as I was. My parents understood, my wife understood, people at work understood, and I did the best I could to understand (myself, and why I felt the way I did). I believe that my ‘confession’ will not be much use to the profession: I am not as eloquent and as moving as Professor Railton. However, one day, one day someone may come to me and tell me ‘I am depressed’. I promise, I promise: I will understand.Report

Kate Abramson
Kate Abramson
6 years ago

Anonymous #11: I’ve argued, in what will soon be in print (though plenty of people at this point have heard me say so publicly, in various colloquia and conferences) that depression (situational depression esp) can be an apt response–“fitting” if you will, indeed a morally apt response– to the violation of treasured values and/or loss. And I’m just about as left-wing as they come, I think. (just about–I’m sure there are some that are more so, but not by much). I don’t think it’s to the point to argue for the claim here, but I’ll just note that it seems to me that recognizing that depression–full on, severe major depression– *can* be an apt response to one’s circumstances is actually an important claim (or can be) for those on the left of the political spectrum such as myself to make, and for which to argue. After all, included among the horrific life circumstances to which such can be an apt (or better than most alternatives) response are some circumstances only made possible by the existence of pernicious discriminatory practices and/or regimes. For my part, I’ve heard echoes of this view, or at least suggestions of it, here and elsewhere since Railton’s talk.Report

Kate Abramson
Kate Abramson
6 years ago

the temptation to get into the philosophical discussion aspects of this is almost irresistible, even though I’m not sure this is the place. But just one quick point, re: 26– I don’t think the only alternative is to conclude that in such cases, the complex of affective-motivational-evaluative states is “not” therefore depression or, more generally, illness. It is. Imho, what we need to learn to do is to be able, in such cases, to both regard the attribute as illness in the sense of a condition with which the person could benefit from some relevant medical help (therapeutic, etc) and an attribute that can speak to her/his character– and, sometimes, speak well for it…Report