To Identify as a Philosopher and ‘Insane’

To identify as a philosopher and “insane” isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it is certainly something that I didn’t want to risk until very recently.

Those are the words of Paul Lodge, professorial fellow in philosophy at Oxford University, in a recent interview in the “Dialogues on Disability” series at Biopolitical Philosophy.

[Isa Genzken, “Da Vinci”]

In the interview, conducted by Shelley Tremain, Professor Lodge discusses some of his struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, and his recent turn, after a career of research largely focused on issues in early Modern philosophy (especially Leibniz), to “combine academic writing with my life as someone with a bipolar diagnosis.”

At one point, Tremain asks:

How do you think philosophy, with its abiding veneration of rationality, and academia, with its demand for productivity, need to change in order to provide space for philosophers and other academics who experience what you do?

Lodge replies:

I should say at the outset that I find it very hard to provide an account of the way in which I’ve encountered ableism. I didn’t try to conceptualize my relationship to my career in terms of disability until very recently, and I haven’t constructed a detailed narrative in these terms…

Depression can render any activity extremely difficult. The only period during which I experienced depression of this kind was when I was a second-year graduate student. At that point, I did get the advice and encouragement that I needed to seek medical help for the first time in my life. Other than that, however, my recollection is that I was left to get on with trying to run my first-ever class and take courses. Things didn’t change when I had my manic episode later that year, other than the fact that I was given an even wider berth by most of the people that I knew.

I continued to teach unsupervised and, though my memory is hazy, I don’t think that I missed a single class even at the height of my mania! I still don’t quite know how I managed to get back on track, let alone finish my Ph.D. on an uninterrupted schedule. It now seems like a staggering systemic failure.

I think that we are still a long way from knowing how to manage such situations. I suspect that the more compassionate approaches that I’ve seen used recently, where students are given time away from study, would have led me to my drop out of academia altogether. Indeed, a cynic might even think that that is their systemic institutional function…

Living with a bipolar diagnosis and the experiential traces of mania, hypomania, and depression has left me with a profound sense of social alienation and anxiety…

During the last few years of trying to be more open, I’ve found that there are people who will acknowledge this shared identity, but who clearly do not want to talk about it, let alone make it publicly known. Of course, there could be many reasons for this reluctance and even refusal, and I would be the last person to negatively judge such unwillingness to talk about this identity, or at least unwillingness to talk to me about it. With regard to the manic component, it’s obvious that we are still dealing with a taboo—especially in academic philosophy, which for many is still predicated on taking rationality as constitutive of what it is to be a flourishing human being.

To identify as a philosopher and “insane” isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it is certainly something that I didn’t want to risk until very recently; since then, there have certainly been situations in which I have talked openly with people from whom I expected very different reactions, having left these situations with feelings of deeper alienation and regret. Such reactions are perhaps the most obvious manifestations that I have confronted of both other people’s ableism and my own internalized ableism. My own reactions are reflected in the fact that it wasn’t until I had achieved promotion to full professor that I was willing to self-identify publicly as someone with bipolar disorder. Even now, an interview like this fills me with anxiety, trepidation, and concrete fear that I will be taken less seriously as a thinker and will find myself even more socially isolated because other people, other philosophers, will find my embrace of this identity uncomfortable…

The most obvious academic challenge arising from this state of affairs is how to manage in a profession which is (or at least was pre-COVID-19) increasingly obsessed with conferences, workshops, and other “networking.” I have some standard ways of dealing with the stresses. The simplest is just to avoid people, by staying away. But social-academic events are not completely avoidable. So, when I do participate, I all too often find myself having to dip out of things to spend time on my own; or, if I can’t do this, I sit or stand in silent agony, not trusting myself to join in appropriately—which I then worry might be perceived as problematic in its own way…

Here is an irony. When I started out as an academic, one attraction, for me, of the academic life was that the majority of people in it worked in relative isolation, with conferences and workshops much less common. Certainly, it didn’t feel then—as it sometimes does to me today—that there was no space for the “lone scholar,” that the academic life couldn’t serve as a place of haven for people for whom the bustle of the “real world” poses significant challenges. A safe space that could be inhabited by, among others, the bipolar, now seems to have entry conditions that make it all the harder to access and to be less of a safe space once one has entered it.

You can read the whole interview here.

Related posts: “Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture“, “Philosophy and Depression“, “‘Crazy Genius’ Philosophers, Logic, and Mental Illness“, “What To Do About The Graduate Student Mental Health Crisis“, “Philosophy, Disability, and Chronic Illnesses

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