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

guest
6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 year ago

Thanks for posting this interview, Justin. I hope many of your readers and listeners will go to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY and check out the entire interview. The photo of Paul included in the interview is itself worth the visit!Report

Depressed Grad
Depressed Grad
1 year ago

I deeply sympathize with Professor Lodge’s experience, and I can’t help but compare it to my own with depression. One exacerbating problem in my case is that it is really hard at my (rich Ivy League) university for students on the university-issued health insurance to access mental health care. The only provision for mental health care included is through the university itself. In my first semester of graduate school, I requested therapy through my university’s mental health service, was screened and approved, and heard nothing. Subsequent calls and visits have accomplished no more (I am now in my fourth year). This experience with my university’s mental health bureaucracy is not unique. Even the lucky few I know who have successfully accessed these resources report that many of them are substandard. I am also not in a position with my stipend to afford out-of-pocket mental health care. It’s gotten to a point where I’m not sure if I am going to be able to complete my PhD due to depression, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and it breaks my heart that I am failing at it.

From conversations with other grad students across universities I don’t think that my situation is special. (See also the comments on the linked post “What To Do About The Graduate Student Mental Health Crisis.”)Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Depressed Grad
1 year ago

Depressed Grad,

I’m sorry that you’ve had such a hard time finding care. I don’t know how long I was suffering from serious depression before I reluctantly agreed (at my wife’s urging) to seek help during my last year of grad school. Unlike you, I didn’t have trouble getting to see the on campus therapists, but I only went to one or two sessions (I think we were limited to 6 visits, at which point we would be redirected to an outside provider). I thought that the abiding anxiety and persistent negative feelings I had were simply rational responses to the very real stresses I was under (lost grad school funding, adjuncting for low wages, behind on writing)), and the therapist I met with on campus was happy enough to affirm what I already thought.

I coped using strategies that, in retrospect, look something like a do-it-yourself version of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which allowed me to push through, and the elation of successfully completing the dissertation (and the classes I was teaching) gave me a temporary reprieve. When the depression returned a couple of month later, it was so bad that even I could no longer deny it. At that point the problem was I was so depressed the work I was doing (adjuncting and preparing TT job applications) that it took me a while to find the energy and motivation to seek out therapy and medication. But eventually I did so, and together therapy and antidepressants greatly improved my mental health and quality of life.

I’m sorry that I can’t help you to address the barriers provided by your university’s health insurance system. In some jurisdictions, medical insurers are required to provide parity for mental health coverage, which could entitle you to go outside your university for mental health care if needed. I also know there are companies that were advertising affordable online therapy even before the pandemic, but I don’t know how good they are. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI.org) offers free ‘peer to peer’ programs in many communities, but I don’t have direct experience with them. (I can speak favorably about NAMI’s family programs, aimed at supporting those whose loved one’s suffer from mental illness).Report

Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson
1 year ago

Profoundly meaningful. Thank you. From my most-oft recommended book to those new to the club, or simply bi[polar]-curious:

“There is a continuing debate over whether the illness of manic depression contributes to creativity and leadership. To my mind, this is not the best way to pose the question. While the psychotic distortion and other disabling symptoms of the acute illness do not foster such human qualities (or only rarely, in extraordinary individuals), the experience of manic depression, especially the energy of early hypomania and the reflective insights of mild depression—the penumbra of the illness—certainly do so, in my experience.” (note to p. 50)

Peter C. Whybrow. A Mood Apart: Depression, Mania, and Other Afflictions of the Self. Basic Books, 2e, 2015. Excellent on wide spectrum of symptoms and diagnoses or mood and thought disorders, phenomenology, homeostasis, and complexly related biological, social, and psychological aspects.

The philosophical takeaway: how to capture possibly novel insights for sane later reflection and development when one is not optimally depressed or hypomanic?

Voice recorder or short notes on smartphone? Time stamps on such are very helpful.

Pocket full of index cards not so highly recommended. Good luck reading and making sense of later 😉Report

Another One
Another One
Reply to  Paul Wilson
1 year ago

Appreciate the book recommendation. It’s been helpful thus far, especially Ch. 3.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 year ago

I’d like to point out (for anyone who doesn’t already know) that BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY has a Facebook group associated with it that I administer. BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY Facebook offers a safe and welcoming place for disabled philosophers and members of other underrepresented and marginalized groups in philosophy to discuss the posts that form the content of the BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY blog and to share other important news and information pertinent to us, about philosophy and academia, as well as about society and social relations more broadly. At present, BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY Facebook has more than 1100 members who regard the group as an ongoing effort in community building. Paul Lodge and most of the disabled philosophers I’ve interviewed in the Dialogues on Disability series are members of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY Facebook. While the group largely revolves around the power relations constitutive of the discipline of philosophy and professional issues of distinct interest to philosophers, especially with respect to disability, non-philosophers with particular interests in (for example) disability, medicalization of social phenomena, race, power relations endemic to philosophy and the academy, transformative justice, and forms of resistance may join the group as our associates. To join BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY Facebook, simply send a Facebook request. I usually respond to membership requests within several hours.Report