Can Philosophy Harm Your Mental Health?

philosophy and mental health

The psychology of philosophy is a relatively new field. It refers to the relationship between psychological traits and philosophical beliefs. This field garnered significant attention recently with the publication of a new study from the psychologist David B. Yaden and the philosopher Derek E. Anderson. 

Published in the journal Philosophical Psychology, this study asked 314 professional philosophers about their views regarding certain philosophical questions, and then assessed them for psychological factors, such as personality, mental health, and life experiences, as well as demographics.

Yaden and Anderson include at the beginning of their study a line from William James’ book Pragmatism (1907): “The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.” They include, too, an observation from Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), in the section “On the Prejudice of Philosophers”, where he claimed that a philosopher’s particular view or position springs less from their disinterested search for truth than their instincts and personal life, which he or she then defends with post hoc rationalisations. As Nietzsche writes: “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of––namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography.”

This line of thinking has definitely crossed my mind before. I do think it is true, to some extent, that disagreements in philosophy come down to a conflict between different personalities, preferences, desires, fears, life experiences, and states of mental health; even though many philosophers would like to think that philosophical arguments are purely rational. 

The philosopher Iris Murdoch also drew attention to this issue when she said: “To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament and yet at the same time to discover the truth … It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher: what is he afraid of?” 

The Connection Between Psychological Traits and Philosophical Beliefs

In their investigation, Yaden and Anderson found several associations between certain psychological traits and philosophical beliefs (although, interestingly, the authors discovered no substantial correlations between demographics or personality and specific philosophical views). Daily Nous summarised these findings. Some correlations are unsurprising; such as theism and idealism being associated with having had a self-transcendent experience. 

However, one interesting discovery is that philosophers who have used psychedelics and cannabis are more likely to have a more subjectivist view of morality and aesthetics (the view that there is no objective truth about what makes something ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’). Another is that hard determinism (the belief that human actions are wholly determined by the laws of nature and so genuine free will does not exist) is associated with lower life satisfaction and higher depression/anxiety. (Yaden and Anderson have provided further comments on their study and offered some interpretations of the findings in an interview for Vice).

The finding related to hard determinism and poorer mental health is particularly interesting to me, as I have previously explored the connections between philosophy and mental health. I have looked at the relationship between philosophical pessimism and depression (for Philosophy Now magazine), antinatalism and depression (for Epoché Magazine), Emil Cioran’s insomnia and his philosophy (for The Partially Examined Life blog), and existentialism and mental health

What we are like as people can draw us to certain views, but the reverse also holds: certain views can change us as people. In this essay, I would like to discuss the question of whether philosophy can harm your mental health. In previous pieces on the connections between philosophy and mental health, I have touched on this question, although I think there are many more avenues to explore and more depth involved. It is commonly assumed that depressives may be more likely to be pessimists and antinatalists, but can some worldviews actually increase the likelihood of you becoming depressed? There are, moreover, several other philosophical views that I think can tie into different mental health outcomes. 

Many philosophers struggled with their mental health, usually suffering from depression and nervous breakdowns; these figures include William James, John Stuart Mill, Søren Kierkegaard, Michel Foucault, and David Hume. Can the profession of philosophy, or their ideas specifically, be at all to blame for their poor mental health? Or would they have succumbed to these states of distress in the absence of philosophy? Maybe some had a temperament of the kind that put them at risk of mental health issues and which also attracted them to philosophy; and then their philosophical life, in the end, played some role in their mental health struggles.

I would not go so far as to say that reading or studying philosophy is likely to be the major defining cause of a mental disorder. But I am open to the possibility that some philosophical ideas – and philosophising itself – may contribute to, worsen, or vindicate poor mental health.

Philosophical Pessimism/Antinatalism and Depression

When writing about the connections between philosophical pessimism or antinatalism and depression, I have focused more on how a depressive tendency could attract one to such views, rather than these views worsening mental health. Yet I do wonder whether becoming intensely interested in philosophical pessimism and antinatalism can noticeably lead to lower life satisfaction or perhaps exaggerate an existing depressive tendency. 

Speaking personally, although I find both philosophical pessimism and antinatalism thought-provoking worldviews, whenever I pay too much attention to them (to the exclusion of other perspectives), this can, unsurprisingly, worsen my mood and feelings of life satisfaction. Kateřina Lachmanová, who edited the book History of Antinatalism: How Philosophy Challenged the Question of Procreation (2020), seemed to reveal a similar concern during her appearance on The Exploring Antinatalism Podcast: “I don’t want to research antinatalism full-time, just spend all my days [researching] such pessimistic, depressive topics…I’m just not able to do it.” And the writer Rob Doyle considered in a piece titled Winter in Paris, published in The Dublin Review, whether he was better off never having read certain pessimistic works. In Paris, where he was trying to pen an essay on Cioran (the Romanian philosopher spent most of his life in the city), Doyle has a conversation with his friend Zoé:

Through the window, the Paris skyline was slowly lighting up the late winter dusk. I said to Zoé, ‘It’s funny. The writers who mean the very most to me, often there’s a part of me that wishes I’d never read them at all.’

‘You mean like Cioran?’

I nodded.

‘But why? You’re free to take or leave any ideas you come across. That’s responsibility, that’s what it means. Nobody forces you.’

‘But there are tendencies that writers like Cioran or Schopenhauer can encourage. Despair, withdrawal. In the religions, in Christianity, despair is a sin. That’s interesting.’

She considered this, then shook her head. ‘I find it very easy to step out of that tunnel when I close the book. I’m not going to reject the universe just because Schopenhauer or anybody else said so.’

‘Of course not. But you don’t have those inclinations waiting to be triggered. What I mean is, it’s a choice. This withdrawal. I feel that it’s dangerous, the danger is real. Burning down the world. Despairing. I feel I’m already hanging on with the tips of my fingers. Seriously, it seems very easy sometimes to just stop engaging, to turn away from everything. But that’s a kind of suicide, a spiritual suicide. That’s acedia.’ I cleared my throat, hesitant. ‘And it would finish me as a writer,’ I added.

Earlier on in this essay, Doyle said of Cioran: “He had exacerbated the very tendencies in myself I had spent my whole adult life trying to curb”, and then goes on to list such traits, including not just despair and withdrawal but also torpor, defeatism, isolation, rage, hostility.

Becoming engrossed in these writers’ ideas is similar to reading too much news, in a way. The news itself may be accurate and valuable – as certain pessimistic and antinatalist arguments might be – but the news also offers a one-sided and narrowly negative picture of the world. Now, if reading too much pessimistic or antinatalist writing exacerbates poor mental health, this does not invalidate either position. In fact, such a reaction could be understandable in light of the human and non-human animal suffering that these worldviews often emphasise.  

This does not necessarily mean that philosophical pessimism or antinatalism should be ignored or rejected out of fear for increasing miserable feelings, but perhaps in some cases, an obsession with these topics is unhelpful – at least sometimes – for individuals with very troubling mental health issues. Philosophical pessimism and antinatalism can seem like the perfect justification for an extremely depressive outlook, but this felt vindication might make it even more difficult to see past one’s cognitive distortions and negativity bias; plus it may hamper attempts to get well or imagine a better future – any feelings of optimism, hope, joy, or gratitude could just be rejected as irrational and deluded. 

Nevertheless, as I have argued in an article for The Apeiron, it is certainly possible and consistent to live a happy, joyful, and meaningful life while taking philosophical pessimism seriously.

Determinism and Depression

Given the link between a belief in hard determinism and depression, Yaden had the following to say in the Vice interview:

In the paper, we make a big deal about how we can’t interpret the causality here. For example, in this case it’s important to bear in mind that mental health could impact the belief one adopts, or it could be that the belief one adopts impacts one’s mental health, or it could be some other variable impacting both. Maybe, for some philosophers (and remember it’s a relatively small effect), being more depressed seems to provide evidence that our actions are largely outside of our control. Also, maybe, for some philosophers, holding a deterministic view results in less well-being. It’s a finding that’s worth understanding better through follow-up research.

I have also considered how the causality can lie both ways, with a philosophical worldview being both the cause and effect of depression. In my article for Philosophy Now, I ask: “Could not pessimism and mental health issues such as depression interact in a cycle, with vicious downward spiralling effects?” Anderson likewise reflects on this point, with respect to a lack of belief in free will and greater feelings of depression:

I wouldn’t be surprised if both things are happening in some cases. You feel depressed and it makes you believe or feel at some intuitive level that your actions are ineffective and maybe this lends itself in some small way to thinking we don’t have free will at all, and then this thought—I have no free will—well it sure seems like that thought could make someone who is depressed feel more depressed. This is pure speculation though, since we haven’t tested the causal claim in any scientific way.

James, for instance, suffered panic attacks and bouts of depression, and he held onto the notion that happiness is a choice. And his belief in free will seemed to benefit his mental health. One day in April 1870, he was reading an essay by Charles Renouvier, which he recounts as follows: 

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.

As with the case of philosophical pessimism and antinatalism, if a belief in determinism has a negative effect on one’s mental health, this is not an argument against the position (unless your main motive is to adopt whatever worldview has the best mental health outcomes). It makes sense that a lack of belief in free will would be associated with depression, given the nature of depression: the condition is characterised by feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and powerlessness. There is the subjective sense that possibilities have disappeared. 

Perhaps a belief in soft determinism (or compatibilism) will be less impactful on mental health. This refers to the belief that one’s actions are determined by a causal chain of events, yet human free will exists in the sense that we are morally responsible for our actions and have the capacity to act according to our nature and desires (although our nature and desires are still shaped by external factors like genes, society, and upbringing). Arthur Schopenhauer expressed something like this view when he said, “A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills.”

At the same time, regardless of whether or not hard or soft determinism is associated with worsened mental health, such an effect is not inevitable. It just means a belief in free will is more likely to be better for your psychological well-being. 

Philosophy and Insomnia

In my article for The Partially Examined Life on Cioran, I described how the philosopher’s struggles with insomnia influenced his thinking and ideas. But it is also true that the causality can be reversed: philosophy itself may cause insomnia. Some thinkers even see the two as closely interlinked. For example, in Totality and Infinity (1961), Emmanuel Levinas said all of philosophy was a call to “infinite responsibility, to an untiring wakefulness, to a total insomnia.” And the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle expressed a similar sentiment in Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy (2003), arguing that “philosophy was born with anxiety, with questioning, with insomnia. It takes upon itself the ills of the world, and thus it cannot sleep.”

How is this so? Well, philosophy, given its nature, can lead to non-stop analysing, whereby you turn over a philosophical problem in your head to the point of obsession and restlessness. Philosophy is a continuous and never-ending process of arguing and counterarguing on deep and complicated questions. The incessant doubting, revising, and abandoning of views that previously felt so stable and secure can keep one up late. You might try to get to a place of restful conclusion but never quite arrive there. Philosophy may also encourage you to have imaginary arguments in your head when you’re alone with your thoughts. This internal chatter is not very peaceful and sleep-inducing, to put it mildly.

For those who are already susceptible to overthinking and insomnia, it is possible that philosophising can end up magnifying these tendencies. I’ve definitely experienced this on occasion. There have been times that I’ve been thinking about a philosophical position or written about one, but then kept questioning my stance on it and finding holes in my argument. It should be – and often is – possible to just put off these thoughts and writing amendments for the next day, but that can be difficult sometimes. Indeed, philosophy can lend itself to the “untiring wakefulness” that Levinas describes. 

Existentialism and Mental Health

Since depression and anxiety can be both existential in character; that is; related to the human condition, studying some existentialist philosophies may reinforce this type of depression and anxiety. Interestingly, much of existentialist thought focuses on the notion that humans are fundamentally free, yet this has been seen in problematic terms; Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, said we are “condemned to be free” (emphasis added), while Kierkegaard opined that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

Thus, while a belief in free will may benefit the mental health of some people, it may also cause feelings of anxiety and guilt in others; for if we are fundamentally free then we have a dizzying array of possible choices to make, the power to make many life-altering decisions, and all while being solely responsible for whatever we do. 

Then we have the theory of existential nihilism: the idea that human life is inherently futile and meaningless (expounded in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus), which can easily provoke, bolster, or exacerbate depression. Of course, Camus did present a way of dealing with the meaninglessness of life, namely by making the choice to be happy regardless. But this prescription may not be satisfactory to many people, in which case his bleak diagnosis of the human condition is still a problem to contend with.

Again, spending a great deal of time thinking, reading, and writing about these concerns may not be troublesome for everyone – Camus personally took enjoyment in the little things in life and didn’t see everything as pointless: “Everything seems futile here except the sun, our kisses, and the wild scents of the earth.… Here, I leave order and moderation to others. The great free love of nature and the sea absorbs me completely.”

But it is possible that reading certain texts in states of severe depression may not be helpful for everyone. While Camus invites readers to imagine being happy about living a pointless life, this act of willful and defiant happiness can feel unimaginable and ridiculous when depressed. On the other hand, this counterintuitive resolution could be just what a person needs, simply because it presents the idea that there is some choice in how one feels. There is no easy way to tell how ideas about the problems of human existence – and the solutions to them – will affect mental well-being.

Solipsism and Existential Isolation

Solipsism is essentially the view that “I am the only mind that exists.” It is an extreme form of scepticism or subjective idealism that denies having any solid ground for believing in the existence of anything except the self. Anyone who adopts this position must therefore imagine themselves utterly alone. Existential isolation is usually defined as having a longing for deeply intimate and meaningful connections with others but having this need unmet. This loneliness is existential because it arises from human existence: there is an unbridgeable gap between oneself and others, an uncrossable separation between minds. You can never be truly understood. This sense of isolation is painful.

But even more painful, perhaps, is existential loneliness pushed to the extreme; this is when we feel we cannot have any genuine connection with others because we hold that we are the only mind that exists in the entire universe. Ontological isolation may actually be a better term to describe this effect. In addition to isolation, a belief in solipsism can lead to feelings of panic, terror, anxiety, and depression.

There is a term ‘solipsism syndrome’ that refers to the feeling of there being no reality external to the mind, which can follow extended periods of isolation. This is more of a psychological state tied to one’s circumstances rather than a philosophical position that one arrives at through reasoning. Both the philosophical position and the syndrome share similarities to derealisation (see the section below) by positing that reality – a reality external to one’s mind – is ‘unreal’. However, the American Psychological Association (APA) does not recognise solipsism syndrome as a psychiatric disorder. Regardless of whether it should have this designation as a disorder, it can still be a distressing psychological state that accompanies other disorders, and in these cases, embracing the philosophical view of solipsism may end up intensifying this negative state. 

The Simulation Hypothesis and Derealisation

The simulation hypothesis states that reality is a computer simulation. Derealisation, meanwhile, is an alteration in the perception of the external world, with the feeling of it being unreal, strange, distant, or falsified. Derealisation is pathological, meaning that it is an experience seen as due to an underlying, distressing, and disruptive condition. 

Derealisation can be part of a dissociative disorder such as dissociative identity disorder and depersonalisation-derealisation disorder (the depersonalisation part refers to the feeling that you yourself are unreal), as well as other disorders like borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It can also be a standalone experience, resulting from intense altered states of consciousness; although many may not find this subjective unreality of the world overwhelming. If such a feeling persists, however, it may indeed become distressing and problematic in one’s daily life. 

In a post on DMT and the simulation hypothesis, I suggested there may be a danger in a belief in the simulation hypothesis. I argue that if this belief becomes an obsessive, unhealthy way of thinking, which can follow powerful, ontologically shocking experiences with psychedelics, then the notion of reality being a simulation may have the quality of derealisation. Conversely, one may experience derealisation – whether due to a mental disorder or a psychedelic experience – and then use the simulation hypothesis to justify it. Consequently, this philosophical belief may serve as confirmation of the feeling of derealisation, making it harder to manage or resolve. 

Pondering the simulation hypothesis can be an academic question or a trippy, mind-bending thought experiment that everyday people don’t spend much time thinking about. But for some people, it may be unhelpful to interpret their derealisation within the context of this idea, especially if thoughts about the motives of the simulators add a sense of paranoia to the experience.   

Anattā and Depersonalisation

Depersonalisation – mentioned earlier – is the feeling of being unreal, as well as observing yourself in a detached way, as if from outside your body. Many people with depersonalisation report that the experience is like watching a movie of oneself, living on autopilot, or existing as an automaton. But the experience of one’s sense of self as unreal, despite being pathological in many cases, is actually desirable in Buddhism. Buddhist philosophy teaches the truth of anattā (meaning “not-self”): this is the idea that there is no self. Any concrete and unique self we imagine to exist is an illusion. And a goal of meditative practice is to arrive at this realisation and have the experience of selflessness. 

Hume also believed he uncovered this truth about the self through introspection. He claimed in A Treatise on Human Nature (1739) that the self is nothing more than a bundle or collection of perceptions, in line with Buddhist thinking, which sees the self as made up of five skandhas (or “aggregates”): form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness; all of which lack selfhood individually, and when combined together. 

So what exactly is the difference, then, between anattā and depersonalisation? We can offer some distinctions between the two. Whereas the experience of anattā in meditation is controlled, voluntary, and transient, the experience of derealisation may have the opposite features. Yet despite such a distinction, introspecting the illusory nature of the self could be unhelpful for those with depersonalisation disorder (the flipside of this is that this philosophical idea could help them make sense of their experience and reduce feelings of distress).

Meditation can lead to depersonalisation (yes, there is a dark side to this practice, normally assumed to be only beneficial), but since Buddhism teaches anattā as truth, this teaching may make it difficult for someone to overcome their depersonalisation. In most cases, believing the self to be an illusion can cause a reaction anywhere between mild, temporary interest to an earth-shattering realisation (that is still nonetheless integrated in a healthy way). For some individuals, though, meditating on anattā can be extremely disorienting and disconcerting. In a paper published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Jared R. Lindahl and Willoughby B. Britton detail many of such experiences, including cases of depersonalisation. They write that:

scholars working at the intersection of Buddhism, phenomenology, and cognitive science have acknowledged that there are possible analogues between forms of psychopathology and the elimination of personal ownership implied in early Buddhist discussions of anattā.

As a case in point, one meditator who joined a retreat describes this disturbing experience:

[On that retreat,] all we did was talk about ‘no-self’, and I was quite aware of the fact I was not centred. I kept thinking, ‘I am not centred.’ And I had had some good experiences before and had depth in meditation before that, but it just threw me for a complete loop. I just had no centre. I felt like I was not grounded to the actual ground itself. Nothing happened to me on the retreat, but I just felt light-headed, like my head was going someplace else and I wasn’t attached to the ground. I went home — someone dropped me off from school. I had a two-block walk home. Like a blink of an eye, that was the end of the walking — I couldn’t make it home. I just became frozen, paralysed. I could not take a step, I was so terrified. In that moment I felt like I was not connected to the ground at all. I couldn’t move. Then I became very small in my own being. […] I was gone, I was lost — there was nothing there. I didn’t believe I even had a shadow. I didn’t believe anyone could even really see me. It was terrible. […] The agoraphobia came around as a result of that no-self. […] There is something called Zen psychosis, and I would assume that’s what happened to me. But I didn’t know that until after it was over, and I didn’t care. I was too busy trying to get through day-to-day existence.

For individuals who have depersonalisation disorder, or another mental disorder that has depersonalisation as a symptom, focusing on anattā during a meditation retreat, or spending too much time thinking about it, may only serve to increase feelings of distress. Meditating on anattā could, moreover, induce transient or longer-lasting depersonalisation in susceptible or even healthy individuals.

Academic Philosophy and Mental Health

Philosophy may harm your mental health in ways not to do with beliefs but instead because of what it’s like to study philosophy or pursue it as a career. (This is more of an aside, as this topic wouldn’t really fall within the scope of the psychology of philosophy.) 

The writer Rachel Anne Williams has described the pitfalls of pursuing a PhD in philosophy and why she eventually left academic philosophy. In these confessions, Williams mentions issues such as “the perils of the job market”, which is characterised by the problem of “publish or perish” – if you don’t have a lot of papers published, you simply won’t be able to stand out among other job applicants and get hired for a teaching position. Both the journals and philosophy positions can be extremely hard to get accepted for. Acceptance rates for both can be despairingly low. 

“To be a philosopher, you must get used to rejection and constant criticism,” writes Williams, adding that “”Struggling” is a polite term to describe the anguish and pain of rejection after sending out hundreds of job applications and not even getting a single interview.” Academic philosophy may therefore lead to or compound issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and chronic stress. She also takes issue with the culture of academic philosophy:

Everyone is taught how to brutally attack the arguments of everyone else. Have you ever hung out with someone that disagrees with everything you say? Philosophy conferences are pretty much like that. All the time. It’s a never ending parade of people attempting to one-up each other in verbal combat.

Furthermore, Williams highlights issues like having “no work-life balance” and being unable to write papers on “meaty topics you’re really interested in,” instead having to write mind-numbing, nitty-gritty, and dense papers, the sort that journals are looking for. She says she’s probably jaded, “but for good reason.” 

Other ex-academic philosophers echo similar sentiments and life experiences, such as an anonymous poster who wrote an article titled ‘Confessions of an Ex Philosopher’ (this is well worth a read, given how honest the writer is). Academic philosophers and those with PhDs in philosophy have also expressed their discontent about the philosophy job market over at Daily Nous.

All such stories, of course, should be balanced by those who have the opposite experience. But nonetheless, the negative mental health impact of studying philosophy as a discipline and pursuing it as a career does appear to be common. One may rebut these complaints about academic philosophy by pointing out that these are issues within academia more generally, or perhaps within several other academic disciplines. This may be true. At the same time, some of the issues described by ex-philosophers can also be unique to academic philosophy. 

Concluding Remarks

The aim of this discussion has not been to show that philosophy is a serious risk factor for mental illness to be concerned about. I could have equally written a post on how philosophy can benefit your mental health, which would be more in keeping with positive psychology: this would involve looking at how philosophical beliefs and the discipline of philosophy can provide you with positive experiences and improve your quality of life. That’s for another post, perhaps. 

The psychology of philosophy is still in its infancy as a field and hopefully, future research will shed light on how what we think is true changes us as individuals. Philosophy is and always will be a discipline that has the potential to create dramatic shifts in how we think, feel, and act; for better or for worse. 

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