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The Healing of Philosophy

John Clark, MD, says our worship of the intellect has become pathological.

Philosophy is in decline. You hear it all the time. The evidence is regularly trotted out: less graduates, no jobs, no prospects, a lack of interest from the culture, etc. It has become a tedious verity.

But how can that be? Do we collectively not love wisdom anymore? In our modern world, have we cast off the mantle of being Homo sapiens (‘wise person’)? Have we somehow come to be above it all? Are we no longer enamored of our collective role amongst all creatures on the planet of being reasonable? That can’t be right. Knowledge and good choices – these things are timeless, inescapable. So what’s happened to us? What’s happened to our collective minds to permit philosophy’s decline?

Philosophy must be sick. To be sure, there’s an illness afoot, a broad mental affliction that’s spread amongst humanity – an intellectual pandemic: an illness of mind, of culture, of society. This is the only thing that can explain our collective disinterest in wisdom, the decline of our love for the essence of who we are.

We need a doctor. The Greek father of medicine Galen comes to mind. Galen famously said, ‘The best doctor is also a philosopher.’ Perhaps medicine can help. But medicine is sick too. Physicians are killing themselves at an alarming rate. Burnout in medicine is pervasive, and expanding, and has risen to be more prominent in medicine than in any other profession. Doctors are suffering and dying. The healers themselves are ill and in need of healing. Perhaps the pandemic of mind has also afflicted them?

I’m a doctor. I burned out. I became mentally afflicted and I was in decline. It wasn’t pretty. I’ve tried to recover. Thankfully, I was saved. I was saved by philosophy.

I’m serious. Healing my mind came in the form of healing my wisdom; through healing my knowledge and my sense of good. So as it turns out, I myself found that medicine needs philosophy to be well. But I’ve also come to believe that philosophy needs medicine to recover from its own decline. Philosophy and medicine need each other. They can help each other. The best philosopher is also a doctor – one who understands disorders of reason and what’s good for humanity. Humanity needs both aspects to work together to heal our collective wisdom, and not only save philosophy but save medicine, and indeed, save our world.

Healing first needs a diagnosis, a thorough knowing of the illness before appropriate treatment can be applied. From within my own burnout and recovery, I made such a diagnosis, The diagnosis was born of a simple observation that through being more emotional, I got better. Profound questions arose, not the least of which was, ‘What is an emotion?’ Such questions inexorably lead to questions of knowledge and the good – timeless philosophical questions. They led me to my own diagnosis, and that of medicine’s. Yet they also led to a diagnosis of the ills of philosophy and its decline. You’re not going to like it.

Illustration © Jaime Raposo 2024. To see more of his art, please visit jaimeraposo.com

Ataraxia & Intellectualisation

Ataraxia is the Stoic ideal state of dispassion, or disinterestedness of mind. But to me ataraxia is the illness of hyper-intellectualization, of extreme estrangement from our passions. It is a pathologically abstracted mental state of excess objectivity, unyielding detachment, and a profound lack of sensitivity. Its symptoms are those of being becalmed of mind, nihilistically unmoved by events, and lost in a doldrums of knowing. Thus by nature it is both an ethical and an epistemological illness.

Ataraxia is not used here in the Epicurean sense of perpetual tranquility born of freedom from negative emotions, but more in the Stoic sense of freedom from all mental/emotional disturbance whatsoever – though both states I consider mentally incarcerating and unhealthy in their own ways. To understand the nature of such an illness, one must understand the human mind, as well as disorders in its currently dominant formulation in the culture in relation to intellect and emotion, and how each contributes to knowledge and the good. I’ll be brief.

The human intellect evolved to solve problems. It employs a willfully executed mental process that is conscious, slow, methodical, reductionist, abstract, and designed to produce objective knowledge that enables one to exert control over the future; in other words, to plan. This process is generally referred to as ‘thinking’. Such a mental process considers as anathema its converse – emotion – an instinctually executed mental process that is subconscious, spontaneous, fast, holistic (synoptic), relational, and designed to intuitively produce precious knowledge (of value). This process is generally referred to as ‘feeling.’ Given the centrality of willful control by the intellect, this means that burnout and ataraxia are then afflictions of the hyper-controlled mind, and a suppression of the spontaneous mind. The signs and symptoms of such hyperintellectualization and its ills can be observed as building up from ancient times to the present.

Examples of hyperintellectualization are myriad in philosophy, and even a cursory review of the history of philosophy highlights many. Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher termed by some ‘the father of modern science’ for his observation-based atomist theories of matter, deemed knowledge garnered through sensual experience as ‘bastard’ knowledge that is inherently errant, and knowledge obtained through the application of the pure intellect as ‘legitimate’. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, elevated the unemotional mind in classic Stoic terms thus: “A bad feeling is a commotion of mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.” Much later, René Descartes’ struggle with knowledge ended with his seminal thought, “I think therefore I am” – a conclusion that conspicuously excludes ‘feel’ (as in “I feel therefore I am’) from the realm of self-evident truths defining our existence. But perhaps Baruch Spinoza was the most strident in his declaration of the primacy of the intellect, in his 1677 book Ethics:

“Without intelligence there is not rational life: and things are only good, in so far as they aid man in his enjoyment of the intellectual life, which is defined by intelligence. Contrariwise, whatsoever things hinder man's perfecting of his reason, and capability to enjoy the rational life, are alone called evil.”

Modern philosophy hasn’t been much kinder to emotions. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose nihilism is so influential in post-modernity, expresses a denial of emotion by way of his dismissal of morality, by stating that moralities are ‘merely a sign language of the affects’. Jesse Prinz, in his Gut Reactions (2004), excludes uncontrolled emotions from the realms of cognition by declaring, “If emotions are cognitive, they must be under cognitive control.” Ronald De Sousa, in his The Rationality of Emotion (1987), also argues against emotional cognition by stating that “emotions are not beliefs” and as such cannot be justified or true and thus can’t be part of knowledge. Even modern dual process theory, which purports to incorporate emotionality into global mental function, subsumes emotion under an intellectual paradigm – as exemplified by Daniel Kahnaman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). Yet while Kahneman’s effortful/conscious/logical “System 2” does indeed think, his automatic/intuitive/emotional “System 1” does not; it feels. A less intellectually-biased formulation would be “Feeling Fast and Thinking Slow.”

To be sure there have been philosophical reactions against such hyper-intellectualization. The notion of embracing motivation through spontaneous mental abandon is embodied in the German Sturm und Drang (‘storm and drive’) movement of the late 1700s, which rebelled against the rational constraints of the Enlightenment by embracing the free expression of extremes of emotion. This movement gave birth to the German Counter-Enlightenment and the Romanticism of the early 1800s, the latter movement being a reaction against the reductionistic scientific rationalization of nature and it’s mechanistic offspring, the Industrial Revolution. Trust in emotion also lies at the heart of such philosophical movements as transcendentalism, as promoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, with its belief in the goodness of human nature and the reliability of human intuition.

Such counter-formulations of the human mind in terms of intuitive affect might be seen as historic impulses toward mental balance. Yet such philosophic paroxysms of embracing emotions have in our modern day faded. They leave behind nothing but echos of their ethos.

Moreover, intellectual dominion hasn’t stayed constrained within our minds, but has flowed out to dominate our culture. Humanity has come to deeply identify with its intellect, and so regard itself though a reductionist, mechanistic lens. Brain science is all the rage as we express the essence of who we are in terms of one singular decontextualised human organ. Science, the paradigmatic process of intellectual knowing, is recruited to answer nearly all modern inquiries. We live in an age of intellect, and are immersed in its technological byproducts. Billions today are fed on technologically-managed food, live in computerised habitations, travel vast distances in elaborate machines, surround ourselves with all kinds of advanced technologies, and communicate through digital means. Human technology has profoundly impacted the planet itself by illuminating the night, altering the atmosphere, and terraforming the land through cultivation, mining, dams, and cities. The area influenced by the human intellect can now arguably be said to be the entire planet, establishing what some have called the Anthropocene, or ‘the Age of Humanity’.

The future of humanity is envisioned largely in intellectual terms, too. Popular in culture today is a myth regarding the unlocked potential of human beings; a potential that’s thought to lie in the sphere of the intellect. The fact that there’s vigorous effort being expended on artificial intelligence but nothing’s ever heard of ‘artificial intuition’, evinces humanity’s bias for the controlled, volitional aspect of its mind. There’s even mythic talk of a coming ‘singularity’, when our exponentially-growing collective knowledge will, through technology, somehow empower humanity to ‘transcend biology’ and become something ‘post-human’. The tech entrepreneur Byron Reese, in his book Infinite Progress (2013), even gives words to the highest Icarian dream of human consciousness since its emergence, regarding the intellect’s ability to solve the ultimate problem facing human life:

“Since technology grows exponentially, not in a linear way, we will see dramatic improvements in our way of life in just a few years… There is a real chance you will never die, since mortality may be just a technical problem we solve.”

These ideas posit the human intellect’s capacity to escape not only our bodies but our nature.

Thought Crimes

But isn’t all this dysfunctional? While the power of the intellect is indeed showcased by all these achievements, one need not look far to find ills incited by our hyperintellectualization. I mention a mere few here:

• Following our pro-intellectual bias in conceptualizing ourselves, we have deconstructed human nature, and so reduced ourselves to biological machines. In so doing, we have annihilated the value of our humanity, since the parts of us not amenable to rational mechanistic understanding and control are being ignored and forgotten.

• The advancing capacity for manipulating the human genome in the service of arbitrarily genetic ideals threatens to make us forget our naturally wild nature and to limit the rich resource that is our variation.

• Technology has pulled us away from our immediate circumstances into an abstracted reality. For the purposes of being connected with the world, we walk around mesmerized by tiny glowing screens that ironically make us both disconnected from our relations and unaware of our present situation. Such abstraction is evidently sickening the human mind.

• Millions have violently died in modern mechanized warfare fought for control over natural resources and conceptual markets – wars made necessary by rational population-based strategies, but which are inherently unmindful of personal human suffering.

• We have abstracted financial decisions from their human consequences, and in so doing have demented our empathy. The social responsibility we have for the effects on both others and our globe of our investing, has been rationalized into an insensitive arithmetical haze of guiltless oblivion.

• By the abstract leveraging of future income/profit into the present day through stock market manipulations, we have lost our grasp on the hard financial realities of the present moment, and have created a toxic fiscal brew that threatens economic catastrophe.

• Through the extreme investigation of the nature of matter, we have unleashed the deranged nuclear capacity for atomic self-annihilation.

• The human technological effect on our world has created widespread havoc in the form of such disasters as dust bowls, pollution smogs, acid rain, the ever-growing list of vast oil spills, the Bhopal Chemical Plant disaster, Chernobyl, the Gulf of Mexico ‘dead zone’, the Pacific Gyre Garbage Patch, the sixth mass extinction of life on the Earth, and many more.

• The widespread burning of fossil fuels, as well as of the Earth’s living forests, in the service of fueling our efforts for control, is polluting the very air that blankets our globe and on which we so intimately depend, and threatens our civilisation with it’s own globally-heated collapse.

This is all madness. Madness has traditionally been considered a state of being out of control of your mind. But this is a different kind of madness – one that comes from being too much in control of the mind! The unbalanced human striving for power and control has created a self-inflicted mental illness in the form of a cognitive impairment through intellectual gigantism, which is, perversely, leading humanity to alienation, chaos, and self-destruction. Let’s call this cultural affliction the Dementia Imperium – ‘the madness for control’. It is a direct descendant of Descartes’ cogito – a result of assessing existence purely through the act of thinking, not feeling.

Emotional Responses

Through the nihilism created through our hyperintellectualization by way of rational reductions and intellectual abstractions, our species is losing its passionate intuitive knowledge of value. But in our Lethean haze we have forgotten our place in the world and apparently don’t know what we are doing to ourselves. Thus, together, we have lost our minds. We seem to have lost our instinct for survival, too.

Humanity evidently doesn’t know that it threatens itself with great loss. The dominant culture collectively sails on undeterred from its course as if demented, staying rigidly faithful to the idea of our intellectual self-salvation, and oblivious to the tempests on the horizon.

It’s here that medicine can help. Through its struggle with its own sufferings, it can offer wisdom in the service of healing the pandemic of hyperintellectualized madness. Consider the ‘burnout’ metaphor. Something fiery, hot, bright, dynamic, energetic, and enlivening has gone out. But what in the human psyche fits that description? Is it not our passions?

Medicine will heal itself by coming out of its hyper-controlled head and into the uncontrolled wilds of the heart to rediscover the empathy that is its raison d’être, and so learning again how to be vulnerable and affected by the suffering of others. This is both frightening and hard. Yet medicine is familiar with this struggle between the uncontrolled and the controlled, between mystery and knowing. Patients come to us with the mystery of their symptoms, and the physician must strive to come to a thorough knowing in order to attempt healing – a diagnosis (‘gnosis’ is Greek for ‘knowledge’) – but a key aspect to medical wisdom is the sober acceptance of the uncontrolled. The manifest fact of universal human mortality makes this uncontrolled reality painfully evident in medicine. Practicing medicine in the face of such uncontrolled reality requires accepting humanity’s powerlessness and our collective unknowing, while at the same time exercising compassion.

Extending this lesson to the culture: to heal from its Dementia Imperium, its madness for control, the culture must rediscover that our passions permit our compassion, and that the health of our societies is founded on compassion. So our hope for a brighter human future essentially depends on our compassionate commitment to not just the individual good, but to the common good.

Extending medicine’s lesson to philosophy: there is wisdom in accepting the uncontrolled, non-cognitive, emotional aspects of the mind. We can be reasonably passionate. Therein lies a good.

To heal from its ataraxia, its dispassionateness – in order to heal its wisdom – philosophy needs to accept and embrace the wilds of the mind. At times this will require crossing the psychic threshold between the controlled and the uncontrolled, to strike out into the subliminal realms of thought that encompass spontaneous emotions – not as denigrated entities in need of control, but as mental states that encompass truth. So philosophy needs to make peace with the wilds of the mind and prudentially manage the conflict between those realms and the domesticated intellect, in order to find a mental balance that's neither too instinctual nor too rational. Wisdom and reason is found in such balance. But to do this, philosophy must first venture out into untamed regions of human awareness, to rediscover an ancient timeless epistemology: that knowledge of value – of good and bad – springs exclusively from these wilds of the mind, its sentimental aspects. Basically put, philosophy must become emotional. This is essential. There is no other way.

The decline of philosophy is found not in any errors of rationality per se, but in its alienation from half the human experience though the ills visited upon it by hyperintellectualization and its subsequent abstraction from passionate endeavors, within a dry, self-referential fortress of thought. Now philosophy itself is struggling with burnout. Its fire is waning through cold intellectualization. If philosophy is ever to heal, it will need the courage to break out of this insipid prison. If it is ever to be whole and healthy, it will need to free itself, and let itself go wild. It must boldly venture out into spontaneous untamed regions of human awareness to discover not humanity’s controlled, constructed, civilized self, but it’s wild, natural, fierce self. Philosophy needs to become fierce! It needs to emerge from its safe, ordered tower, and come out into the frightening, conflicted, dirty, painful, bloody beautiful world we live in. That’s where it can do good. So at some level it needs to abandon its overrationalizing nature and give itself over to its fiery passionate namesake – love – to produce a metacognitive love of wisdom. Only then can it truly survive and flourish.

© Dr John Clark, MD, 2024

John Clark has worked for twenty-five years doing family medicine in Salinas, California, and is an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine through UCSF. He teaches an Art and Philosophy in Medicine course to medical students and residents in Salinas.

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