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The Psychology & Psychopathology of Philosophers

What makes great thinkers tick? Ralph Blumenau examines some theories.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the personalities of philosophers, and this has been both satisfied and stimulated by the publication of several well-written biographies. Danny Postel in the Chronicle of Higher Education (7 June 2002) discussed this phenomenon and provided a list of such books. One of those he mentions is Ben-Ami Scharfstein’s The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of their Thought (Oxford 1980). But Scharfstein’s was preceded many years ago by what I think is a much more interesting, if perhaps more controversial, book: Alexander Herzberg’s Zur Psychologie der Philosophie und der Philosophen (Leipzig 1926), published in English by Kegan Paul in 1929 under the title The Psychology of Philosophers, and republished in 1999 by Routledge (at £70!) In this article I will first summarize their findings and then add some reflections of my own.

Herzberg studied the personalities of thirty philosophers, thirteen of whom also figure in Scharfstein’s list of twenty two. What emerges from the two studies is that a striking number of these thirty nine philosophers lost one or both parents before the age of seven; were ineffective in their social relationships; complained of social isolation and loneliness; were paranoid or hypochondriacal; suffered from more or less prolonged periods of clinical and even suicidal depression; were unmarried; were notoriously aggressive in contact with others; were quarrelsome and quick to take offence; were usually ineffective in practical and financial matters; and were interested in the very things they were not good at (such as politics and ethics).

The reason I consider Herzberg’s book the more interesting of the two is that he goes beyond listing characteristics to advance hypotheses, which include the following:

• It is not that philosophers are ineffective in practical affairs because they are so busy with higher thoughts, but that they occupy themselves with higher thoughts because these are a displacement of inhibited practical actions.

• Most people are interested in thought processes because they lead to practical action, but philosophers are interested in thought processes only because they lead to other thought processes. Many philosophers extol contemplation as such and deride involvement with the world.

• Many have strong religious interests, which are treated by Herzberg as being an overflow of energy from their philosophical interests and also as the result of inhibitions in their practical lives.

• Philosophers who concern themselves particularly intensively with questions of God, Free Will and Immortality are moved by their psychological anxieties, and not just by their intellectual curiosity.

• Idealist philosophers in particular tend to deny the real existence of a world with which they cannot cope (and materialist philosophers compensate on the other side!)

Now, I have some reservations about the conclusions one might draw from both Herzberg and Scharfstein. The first one is that there is no control group to compare with the group of philosophers. A random sample of humanity might very well display a similar breakdown in many of the personality traits listed. For example, one wonders how many political journalists (not to mention ordinary people who pontificate about politics) would themselves be competent politicians, or what proportions of a random sample of the population would be inhibited in some way or other, be socially ineffective, financially incompetent, depressed, aggressive, or quick to take offence.

What one thinks of Herzberg’s hypotheses may depend to some extent on one’s attitude to Freudian explanations. Although Herzberg’s book is called The Psychology of Philosophers, there seems to be a suggestion that he actually considers philosophical activity as likely to be psychopathological (and the suggestion is also present in Scharfstein’s book.) I think that a more nuanced approach would be helpful. What is important, surely, is not whether the personalities of philosophers show signs of psychopathology, but whether these signs are present in their ideas. The neurosis of a philosopher may show itself in the very form and content of his philosophy, but it may also have no bearing on either of these things. Rousseau’s undoubtedly pathological personality and his inability or unwillingness to bring up his children, for example, do not in themselves make his theories on education pathological.

I would divide the concerns of philosophers into three groups:

• ‘Normal’ intellectual concerns - the kind that exercise every reflective person.

• ‘Normal’ religious concerns - the kind that exercise most ordinary people who believe that there is a God.

• ‘Abnormal’ concerns whose very nature seems (to me at least) to carry strong pathological overtones.

What, then, would I describe as ‘normal’ intellectual concerns?

• The attempt to find some kind of order behind apparent chaos.

• The attempt to find some meaning in life.

• The attempt to understand why people behave in the way they do. This is the subject matter of psychology which, before it split away into a separate discipline, was a branch of philosophy.

• The attempt to understand the mechanism and reliability of our knowledge: epistemology.

• The attempt to work out a code of conduct, which includes an attempt to work out a hierarchy of values: ethics and (for the latter) aesthetics.

• The attempt to work out the proper relationship between individuals and the State, and how the State should behave towards individuals: political philosophy.

• The attempt to extrapolate from known and working principles to what is still unknown (for example in physics, which was once known as natural philosophy).

• The attempt to work out rules of clear thinking, including latterly a precise examination of the words we use: logic and linguistic philosophy.

‘Normal’ religious concerns seem to me to be:

• The attempt to square Reason with those emotions called religious perceptions or faith.

• The attempt to come to terms with the existence of Good and Evil.

• The attempt to come to terms with the Unknown.

Now I turn to ‘abnormal’ or pathological concerns. I am aware that some people will not be happy with what I include under this heading.

• The reluctance to accept uncertainty. I believe that it this fear of uncertainty which has made so many philosophers, from Pythagoras to Russell, see mathematics as the paradigm of all philosophy. Closely related to this, it seems to me, is the attempt to impose scientific principles on all philosophy.

• The search for a totally comprehensive system, especially Monism, but also Dualism (in which everything is either one thing or another) or Triadism (arranging everything in neat patterns of three, such as we find in Kant or Hegel).

• Excessively authoritarian, revolutionary, optimistic or pessimistic systems which either ignore or suppress ideas that are outside the system. This is another version of the desire for certainty and of the inability to tolerate the uncertainty generated by open-minded debate.

• Mystical philosophies. This is probably the most controversial of my suggestions. I certainly would not describe all mystical experiences as pathological (though I suspect that many are); but I feel that it is almost a contradiction in terms to reduce such experiences to philosophies. It seems to me no coincidence that so many mystical philosophies produce schematic diagrams which try to impose the same kind of artificial neatness and which we see in Monism, Dualism and Triadism.

A final comment: although I have described the concerns in this group as ‘abnormal’ or psychopathological and although I am personally not much in sympathy with their embodiment in philosophy, it does not follow that the insights resulting from them have not been valuable. We know that the ideas of ‘abnormal’ individuals often have a kernel, or more than a kernel, of truth in them. So one might ask why one should bother about distinguishing between normal and abnormal concerns: what matters in the end is the value of the ideas. The distinctions are of interest to people who are interested in psychology. They are not really of major concern to philosophers as such. This article is written because I am interested in psychology as well as in philosophy.

© Ralph Blumenau 2004

Ralph Blumenau is the author of Philosophy and Living, published by Imprint Academic in 2002, and teaches Philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

If you are interested in possible connections between the lives of philosophers and their ideas, you might like to also read Tim Madigan’s article on ‘The Uses and Abuses of Philosophical Biographies’ in Philosophy Now Issue 35 (March/April 2002).

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