Two Candid Discussions of Mental Wellbeing

From the video description:

In this video — responding to viewer’s requests — I talk a bit about my personal experience as someone who has suffered with depression since childhood, but who was only diagnosed in my 30s. I talk about how it is difficult to determine just where the depression leaves off and other sources of sadness — like loss, pain, grief — begin. I also mention the forms depression took for me, its connection with anxiety and anger problems, and I discuss what I’ve found helped me through depression. I close with a bit of advice about listening to others, when it comes to judging your own value.

From the video description:

Who decides what a ment@l illness is? Is suic!dality always a sign of insanity?

Recommended Reading:

S.R. Blauner, How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me

Thomas Szasz, Fatal Freedom

Mary Shelley, The Last Man

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

Mark Brown, What is It Like to Be Sectioned?

AngieSpeaks, Ment@l Health Under Late Capitalism

David Bowie – Blackstar

UK & ROI, the Samaritans – 116123

USA, National Suic!de Hotline – 1-800-784-2433

USA, The Trevor Project – 1-866-488-7386

USA, Trans Lifeline – 1-877-565-8860

Philosophers in the Midst of History

This excellent series by Professor Gregory B. Sadler helps put some major thinkers in the Western tradition into historical context. Context is key when attempting to properly interpret a writer’s intentions, motives, influences, and thought processes.

These are video recordings from sessions in a quarterly lecture/discussion series, hosted by the Frank Weyenberg Library. Each of these talks takes a philosopher and places him or her within the historical context informing his or her work and life.

Videos in this series include:

  • Aristotle, Athens, and Alexander the Great
  • Anselm of Canterbury, the Church, and the Normans
  • Rene Descartes, Early Modernity, and the Wars of Religion
  • Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust
  • Plato, Athenian Democracy, and the Greek Enlightenment
  • Boethius, King Theodoric, and the Middle Ages
  • Thomas Hobbes, English Civil War, and Modern Political Theory
  • Nietzsche, the Apex of the West, and the Threat of Nihilism
  • Cicero, Greek Philosophy, and the Fall of the Roman Church
  • Augustine of Hippo, Struggles in the Church, and Rome’s Fall
  • John Locke, Absolute Monarchy, and Constitutional Government
  • Albert Camus, Absurd World, Resistance to Evil
  • Epictetus, Slavery, Stoicism, and the Roman Empire
  • Thomas Aquinas, Mendicant Orders, and High Middle Ages
  • J-J Rousseau, Barbarism, Civilization, and Revolutions

The video series is ongoing, so expect more to come in the future!

After a decade in traditional academic positions, Dr. Sadler started ReasonIO and began doing philosophical work in more practical contexts. He is an APPA-certified philosophical counselor, a public speaker, an author, an ethics trainer, and an executive coach (among other things!). He is also the editor of Stoicism Today and the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series.

Want to support this public philosophy work? Become a Patreon backer!

Interested in booking Dr. Sadler for a talk, interview, workshop, consultation, or tutoring? Check out ReasonIO!


Tool – Descending

Free fall through our midnight,
This epilogue of our own fable,
Heedless in our slumber,
Floating nescient we,
Free fall through this boundlessness,
This madness,
Of our own making.

Falling isn’t flying,
Floating isn’t infinite.

Come our end suddenly,
All hail our lethargy,
Concede suddenly,
To the quickened dissolution,
Pray we mitigate the ruin,
Calling all to arms and order.

Drifting through this boundlessness,
This madness of our own making.

Sound our dire reveille,
Rouse all from our apathy,
Lest we,
Cease to be.

Stir us from our,
Wanton slumber,
Mitigate our ruin,
Call us all to arms and order.

Sound the dread alarm,
Through our primal body,
Sound the reveille,
To be or not to be.

Stay the grand finale,
Stay the reading of our swan song and epilogue.

One drive to stay alive,
It’s elementary,
Muster every fiber,
Stay alive.

Stir us from our,
Wanton slumber,
Mitigate our ruin,
Call us all to arms and order.

Songwriters: Maynard James Keenan / Adam Jones / Daniel Carey / Justin Gunner Chancello
Descending lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc

Diseases of Despair

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The diseases of despair are three classes of behavior-related medical conditions that increase in groups of people who experience despair due to a sense that their long-term social and economic outlook is bleak. The three disease types are drug overdose (including alcohol overdose), suicide, and alcoholic liver disease.

Diseases of despair, and the resulting deaths of despair, are high in the Appalachia region of the United States. The prevalence increased markedly during the first decades of the 21st century, especially among middle-aged and older working-class white Americans. It gained media attention because of its connection to the opioid epidemic.

Risk Factors

Although addiction and depression affect people of every age, every race, and every demographic group, the excess mortality and morbidity from diseases of despair affects a smaller group. In the US, the group most affected by these diseases of despair are non-Hispanic white men and women who have not attended university. Compared to previous generations, this group is less likely to be married, less likely to be working, less likely to be able to provide for their families, and more likely to report physical pain, overall poor health, and mental health problems, such as depression.


The factors that seem to exacerbate diseases of despair are not fully known, but they are generally recognized as including a worsening of economic inequality and feeling of hopelessness about personal financial success. This can take many forms and appear in different situations. For example, people feel inadequate and disadvantaged when products are marketed to them as being important, but these products repeatedly prove to be unaffordable for them. The overall loss of employment in affected geographic regions and the worsening of pay and working conditions along with the decline of labor unions is a widely hypothesized factor.

The changes in the labor market also affect social connections that might otherwise provide protection, as people at risk for this problem are less likely to get married, more likely to get divorced, and more likely to experience social isolation. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue that the ultimate cause is the sense that life is meaningless, unsatisfying, or unfulfilling, rather than strictly the basic economic security that makes these higher-order feelings more likely.

Diseases of despair differ from diseases of poverty because poverty itself is not the central factor. Groups of impoverished people with a sense that their lives or their children’s lives will improve are not affected as much by diseases of despair. Instead, this affects people who have little reason to believe that the future will be better. As a result, this problem is distributed unevenly. For example, affecting working-class people in the United States more than working-class people in Europe, even when the European economy was weaker. It also affects white people more than racially disadvantaged groups, possibly because working-class white people are more likely to believe that they are not doing better than their parents did, while non-white people in similar economic situations are more likely to believe that they are better off than their parents.


Starting in 1998, a rise in deaths of despair has resulted in an unexpected increase in the number of middle-aged white Americans dying (the age-specific mortality rate). By 2014, the increasing number of deaths of despair had resulted in a drop in overall life expectancy. Anne Case and Angus Deaton propose that the increase in mid-life mortality is the result of cumulative disadvantages that occurred over decades and that solving it will require patience and perseverance for many years, rather than a quick fix that produces immediate results.


The name disease of despair has been criticized for being unfair to the people who are adversely affected by social and economic forces beyond their control, and for underplaying the role of specific drugs, such as OxyContin, in increasing deaths.


Cunningham, Paige Winfield (30 October 2017). “Appalachian death from drug overdoses far outpace nation’s”The Washington Post.

Danny, Dorling (2015-06-03). Injustice (revised edition): Why social inequality still persists. Policy Press. ISBN 9781447320777. “Part of the mechanism behind the worldwide rise in diseases of despair is suggested, with evidence provided below, to be the anxiety caused when particular forms of competition are enhanced… The effects of the advertising industry in making both adults, and especially children, feel inadequate, are also documented here.”

McGreal, Chris. American overdose: The opioid tragedy in three acts (First ed.). New York, NY. pp. 109–112. ISBN 9781610398619. OCLC 1039238075.

Case, Anne; Deaton, Angus (Spring 2017). “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century”Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Further Reading

Michael Meit, Megan Heffernan, Erin Tanenbaum, and Topher Hoffmann (August 2017) Appalachian Diseases of Despair (PDF). The Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis at the University of Chicago.

Chris McGreal (12 November 2015) “Abandonded by coal, swallowed by drugs” The Guardian

Can you step in the same river twice? Wittgenstein v Heraclitus


Photo Pixabay

David Egan | Aeon Ideas

‘I am not a religious man,’ the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said to a friend, ‘but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’ These problems that he claims to see from a religious point of view tend to be technical matters of logic and language. Wittgenstein trained as an engineer before he turned to philosophy, and he draws on mundane metaphors of gears, levers and machinery. Where you find the word ‘transcendent’ in Wittgenstein’s writings, you’ll likely find ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘nonsense’ nearby.

When he does respond to philosophers who set their sights on higher mysteries, Wittgenstein can be stubbornly dismissive. Consider: ‘The man who said one cannot step into the same river twice was wrong; one can step into the same river twice.’ With such blunt statements, Wittgenstein seems less a religious thinker and more a stodgy literalist. But a close examination of this remark can show us not only what Wittgenstein means by a ‘religious point of view’ but also reveal Wittgenstein as a religious thinker of striking originality.

‘The man’ who made the remark about rivers is Heraclitus, a philosopher at once pre-Socratic and postmodern, misquoted on New Age websites and quoted out of context by everyone, since all we have of his corpus are isolated fragments. What is it that Heraclitus thinks we can’t do? Obviously I can do a little in-and-out-and-back-in-again shuffle with my foot at a riverbank. But is it the same river from moment to moment – the water flowing over my foot spills toward the ocean while new waters join the river at its source – and am I the same person?

One reading of Heraclitus has him conveying a mystical message. We use this one word, river, to talk about something that’s in constant flux, and that might dispose us to think that things are more fixed than they are – indeed, to think that there are stable things at all. Our noun-bound language can’t capture the ceaseless flow of existence. Heraclitus is saying that language is an inadequate tool for the purpose of limning reality.

What Wittgenstein finds intriguing about so many of our philosophical pronouncements is that while they seem profoundly important, it’s unclear what difference they make to anything. Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river (or the constantly changing flux of river-like moments, if you prefer) with his friend Parmenides, who says that change is impossible. They might have a heated argument about whether the so-called river is many or one, but afterwards they can both go for a swim, get a cool drink to refresh themselves, or slip into some waders for a bit of fly fishing. None of these activities is in the least bit altered by the metaphysical commitments of the disputants.

Wittgenstein thinks that we can get clearer about such disputes by likening the things that people say to moves in a game. Just as every move in a game of chess alters the state of play, so does every conversational move alter the state of play in what he calls the language-game. The point of talking, like the point of moving a chess piece, is to do something. But a move only counts as that move in that game provided a certain amount of stage-setting. To make sense of a chess game, you need to be able to distinguish knights from bishops, know how the different pieces move, and so on. Placing pieces on the board at the start of the game isn’t a sequence of moves. It’s something we do to make the game possible in the first place.

One way we get confused by language, Wittgenstein thinks, is that the rule-stating and place-setting activities happen in the same medium as the actual moves of the language-game – that is, in words. ‘The river is overflowing its banks’ and ‘The word river is a noun’ are both grammatically sound English sentences, but only the former is a move in a language-game. The latter states a rule for using language: it’s like saying ‘The bishop moves diagonally’, and it’s no more a move in a language-game than a demonstration of how the bishop moves is a move in chess.

What Heraclitus and Parmenides disagree about, Wittgenstein wants us to see, isn’t a fact about the river but the rules for talking about the river. Heraclitus is recommending a new language-game: one in which the rule for using the word river prohibits us from saying that we stepped into the same one twice, just as the rules of our own language-game prohibit us from saying that the same moment occurred at two different times. There’s nothing wrong with proposing alternative rules, provided you’re clear that that’s what you’re doing. If you say: ‘The king moves just like the queen,’ you’re either saying something false about our game of chess or you’re proposing an alternative version of the game – which might or might not turn out to be any good. The trouble with Heraclitus is that he imagines he’s talking about rivers and not rules – and, in that case, he’s simply wrong. The mistake we so often make in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, is that we think we’re doing one thing when in fact we’re doing another.

But if we dismiss the remark about rivers as a naive blunder, we learn nothing from it. ‘In a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth,’ Wittgenstein cautions. Heraclitus and Parmenides might not do anything different as a result of their metaphysical differences, but those differences bespeak profoundly different attitudes toward everything they do. That attitude might be deep or shallow, bold or timorous, grateful or crabbed, but it isn’t true or false. Similarly, the rules of a game aren’t right or wrong – they’re the measure by which we determine whether moves within the game are right or wrong – but which games you think are worth playing, and how you relate to the rules as you play them, says a lot about you.

What, then, inclines us – and Heraclitus – to regard this expression of an attitude as a metaphysical fact? Recall that Heraclitus wants to reform our language-games because he thinks they misrepresent the way things really are. But consider what you’d need to do in order to assess whether our language-games are more or less adequate to some ultimate reality. You’d need to compare two things: our language-game and the reality that it’s meant to represent. In other words, you’d need to compare reality as we represent it to ourselves with reality free of all representation. But that makes no sense: how can you represent to yourself how things look free of all representation?

The fact that we might even be tempted to suppose we can do that bespeaks a deeply human longing to step outside our own skins. We can feel trapped by our bodily, time-bound existence. There’s a kind of religious impulse that seeks liberation from these limits: it seeks to transcend our finite selves and make contact with the infinite. Wittgenstein’s religious impulse pushes us in the opposite direction: he doesn’t try to satisfy our aspiration for transcendence but to wean us from that aspiration altogether. The liberation he offers isn’t liberation from our bounded selves but for our bounded selves.

Wittgenstein’s remark about Heraclitus comes from a typescript from the early 1930s, when Wittgenstein was just beginning to work out the mature philosophy that would be published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1953). Part of what makes that late work special is the way in which the Wittgenstein who sees every problem from a religious point of view merges with the practical-minded engineer. Metaphysical speculations, for Wittgenstein, are like gears that have slipped free from the mechanism of language and are spinning wildly out of control. Wittgenstein the engineer wants to get the mechanism running smoothly. And this is precisely where the spiritual insight resides: our aim, properly understood, isn’t transcendence but a fully invested immanence. In this respect, he offers a peculiarly technical approach to an aspiration that finds expression in mystics from Meister Eckhart to the Zen patriarchs: not to ascend to a state of perfection but to recognise that where you are, already, in this moment, is all the perfection you need.Aeon counter – do not remove

David Egan is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at CUNY Hunter College in New York. He is the author of The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Deus Absconditus – The Hidden God

Another fundamental aspect of Luther’s theology is his understanding of God. In rejecting much of scholastic thought Luther rejected the scholastic belief in continuity between revelation and perception. Luther notes that revelation must be indirect and concealed. Luther’s theology is based in the Word of God (thus his phrase sola scriptura – scripture alone). It is based not in speculation or philosophical principles, but in revelation.

Because of humanity’s fallen condition, one can neither understand the redemptive word nor can one see God face to face. Here Luther’s exposition on number twenty of his Heidelberg Disputation is important. It is an allusion to Exodus 33, where Moses seeks to see the Glory of the Lord but instead sees only the backside. No one can see God face to face and live, so God reveals himself on the backside, that is to say, where it seems he should not be. For Luther this meant in the human nature of Christ, in his weakness, his suffering, and his foolishness.

Thus revelation is seen in the suffering of Christ rather than in moral activity or created order and is addressed to faith. The Deus Absconditus is actually quite simple. It is a rejection of philosophy as the starting point for theology. Why? Because if one begins with philosophical categories for God one begins with the attributes of God: i.e., omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, impassible, etc. For Luther, it was impossible to begin there and by using syllogisms or other logical means to end up with a God who suffers on the cross on behalf of humanity. It simply does not work. The God revealed in and through the cross is not the God of philosophy but the God of revelation. Only faith can understand and appreciate this, logic and reason – to quote St. Paul become a stumbling block to belief instead of a helpmate.

This is an excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Martin Luther, section 2(d).

Breaking Down

I Prevail – Breaking Down

I think I think too much,
I’m a little bit paranoid, I think I’m breaking,
Maybe it’s in my blood,
Got a pain that I can’t avoid, I think I’m breaking down.

Hate every single second, minute, hour, every day,
Person in the mirror, they won’t let me feel a thing,
Keep me focused on my problems, I’m addicted to the pain,
Everybody’s out to get you.

I guess I never noticed how it came creeping in,
My enemy emotion but I can’t sink or swim,
I say I’m feeling hopeless, they give me medicine,
They give me medicine, they give me medicine!

I think I think too much,
I’m a little bit paranoid, I think I’m breaking,
Maybe it’s in my blood,
Got a pain that I can’t avoid, I think I’m breaking.

Down, I think I’m breaking,
Down, I think I’m breaking,
I think I think too much,
I’m a little bit paranoid, I think I’m breaking down.

Lies, every time they ask me I just tell ’em that I’m fine,
Try to hide my demons but they only multiply.
Keep me running from the voices on repeat inside my mind,
Everybody fucking hates you.

I guess I never noticed how it came creeping in,
My enemy emotion but I can’t sink or swim,
I say I’m feeling hopeless but no one’s listening,
But no one’s listening, but no one’s listening!

I think I think too much,
I’m a little bit paranoid, I think I’m breaking,
Maybe it’s in my blood,
Got a pain that I can’t avoid, I think I’m breaking.

Down, I think I’m breaking,
Down, I think I’m breaking,
I think I think too much,
I’m a little bit paranoid, I think I’m breaking down.

I don’t really like myself,
I don’t really like myself,
I don’t really like myself,
I don’t really like myself,
I think I’m breaking down.

Songwriters: Brian Burkheiser / Stephen Menoian / Richard Vanlerberghe / TYLER SMYTH / DAVID PRAMICK

Breaking Down lyrics © Menoian Publishing, Burkheiser Publishing, Richard Vanlerberghe

Richard Feynman was Wrong about Beauty and Truth in Science


Spaceborne Imaging Radar photo of the autonomous republic of Tuva, the subject of Richard Feynmann’s intense interest during the latter part of his life and documented in Tuva or Bust! by Ralph Leighton. Photo taken from Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1994. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL

Massimo Pigliucci | Aeon Ideas

Edited by Nigel Warburton

The American physicist Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying: ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity.’ The phrase appears in the work of the American science writer K C Cole – in her Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life (1985) – although I could not find other records of Feynman writing or saying it. We do know, however, that Feynman had great respect for the English physicist Paul Dirac, who believed that theories in physics should be both simple and beautiful.

Feynman was unquestionably one of the outstanding physicists of the 20th century. To his contributions to the Manhattan Project and the solution of the mystery surrounding the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, add a Nobel Prize in 1965 shared with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga ‘for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles’. And he played the bongos too!

In the area of philosophy of science, though, like many physicists of his and the subsequent generation (and unlike those belonging to the previous one, including Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr), Feynman didn’t really shine – to put it mildly. He might have said that philosophy of science is as helpful to science as ornithology is to birds (a lot of quotations attributed to him are next to impossible to source). This has prompted countless responses from philosophers of science, including that birds are too stupid to do ornithology, or that without ornithology many birds species would be extinct.

The problem is that it’s difficult to defend the notion that the truth is recognisable by its beauty and simplicity, and it’s an idea that has contributed to getting fundamental physics into its current mess; for more on the latter topic, check out The Trouble with Physics (2006) by Lee Smolin, or Farewell to Reality (2013) by Jim Baggott, or subscribe to Peter Woit’s blog. To be clear, when discussing the simplicity and beauty of theories, we are not talking about Ockham’s razor (about which my colleague Elliott Sober has written for Aeon). Ockham’s razor is a prudent heuristic, providing us with an intuitive guide to the comparisons of different hypotheses. Other things being equal, we should prefer simpler ones. More specifically, the English monk William of Ockham (1287-1347) meant that ‘[hypothetical] entities are not to be multiplied without necessity’ (a phrase by the 17th-century Irish Franciscan philosopher John Punch). Thus, Ockham’s razor is an epistemological, not a metaphysical principle. It’s about how we know things, whereas Feynman’s and Dirac’s statements seem to be about the fundamental nature of reality.

But as the German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has pointed out (also in Aeon), there is absolutely no reason to think that simplicity and beauty are reliable guides to physical reality. She is right for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the history of physics (alas, seldom studied by physicists) clearly shows that many simple theories have had to be abandoned in favour of more complex and ‘ugly’ ones. The notion that the Universe is in a steady state is simpler than one requiring an ongoing expansion; and yet scientists do now think that the Universe has been expanding for almost 14 billion years. In the 17th century Johannes Kepler realised that Copernicus’ theory was too beautiful to be true, since, as it turns out, planets don’t go around the Sun in perfect (according to human aesthetics!) circles, but rather following somewhat uglier ellipses.

And of course, beauty is, notoriously, in the eye of the beholder. What struck Feynman as beautiful might not be beautiful to other physicists or mathematicians. Beauty is a human value, not something out there in the cosmos. Biologists here know better. The capacity for aesthetic appreciation in our species is the result of a process of biological evolution, possibly involving natural selection. And there is absolutely no reason to think that we evolved an aesthetic sense that somehow happens to be tailored for the discovery of the ultimate theory of everything.

The moral of the story is that physicists should leave philosophy of science to the pros, and stick to what they know best. Better yet: this is an area where fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue is not just a possibility, but arguably a necessity. As Einstein wrote in a letter to his fellow physicist Robert Thornton in 1944:

I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today – and even professional scientists – seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.

Ironically, it was Plato – a philosopher – who argued that beauty is a guide to truth (and goodness), apparently never having met an untruthful member of the opposite (or same, as the case might be) sex. He wrote about that in the Symposium, the dialogue featuring, among other things, sex education from Socrates. But philosophy has made much progress since Plato, and so has science. It is therefore a good idea for scientists and philosophers alike to check with each other before uttering notions that might be hard to defend, especially when it comes to figures who are influential with the public. To quote another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a different context: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living (2017) and his most recent book is A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control (2019), co-authored with Gregory Lopez.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.


Rise Against – Miracle

We scan the empty sky, always without success,
We’re lighting signal fires and spelling S.O.S.
We stare at broken clocks, the truth comes twice a day,
While every second just slips away.

Are you going to wait here for a sign to let you know now?
Are you going to sit there paralyzed by what you’ve seen?
Or are you going to finally grip the wheel? I think you know how.
Is this more than you expected it to be?

Don’t wait for a miracle to tumble from the sky,
To part the seas around you or turn water into wine.
Don’t wait for a miracle, the world is passing by,
The walls that all surround you are only in your mind.

The stage is set, and the curtains pulled,
Ready or not, it’s time, on with the show,
Now the crowd has grown impatient,
And the train has left the station,
And the candles you are burning in the dark will fade away.

So what are you waiting for? A sign to let you know now?
Are you gonna sit there paralyzed by what you’ve seen?
Are you going to finally grip the wheel? I think you know how.
Are you gonna throw it all away?

Don’t wait for a miracle to tumble from the sky,
To part the seas around you or turn water into wine.
Don’t wait for a miracle, the world is passing by,
The walls that all surround you are only in your mind.

When the weight we carry breaks us,
We’re tempted to stay down,
But every road to recovery,
Starts at the breakdown.

But we don’t need miracles to tumble from the sky,
To part the seas around us or turn water into wine,
Because we are the miracles, we happen all the time,
We’re not scared of what surrounds us, we’re not waiting for a sign.

We are the miracles,
We are the miracles,
We are the miracles.

Songwriters: Brandon Barnes / Joe Principe / Timothy Mcilrath / Zach Blair
Miracle lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Philosophy Should Care about the Filthy, Excessive and Unclean

Thomas White | Aeon Ideas

Philosophy traditionally has been about ‘higher’ questions: what is knowledge? What is the meaning of justice? What is the nature of ultimate reality? These questions soar above the petty concerns of the everyday and reach towards a realm of pure ideas. But can the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth? Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics.

In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt. The young Socrates, at this stage but an entry-level philosopher, is discussing the foundations of reality with the venerable Parmenides. While this encounter between these philosophers about ‘undignified objects’ is brief, it is profound, for it shows how insightful thinkers use digressions and marginal comments to demonstrate that not everything is as clearcut as system-builders – including even Plato – might think.

Parmenides quizzes Socrates about whether the theory of ideal forms – the argument that particular material objects have correlated ideal patterns, which are the perfect forms of the imperfect things – can include mud and dirt. Can there be a perfect form of filth? Taken aback, Socrates confesses that he is troubled by this point because it seems to lead to nonsense: ‘perfect filth’ is contradictory. Instead, Socrates prefers to return to discussing the higher ideals of ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’. Confronted by Parmenides with the unseemly facts of mud and dirt, he takes refuge in the beautiful – unlike Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea (1938), who, in confronting the ugly facticity of the world, obtains a glimpse of actual, albeit repugnant, reality.

Socrates’ puzzlement at how to explain the very lowest (dirt, mud) in terms of the very highest (ideal forms) suggests the limitations of the dualistic, two-world theory that has formed the basis of several millennia of Western thought. The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality. The very resistance of filth’s inclusion into a master philosophical system serves as a cautionary note, and a lesson in Socratic humility, warning the ambitious and overeager intellectual to slow down. Do not try to assimilate every aspect of our diverse experience into grand explanatory narratives. The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly. (The classicist Edith Hamilton, in her introductory notes to Parmenides, suggests that Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.)

Parmenides’ concerns about the limits of the theory of forms presages the empiricist Francis Bacon. In Novum Organum (1620), he argued similarly for the limits of intellectual speculation, and about the dangers of creating idols out of promiscuously generated philosophical systems by exceeding speculative boundaries:

The understanding must also be cautioned against the intemperance of systems, so far as regards its giving or withholding its assent; for such intemperance appears to fix and perpetuate idols, so as to leave no means of removing them.

In our own day, Slavoj Žižek in his book Disparities (2016) echoes the Parmenidean point about how the unclean can disrupt our comfortable theories about reality: ‘[S]hit remains an excess which does not fit our daily reality.’ An experience of disgust in the presence of the filthy and unclean disturbs our sense of systems and order, causing a ‘disintegration’ of our metaphysical understanding of reality, ‘the very ontological coordinates which enable [us] to locate an object “out there”.’

Like Plato, Žižek uses allusions to the unclean to alert the reader to how repugnant, discordant facts can undercut a particular vision of reality. He also expands the use of the metaphor of filth to call our attention to something else closer to his heart: the failings of our modern political discourse. Bacon warned us of intellectual intemperance, but Žižek uses references to the unclean to warn us of modern political intemperance. In the cases of Plato, Bacon and Žižek, the philosophical issue raised is about boundaries and the implications of transgressing them.

In the unclean, Žižek finds the ultimate metaphor for the dumbing down of political thought and speech, a way of understanding the collapse of modern political discourse – itself an echo of Plato’s critique of the false, that is, ‘sophistical’ use of political language – in which ‘public vulgarity’ is used without shame.

He begins his argument with a scene from a surreal film from 1974 in which people at a dinner party defecate in public:

We probably all remember the scene from Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper: ‘Where is that place, you know?,’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.

Political figures today, Žižek argues, are committing the verbal equivalent of this public defecation. They are violating traditional, unwritten rules and boundaries that are used to guide public conduct by making outrageous statements that were once taboo. ‘They are a clear sign of the regression of our public sphere,’ he writes in Newsweek in 2016. ‘Accusations and ideas that were till now confined to the obscure underworld of racist obscenity are now gaining a foothold in official discourse.’ And citing Georg Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit – the ‘the thick background of (unwritten) rules of social life … that tell us what we can and cannot do’, Žižek further observes that ‘These [unwritten] rules are disintegrating today: what was a couple of decades ago simply unsayable in a public debate can now be pronounced with impunity.’

A discharge of verbal political filth has changed the public sphere into a kind of collective public toilet for language users – lurid speeches full of nasty ignorance, blatant vulgarity and raw prejudice. Plato and Žižek, with some tacit support from Bacon, use the notion of the unclean in similar ways to offer, implicitly, practical advice about how humans should conduct themselves: be wary of intemperately overstepping limits by chasing overweening ambitions, whether intellectual or political, which soil clear thinking and logic, and/or corrupt language, politics and ethics. Discussions of lowly filth, and all of its disgusting variations, are not merely the province of vulgarians, but seem to offer life lessons for everyone, not just philosophers.Aeon counter – do not remove

Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, whose philosophical and theological writings have appeared in print and online.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.