Recently I read two interesting pieces that I'd like to connect with each other. One is Peter Railton's Dewey Lecture to the American Philosophical Association, in which he describes his history of depression. The other is Oliver Sacks's New York Times column about facing his own imminent death.
One of the inspiring things about Sacks's work is that he shows how people with (usually neurological) disabilities can lead productive, interesting, happy lives incorporating their disabilities and often even turning aspects of those disabilities into assets. (In his recent column, Sacks relates how imminent death has helped give him focus and perspective.) It has also always struck me that depression -- not only major, clinical depression but perhaps even more so subclinical depressive thinking styles -- is common among philosophers. (For an informal poll, see Leiter's latest.) I wonder if this prevalence of depression among philosophers is non-accidental. I wonder whether perhaps the thinking styles characteristic of mild depression can become, Sacks-style, an asset for one's work as a philosopher.
Here's the thought (suggested to me first by John Fischer): Among the non-depressed, there's a tendency toward glib self-confidence in one's theoretical views. (On positive illusions in general among the non-depressed see this classic article.) Normally, conscious human reasoning works like this: First, you find yourself intuitively drawn to Position A. Second, you rummage around for some seemingly good argument or consideration in favor of Position A. Finally, you relax into the comfortable feeling that you've got it figured out. No need to think more about it! (See Kahneman, Haidt, etc.)
Depressive thinking styles are, perhaps, the opposite of this blithe and easy self-confidence. People with mild depression will tend, I suspect, to be less easily satisfied with their first thought, at least on matters of importance to them. Before taking a public stand, they might spend more time imagining critics attacking Position A, and how they might respond. Inclined toward self-doubt, they might be more likely to check and recheck their arguments with anxious care, more carefully weigh up the pros and cons, worry that their initial impressions are off-base or too simple, discard the less-than-perfect, worry that there are important objections that they haven't yet considered. Although one needn't be inclined toward depression to reflect in this manner, I suspect that this self-doubting style will tend to come more naturally to those with mild to moderate depressive tendencies, deepening their thought about the topic at hand.
I don't want to downplay the seriousness of depression, its often negative consequences for one's life including often for one's academic career, and the counterproductive nature of repetitive dysphoric rumination (see here and here), which is probably a different cognitive process than the kind of self-critical reflection that I'm hypothesizing here to be its correlate and cousin. [Update, Feb. 26: I want to emphasize the qualifications of that previous sentence. I am not endorsing the counterproductive thinking styles of severe, acute depression. See also Dirk Koppelberg's comment below and my reply.] However, I do suspect that mildly depressive thinking styles can be recruited toward philosophical goals and, if managed correctly, can fit into, and even benefit, one's philosophical work. And among academic disciplines, philosophy in particular might be well-suited for people who tend toward this style of thought, since philosophy seems to be proportionately less demanding than many other disciplines in tasks that benefit from confident, high-energy extraversion (such as laboratory management and people skills) and proportionately more demanding of careful consideration of the pros and cons of complex, abstract arguments and of precise ways of formulating positions to shield them from critique.
Related posts: Depression and Philosophy (July 28, 2006) SEP Citation Analysis Continued: Jewish, Non-Anglophone, Queer, and Disabled Philosophers (August 14, 2014)
Update April 23:
The full-length circulating draft is now up on my academic website.