Sick and Tired: Depression in the Margins of Academic Philosophy


This paper is a reflection on Peter Railton’s keynote speech at the Central APA in February 2015, especially on his disclosure of his struggle with clinical depression. Without attempting to deny the significance of Prof. Railton’s outing, we want to draw attention here to something that did not prominently figure in his speech: structural features of the philosophical profession that make people sick. In particular, we focus on the “ideology of smartness” in philosophy and how it creates a pathological double-bind for those that come into the discipline from the margins, or find themselves in its margins.

In February 2015, Peter Railton gave the Dewey Lecture at the Central APA in Chicago. According to reports, the lecture moved half of the audience to tears, and received not one, but two standing ovations. He spoke about his past as a student and activist, as a fledgling moral philosopher, and about the challenges of holding oneself accountable, as an established philosopher with a reputation, to one’s own convictions and ideals. He also spoke candidly about his struggle with depression: “a logic that undermines from within, that brings to bear all the mind’s mighty resources in convincing you that you’re worthless, incapable, unloveable, and everyone would be better off without you” (Railton 2015: 14).

Peter Railton’s outing was an admirable and important act of courage; it was widely shared on social media and Railton’s openness was praised by academics and non-academics alike. It is a testament to a life of scholarship and activism, and a rallying call for both, for the practical relevance of doing philosophy.

Railton’s story is an important one, and he should be commended for telling it. Yet while stories like his ought to be told, there are also other stories, different stories about depression and philosophy: about the sickness and the exhaustion that comes from within the academy. These stories worth paying attention to if indeed we care about what it is like in philosophy.


Let us begin by simply quoting some excerpts from anonymous replies to a follow-up post to Railton’s lecture on the Daily Nous (Anonymous 2015). All of these appeared in an open thread encouraging readers to share their experiences with mental illness in the profession:

Sexual harassment in my graduate program played a major role in my first major depressive episode and the anxiety I feel around large groups of philosophers socializing also stems from that period. It cannot be denied that women face barriers in philosophy, that one such barrier is the perception that we are not as rational as men, and that coming out as a sufferer of mental illness may, for some, indicate that one is less rational than those who do not.

I have witnessed PhD students from various institutions openly declaring that almost everyone at their department was on medication for depression or anxiety. What’s more, the situation was perceived as normal, as a common side effect of pursuing a career in academia or struggling to complete a doctoral dissertation at a very good university. Not only living with a mental health disease was felt as a wholly justified and thus OK (!) reaction to the academic environment pressure, but there was an implication – which some of my very intelligent and sensitive interlocutors regarded with mixed feelings indeed – that being stressed out was proper for a PhD candidate at their institution x, and a sign of one’s dedication and effort. In some cases, there even was a feeling that dealing with mental health issues was distinctive of better, more ambitious, more focused, more deserving PhD students.

Coming out to my superiors here at the university would be a nightmare. My boss is an over-achiever who thinks that everybody must work as much as him and basically only views people in terms of what they can do for him. He is already very onto me, because I have two kids, which means that I cannot be at the office from 8 in the morning till 8 in the evening (btw: I have a 50 % position there,). So, no, I will never tell anyone here. Maybe, if I am lucky and get a tenured position, I will reconsider. In the meantime I am hiding in the same closet that many gays and other people who are ‘different’ hide. It is not great in here, a little dusty and stuffy, but at least nobody will use my weakness against me.

As a female, an immigrant, a low-income and first-generation college student, I was amazingly optimistic and high achieving throughout high school and college. I had bouts of mild anxiety or depression, confusion about my identity (especially attending an elite college where my class became something of concern) and so forth, but I somehow remained engaged and interested in the world and felt that I had things to contribute to it. It was not until going to graduate school that I even began to understand how *who I am* would make being in academia a tremendous struggle. Because graduate school is not designed for the likes of me. I’m not even sure who it is designed for, because I know no people in my PhD program who are feeling utterly fulfilled being there. The lack of support and (worse) outright hostility that I have experienced in my graduate program, coupled with a heavy workload on (yes, I admit it) difficult topics, and being responsible for educating 70 undergraduates on top of it, expectedly sent me into the deepest depression I have ever known. Was depression my fault? I don’t think so now, but for the first two years in the program I questioned my own intelligence, and there was no one in my department to tell me I was not a worthless, stupid, poor woman who would never amount to anything even mildly important. The fact that I even thought these things about myself is shameful and embarrassing. The fact that graduate departments can cause students to feel this way is shameful and embarrassing. Of course I do not mean to blame graduate school for my socioeconomic struggles, but I do blame it for not being hospitable to people like me while pretending that it is.

These are stories in which the profession makes people sick. Or perhaps: sicker than they already were, sicker than they would have been without philosophy. All of these are very much unlike the story Railton told. In Railton’s account, depression “takes up residence in the mind” (2015: 16) and turns the mind against itself and against the body it resides in. It is like a vicious virus, or a cancer; and indeed Railton compares the stigma on depression to the stigma that cancer patients used to suffer not too long ago. Both depression and cancer are here portrayed as illnesses that strike randomly, that could affect anyone; illnesses which some are fortunate to avoid, and others are unfortunate to get; as medical problems, to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. And as with most serious medical problems, the support of family, friends, and peers is invaluable in facing and overcoming them.

All of this is true, of course. Depression is a medical problem, and in order to reduce the stigma on it and on similar mental illnesses, we need to treat it as such, and we need to be willing to offer the same accommodations—such as sick leaves and genuine support from peers—to sufferers that we are willing to offer to those who suffer from cancer, or from the flu; or those who need to take care of small children that have the flu.

But there is a sense of uneasiness about the emphasis on the randomness with which depression strikes: Even though illnesses strike randomly—from the statistical point of view—we can in many cases manipulate our environment and our own habits to reduce the frequency and the severity of these strikes. We keep ourselves confined to our bedrooms when we have the flu and avoid crowds when there is an epidemic and we do not want to get sick. We follow nutritional advice for lowering our chances of getting heart disease, or diabetes. We vaccinate our children. And so on.

Yet then the question is: Is it not possible to employ a similar mode of thinking toward depression? And what would such a mode of thinking tell us about the relation between depression and academic philosophy? The quotes above, although they constitute anecdotal evidence, suggest that there are systemic factors involved in depression among philosophers: not for everyone and not invariably, but for many and quite frequently. So if we wonder about how sufferers of mental illness fare in philosophy in the wake of Railton’s keynote, then it seems to me that we should also speak about the possibility that structural factors contribute to and exacerbate mental illness and keep sufferers in their respective closets.

For example, consider the ways in which victims of sexual harassment are implicitly encouraged to remain silent instead of making their harassment public, or are even pushed out of the profession rather than supported (for a summary of available evidence in the American context and recent trends to address the problem, see Hawkins Lockwood 2014; Flaherty 2015). Consider widespread assumptions about what it means to be a good philosopher that implicitly and insidiously exclude philosophers of color, working-class philosophers, and philosophers who do not speak and write the same type of English as the majority of their peers (as we will point out below, we will leave it an open question to what extent our observations apply to philosophical subcultures that do not have English as their dominant language). Of the same assumptions supporting an ideology of smartness that normalizes suffering from mental illness and debilitating social isolation as just another part of the job description. Of a supposed meritocracy that keeps people locked up in their closets for fear of appearing weak before others.

In his Dewey Lecture, Peter Railton spoke at length about the toxic exclusivism of academic philosophy and the ways in which the profession and some of its heroes have failed even basic standards of moral decency. But what is not part of his story is how these failures of the profession may make aspiring scholars sick and contribute to depression; how these structural features deprive them of financial and emotional stability, and deprive them of hope.

The collection of quotes above also reveal an interesting tension on how mental illness is viewed in academia: The second poster in our selection describes it as just a “part of the job” to suffer from job-related stress, anxiety, and depression. Yet other posters describe it as a weakness. We suspect that there is a double-bind lurking here: Mental illness can be a “part of the job” and even a sign of particular strength as long as it does not interfere with one’s professional duties. But once mental illness undermines one’s academic performance (as severe stress, anxiety, or depression inevitably will at some point) it becomes stigmatized, and those affected by it cannot count on others’ understanding anymore. This might even amount to a perverse sorting system: If one makes it through all stressors in academia without falling apart, one has proven oneself to be good enough.

That is the part of the story that we want to focus on here. One of us remembers being a graduate student who had just moved to another country, to another continent: literally scared out of her wits, doubting her own intelligence, too afraid to speak in seminars during her entire first year of graduate school; she remembers being the closeted queer philosopher too worried to even want to write about queer philosophical topics. The other remembers coming to philosophy to pursue a doctorate from another field, a non-philosopher among philosophers; feeling intimidated, unsure of her place there and not smart enough. She called herself (even in public) a “parachutist” into the field and it took her years before she was able to call herself a philosopher.

We both remember and still experience the nefarious “logic” that tells us that our writing and our teaching are worthless, that we will never make it in academia (and that if we do not make it, it would be no one else’s fault but our own). As we will see below, in our discussion of “philosophy as vocation,” this feeling has been shared by other aspiring philosophers, and it might have a structural explanation in the oxymoronic reward structure and job market messages that these philosophers receive.

We also likely have, to some extent, both subscribed and suffered from to what Eric Schwitzgebel, Jennifer Saul and others have described as an “ideology of smartness,” a term that Peter Railton also picked up in his Dewey Lecture. We have been quick to dismiss colleagues’ ideas, because they were not presented in our jargon. We have made and received unnecessarily hostile comments at conferences and workshops, and we have shown and received intellectual condescension in verbal and non-verbal ways. We have acted as enforcers of standard philosophical English. We have honed our skills of identifying the weak spots of someone else’s argument, but we realize again and again (especially when supervising students or when being supervised and coached) how difficult it is to actually help someone construct an argument that can stand up to scrutiny.

Philosophy as a Depression Machine

But let us move on from testimony to theory. Taking the testimonial and anecdotal part of this paper as starting point, we want to highlight four features of professional philosophy that help explain why it is a “depression machine”:Footnote 1 first, a deeply ingrained tendency to treat learned skills as innate talents; second, a deeply ingrained tendency to treat philosophy as a vocation, not a profession; third, an extremely competitive environment; and fourth, a reward structure that fosters “impostor syndrome.” Impostor syndrome was first described in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a seminal article: its main characteristic is believing oneself incompetent despite external appraisal, resulting in feelings of worthlessness and mental distress. We believe that these four factors in conjunction constitute a particular mental health hazard. It should be noted that the third and fourth factors apply not just to philosophy, but to academia in general and even to fields outside academia, such as the fine arts. Examples include Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou and Academy-Award-winning actors Kate Winslet and Don Cheadle who have all confessed their anxiety of becoming “unmasked” as frauds by their peers; their testimony suggests that philosophers are not alone in feeling as impostors (for a journalistic account of popular sufferers of “impostor syndrome,” see Warrell 2014).

The theoretical and empirical underpinnings for our argument come from various sources. We draw upon recent work in the sociology and psychology of the academy, and on recent contributions of philosophers who critically reflect on the status quo of their own discipline. Inspiration for the more speculative part of our argument comes from the Philosophical Investigations, as we believe that Wittgenstein can be read as an autodiagnostician of philosophy as a depressive occupation.

The context of our argument is Anglophone and broadly speaking “analytic” philosophy, that is to say, the branch of academic philosophy traditionally dominant in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the British Isles, and those parts of Europe that have a strong tendency towards a philosophical culture dominated by English, such as Scandinavia or the Netherlands. We will leave it an open question to what extent the observations we make here also apply to other geographical areas and other philosophical cultures (for instance those that have German or French as their main languages).

Competitiveness and Reward Structure

Like most other academic fields in the geographical areas mentioned above, philosophy is an extremely competitive field. Personal conversations about the job market in philosophy and about the odds of permanent employment are often shot through with cynicism and hopelessness, and both formal and informal news channels of the discipline have reported for years now (since the global financial crisis of 2008 developed its full effect on academia) that the pool of highly qualified applicants for each job (both permanent and temporary) is steadily on the rise while the overall number of available jobs decreases. A richly detailed article in The Economist (2010) analyzes the phenomenon of “the disposable academic” (see also Wolff 2015 for a more recent account) and both The Chronicle (Pannapacker 2013) and the New York Times (Lewin 2013) offer the sobering data that 76 % of positions at US universities are temporary positions without a perspective for eventual tenure.

This leads to increased performance pressure on all career levels. Graduate students are trained to worry about building a flawless resumé; young career researchers report workloads that are detrimental to both their social lives and their psychological and physical health; and many senior figures in the field complain about massive administrative tasks that are expected as part of the service to the profession in addition to their duties as teachers, supervisors, and researchers. Recent research about work-related stress for employees in British academia supports the view that these are not just isolated complaints, but systemic features (Kinman 2011; Kinman and Wray 2013).

Reports about these extreme pressures and expectations come from different academic disciplines, and they have sparked a general discussion about academia and mental health, as a series of widely shared articles on the rise of mental illness in academia by the Guardian demonstrates (Shaw 2014; Shaw and Ward 2014; Thomas 2014; Anonymous 2014). There is both emerging psychological research as well as harrowing individual stories, such as the suicide of Imperial College Professor Stefan Grimm (who had complained of “being put under undue pressure from the university in the months leading up to his death”)Footnote 2 suggesting that the intense competition in academia can be a contributing factor in depression. This, however, does not single out philosophy as a special case; it does not even single out academia as a special case, since there are similarly competitive fields (such as high finance or professional sports) from which similar stories are reported.Footnote 3

What might set academia apart from these fields is its rather strange reward structure, exacerbated the fact that academic competition (unlike athletic competition) is mostly pursued in isolation. What occurs as a result of this is “a structural imbalance between effort exerted and rewards received” (in the words of Dutch political scientist and academic coach Amber Davis; Davis 2014). Academics can work for months or years on a single project, and might have to wait for months or years to reap the results of their work (in the form of degrees, publications, professional recognition, promotions or grants). This particular reward structure can amplify the stresses from an already intensely competitive environment; and in the worst case, it can trigger intense feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and meaninglessness. To give one concrete example: It is telling both how often philosophers joke about how no one reads their papers in private, and yet how eagerly they count their citations on platforms like Google Scholar, because they know very well that this metric can and will be used to assess their academic prowess. Where both attitudes exist simultaneously (which we suspect they do in many academics), they embody an unhealthy and self-undermining view of one’s work and its value: one is worried that one’s work might gain no attention or recognition (and might even see it as worthless or meaningless) and in response to these feelings clings to external markers of “impact” that are fairly easy to manipulate (for instance, by internal citation; reported and discussed, for instance, in a Science article by Wilhite and Fong 2012) and easy to misread (since there is typically no difference made between approving and disapproving citation).

However, even if the competitiveness and the reward structure of philosophy means that philosophers on average have to wait even longer for recognition of their work than, say, chemists or engineers,Footnote 4 this might simply be a difference in degree; and intense competition for academic jobs (and its direct result, a growing academic precariat kept in a permanent limbo of adjunct and other temporary positions) can be found in various disciplines, not only in philosophy.Footnote 5 These factors likely play a causal role in a specific philosophical brand of depression, but they are not sufficient to explain why philosophy in particular is a depression machine. For this, we need to turn to the other factors mentioned above: the ideology of smartness, and the tendency to treat philosophy as a vocation.

The Ideology of Smartness

Section 255 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is very brief. It reads: “The philosopher treats a question; like a sickness.”Footnote 6 This section occurs in a larger context, a discussion of language, meaning, and the supposed privacy of experience: the (in)famous “private language” argument. We will ignore this context for now and only focus on the notion that doing philosophy is like diagnosing and treating a sickness. Can we learn about the sickness of philosophy by examining its own diagnostic tools?

How do we treat questions in philosophy then? How do we learn to diagnose philosophical problems? We read. We map arguments. We identify their weak spots, come up with counterexamples, question their premises, examine their validity. We try to come up with a better answer, but this better answer of course presupposes that the one we have been investigating was not good enough. It did not withstand scrutiny.

And this is also what we try to teach our own students. A crucial part of teaching a theoretical framework is to make students aware of its problems and its limitations. When we coach them in philosophical writing, we encourage them to anticipate objections to their view. A common sales pitch used by philosophers in order to arrange ourselves with the ongoing commercialization and buzzwordification of the university is that our special power, our most important asset, is to teach our students to think critically. We practice “making our case” as clearly and concisely as we can. We defend ourselves against interlocutors, in seminars, at conferences, and most important of all (the entry ticket to the world of being a professional) at the dreaded dissertation defense; where it is not only your own, but also your advisors’ reputation on the line.

Academic philosophy, especially in the “analytic” tradition, might thus seem like a critical, not a creative activity. Marino (2015) has described philosophy’s hostility to creativity in a guest post, again on the Daily Nous. She writes:

While I could see how criticism could be important, and obviously useful for learning, and how it could be part of a dialectic activity that really did move things along, I found this aspect of the humanities … would ‘distasteful’ be too strong a word? Criticism seemed to me so narrow in scope, so not-getting-anywhere, so uncreative, and frankly, often a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

Railton (2015: 11) took up the same issue when he spoke about the ideology of smartness:

…every case worth making faces tremendous difficulties. We are, by training, good at pouncing on these difficulties. […] Other philosophers pay one’s work the respect of taking it seriously enough to listen for the arguments… and then attempt to find and apply the most telling stress test. […] This can be of tremendous value. But is it really all that is going on? […] And is this the only way of showing respect for work, or learning from dialogue, or testing our views? How did smartness get to be so central in evaluation in a discipline that is supposed to be seeking knowledge and wisdom?

This might make it sound as if the critical business of philosophy is per se a profoundly dehumanizing practice, not in any way inhibited by true respect for the person behind the words and the arguments. But let us not forget that philosophers are also supposed to learn to be as critical with their own ideas as they are with others’, and that by the profession’s own standards, they would fail their peers if they abstained from helping them improve their thoughts by offering criticism. This is to say: the critical ideal of philosophy is well worth keeping and central to the profession. The diagnosis, then, cannot end with the critical ideal of philosophy; it needs to look at its permutations and perversions.

The critical ideal of philosophy presupposes that we can differentiate between the argument and the person. That is why philosophers police ad hominems, after all. Our concern is with the point at which the business of criticism has become institutionally entrenched in a way that philosophers stop trusting their own intelligence and begin to regard themselves, their entire selves, as failures. What bothers us is the possibility that an underlying ideology, the “ideology of smartness,” subverts philosophy’s critical ideal in a way that is damaging to the mental health of the individuals in the field.

There is emerging empirical research and (meta)philosophical reflection about the structural features of philosophy (for instance, its own understanding of its history, and its methods) that contribute to the dramatic underrepresentation of women and minorities in the discipline (for crucial work in this regard see, for instance, Haslanger 2008; Saul and Beebee 2011; Dotson 2012; Saul 2013). Recently, Leslie et al. (2015) have shown how belief in the innateness of talent for an academic field correlates with the underrepresentation of women and minorities in it. Their works suggests that the more widespread the belief that an academic field requires a special innate talent to succeed in it, the more likely it is that white men will be overrepresented in it. Interestingly and tellingly, according this survey, philosophy ranks worse than even most STEM-fields in this regard, and much worse than the humanities and the social sciences.

What Leslie and colleagues have done is to provide an empirical underpinning to a suspicion that several prominent philosophers have uttered over the past years: that there is a toxic and discriminatory “ideology of smartness” in the discipline. From personal observations, Schwitzgebel (2010) saw a “clear pattern” of who “seems smart” and who does not (it is predominantly white men who are described as smart); these observations were discussed by Saul (2013) in her seminal article on implicit bias in philosophy. Most recently, in an op-ed article for the Los Angeles Times, Cherry and Schwitzgebel (2016) documented the dramatic underrepresentation of persons of color in philosophy and linked it to an academic culture that values “seeming smart” and “sounding smart” as an achievement. Cherry and Schwitzgebel state: “It’s not that white men are innately better philosophers than women and people of color. It’s that white men have better command of the cultural apparatus of seeming smart.”

Philosophy’s ideology of smartness functions as a gatekeeper along gendered, racial, and class lines. The belief that some are just born with a knack for philosophy creates the illusion that success in philosophy is the result of an innate ability and the dedication to use this talent; and in this respect, the ideology of smartness is not unlike beliefs about the naturalness of gender or the biological reality of race.

In a detailed reply to Allen Wood’s posts aimed at young philosophers on the job market, Goguen (2016) shows clearly how entirely contradictory messages can result from this ideology; messages that convey simultaneously that academic philosophy is a meritocracy in which only the most talented and the most dedicated “survive,” and that it is a “horrendously unfair” lottery in which it comes down to brute luck who gets job interviews and permanent positions and professional recognition. Goguen calls the former attitude (that success comes down to extraordinary talent and dedication) the “innate vocation model,” and we will return to this idea below. For now, it is crucial to note that the oxymoronic notion that academic philosophy is both a brutally selective race for deserved recognition and a lottery can be read as a direct consequence of the ideology of smartness. As Goguen puts it: “The idea that some people simply have ‘sharp, talented, and well-trained’ minds, and that this can be spotted from the very first page [of a writing sample] […] supports the innate vocation model, even with the ‘well-trained’ thrown in.” Job selection processes certainly require efficient techniques to reduce the pool of candidates. But if these techniques utilize snapshot judgments about someone’s “brilliance” and their “promise” as a future colleague and researcher, this leaves the entire process vulnerable to implicit and explicit biases.

The ideology of smartness obfuscates subtle and not-so-subtle social and cultural mechanisms of excluding or discouraging people from participating in the discipline, when their talent and their competence are being assessed. In his public farewell to academia, Park (2014) described one of these mechanisms: the insistence on a predominantly white, predominantly male canon as the intellectual tradition of the discipline, and the concomitant insistence on rigor as the benchmark of philosophy worth paying attention to; and by extension the dismissal of alternative canons (e.g., Asian philosophy or feminist philosophy) as not rigorous enough.

The insistence on rigor (and similar insistences on clarity or relevance) can be rationalizations.Footnote 7 If and when they are, they typically betray a collective preference not for rigor (actually) but for a particular language game (and here we are back to Wittgenstein). Much of the rigor demanded in the discipline consists in the ability to use the right vocabulary competently, or at the very least to sound competent when one is using it. But philosophical vocabulary, like any other vocabulary, is learned. And when such a learned ability is regarded as a talent, this creates an illusion of naturalness. What Butler (1990) has said about gender as the performance of a supposedly natural category applies here in analogy.

With this illusion of naturalness in place, it is no wonder that those who learn these skills later or slower than others (perhaps because they did not enjoy the privilege of having an academic family background and thus easy access to specific cultural resources, or perhaps because English was not their first language) are not only prone to be seen as less intelligent, less talented than their peers (on bias against non-native speakers of English in Anglo-dominated areas of philosophy, see Ayala 2015). They are also prone to internalize this judgment and to doubt their own intelligence when they struggle with philosophy. Louise Archer has found that “younger academics from minority ethnic and working-class backgrounds", and those who are contract researchers, find it particularly difficult to inhabit identities of success/authenticity with any sense of permanence or legitimacy. That is, they must negotiate on a daily basis not only their attempts at ‘becoming’ but also the threat of ‘unbecoming’ (2008: 401). Overall (1997) has made similar observations about her struggle with feeling “fraudulent” as a feminist scholar and teacher. Such struggles can become even more debilitating when everyone around them is as concerned as they are to prove their smartness by not letting on that they, too, are still in the process of learning the game.

Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have explored this phenomenon as a form of “speech injustice,” in which skilled listeners consistently apply the linguistic conventions of their own group to the detriment of those who do not happen to be perfect speakers. Applied to philosophy, what sets their analysis apart from the literature that focuses on implicit bias is that it does not rely on the assumption of a biased mind. Their work implies that even philosophers who are conscious of their own biases can use the linguistic conventions of academic philosophy (for instance, in terms of rigor, clarity, choice of examples and cultural references) in a way that structurally disadvantages those who, for instance, have a working-class background or come to Anglophone philosophy with English as a second or third language (see also Ayala 2015). If so, then this structural disadvantage (of one’s English sounding non-native, or of having a different arsenal of cultural references) can affect judgments about one’s intelligence and talent in a way that exacerbates existing biases; and it does so in a way that makes those who are affected by them believe in their own lack of intelligence.

And this brings us back to a “diagnosis” of the tools of philosophy where a discussion of the (im)possibility of private languages, private experiences, and private knowledge inspired by Wittgenstein is illuminating. This is section 272 of the Philosophical Investigations:

What makes a private experience private is not actually that each has their own kind, but that no one knows whether someone else also has this one or some other. We could thus make the assumption - though unverifiable - that one part of humanity has one kind of experience of the color red; and another part another.

Just three sections earlier, in section 269, Wittgenstein reminded us that there are behavioral criteria for understanding language; here, he seems to suggest that such criteria do not apply to experience (here the experience of color; in neighboring sections, Wittgenstein discusses the experience of pain; but we could of course discuss the experience of language and understanding in similar fashion). What makes section 272 so curious is that in the case of color, we do of course have behavioral criteria that can show us that some people have an experience of color that differs from ours. Where different colors have taken a particular function (as in a traffic light, for example) a colorblind person is not able to navigate this function unless they are aware that they experience color differently. In such a case, however, the supposed privacy of experience is simultaneously confirmed and undermined by a social practice. Once the colorblind person becomes aware of their differing experience, they can participate successfully in the social practice (in this case, reacting properly to a traffic light).

What can Wittgenstein’s discussion of private experiences tell us about the academic practice of philosophy? Academic philosophy is a shared language game, and as such, a social practice. If what we have suggested above is plausible, then it also subscribed to an ideology of smartness according to which the competence to participate in this practice is in part due to innate talent. While these kinds of judgments (about “talent”) are themselves a social practice (and prone to be affected by social and structural biases) the experience of being judged is private. In psychological terms: The prevalence of an ideology of smartness makes it likelier that disappointments and failures in academic philosophy are ascribed to individual flaws (and successes written off as “mere luck”). That is not to say that this experience (of being a failure or a fraud) is the only possible reaction to these structural features. It might of course also be the case that individual philosophers engage in positive self-illusions (Taylor and Brown 1988) about their skills and talents and thus write off failures as incidental and experience successes as due primarily to individual competence, exhibiting thus a self-serving bias (Campbell and Sedikides 1999). It could be speculated that even this kind of experience is distributed along gendered, racial, and class lines.Footnote 8

Yet unless there is a general awareness of the social and cultural mechanisms that affect professional judgments in philosophy, individual philosophers dealing with academic frustrations are in the same situation as Wittgenstein’s interlocutor, wondering whether their experience of color (or of pain) can be compared to other experiences and understood by anyone else. But once Wittgenstein’s interlocutor realizes that understanding is necessarily a social process, the fixation on the privacy of experience vanishes.

Philosophy as Vocation

Philosophy as a shared practice depends on shared language games. But philosophy (the shared practice in its current state) also subscribes to an ideology of smartness which suggests that some people (the “smart” ones) already have the relevant talents and concepts and others do not; even before anyone really learns how to play the game.

By maintaining this illusion, this trick of the mind, behavioral criteria for “success” in academic philosophy remain in a continual double-bind: between brute luck and extraordinary dedication, between innate talent and the display of acquired skills. This double-bind becomes particularly insidious when it encompasses the notion that those who do succeed (whether due to dedication or due to luck) were simply meant to be philosophers. This view suggests that those who do not make it simply were not cut out for it (even though they were also just unlucky in a lottery with extremely low odds of success). It is worth asking what this double-bind does to those who drop out of academic philosophy and who do not succeed. If there was an objective, universally agreed-upon understanding of talent in the profession, then we could resolve the double-bind by saying that talent reduces the amount of luck one needs to succeed. Unfortunately, such an understanding does not exist, and the tension between luck, talent, and effort remains unresolved. In her above-mentioned analysis of the “vocation model of philosophy,” Goguen (2016) observes that pursuing philosophy might be more tied up with one’s conception of identity and one’s feelings of self-worth than it would be in other academic disciplines; precisely because philosophy is seen as a vocation rather than as one profession among others that one could pursue. If so, then “the stakes for messing up or failing out are this much higher. So the prospect of leaving philosophy is […] not just potentially admitting failure for a [long-term] endeavor, but also a potential threat to our very integrity as a coherent self” (Goguen 2016).

Things are exacerbated by the fact that the “vocation model” of philosophy has a long history within the discipline, from Aristotle’s praise of the philosophical life, to similar claims that a life of reflection is best in the Middle Eastern tradition (for instance by Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufayl; see Frank 1996), to Hume’s “skeptical despair” in the Treatise, to contemporary celebrations of philosophy as a unique discipline that requires and fosters unique skills. The vocation model is entrenched in the self-understanding of the discipline, and it sends conflicted messages about what counts as smartness, success and talent in philosophy.

It is unsurprising then that especially younger academics apply this model to themselves, in spite of efforts to limit its discouraging and toxic effects, and in spite of encouraging them to consider alternatives to academia in an ever-worsening job market. Moreover, there might be a general allure about the idea that this discipline, unlike all the others, is something one pursues in spite of the poor odds for professional recognition and financial and social stability.

So when the dream of philosophy as a career that one is called on to pursue collapses, it can be identity-shattering. This threat to the integrity of one’s identity is then the final piece in our argument that philosophy is a depression machine. When a significant part of one’s identity and self-conception is invested in a career pursued as a vocation, in a profession that perpetuates an ideology of smartness, has an unhealthy reward system and is extremely competitive, then one exposes oneself to a particularly high risk that any kind of failure (real or perceived) in this profession can lead into a mental tailspin.


We have argued in this paper that philosophy as an academic discipline poses a mental health hazard and can thus be seen as a “depression machine.” The discipline is a “perfect storm” of various factors that can contribute to an unhealthy work environment and an unhealthy conception of oneself and one’s occupation: Like many other fields, academic philosophy is extremely competitive; in addition to this, it also has a reward structure that offers few and delayed rewards for long-term efforts mostly exerted in isolation. But what really sets philosophy apart from other academic disciplines is its toxic and exclusionary ideology of smartness, and the still widespread notion that it is a vocation rather than a profession. Both of these contribute to a climate in which biased (and sometimes plainly oxymoronic) assessments of talents and accomplishments can flourish; and the same climate, for the same reasons, also contributes to flawed self-assessments: that is, overly negative or even self-destructive views of one’s own competence as a philosopher.

In the interest of combating bias in the discipline, but even more so in the interest of promoting mental health, this climate should be addressed, individually and systemically.


  1. 1.

    The words of one of the anonymous commenters on the above-mentioned Daily Nous post (Anonymous 2015).

  2. 2.

    For a journalistic account of Grimm’s suicide, see Sarah Cassidy’s article in the Independent (2014).

  3. 3.

    One example that received widespread national and international attention was the suicide of German goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009 at the age of 32 after a long struggle with depression. Enke’s life and struggle are chronicled in Ronald Reng’s biography A Life Too Short (2012).

  4. 4.

    An article by Björk and Solomon (2013) on publishing delay indicated that chemistry and engineering journals have the shortest time from receiving to publishing and article with 8.91 and 9.30 months respectively, whereas journals in Arts and Letters have a mean ‘’reception to publication’’ time of 14.21 months.

  5. 5.

    As early as 1993, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP 1993) warned that the increasing reliance on contingent (non-tenured and part-time) faculty would threaten to undermine the tenure system and lead to an essentially two-tiered academe. By most accounts available today, this situation has become much more serious today (and in many countries, not just the United States). For philosophy, the most comprehensive data regarding placement for recent Ph.D.s (in the United States, from 2012 until 2015) comes from Dicey Jennings et al. (2015). Their research is currently being updated, but so far, it seems to suggest that overall, less than half of the graduates from this time period have found permanent positions, with slightly better odds for the (significantly fewer) women than for the male graduates.

  6. 6.

    Translations are our own; we were working with a German-only edition of the Philosophical Investigations while preparing this paper (Wittgenstein 2003).

  7. 7.

    This is not to say that rigor and clarity as such should not be valued by philosophers. Rather, it is to point out that, like any professional virtue, rigor and clarity can be exaggerated and interpreted in ways that serve to exclude certain people from the profession (in this case, discredit them as “not really philosophers” and their work as “not really philosophy”). The development of philosophical jargons that are rigidly being adhered to and amount to little more than the parroting of particular terms and styles (in both “analytic” and “continental” traditions) is one example of this.

  8. 8.

    We should be careful with this kind of speculation, however. The body of psychological research reviewed by Taylor and Brown (1988) does not make explicit references to gender, race, and class as factors in positive self-illusions and indeed, Taylor and Brown themselves see these illusions as a contributing factor in mental health, in opposition to accounts that see mental health as rooted in a firm relation with reality. This opens up a potentially interesting line of investigation (which we unfortunately cannot pursue here): Perhaps philosophy as a practice contributes to a depressive view of the world precisely because it (at least in principle) systematically discourages self-illusion.


  1. Archer L (2008) Younger academics’ constructions of ‘authenticity’, ‘success’ and professional identity. Stud Higher Educ 33(4):385–403

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Ayala S (2015) Philosophy and the non-native speaker condition. APA Newsl Feminism Philos 14:2–9

    Google Scholar 

  3. Ayala S, Vasilyeva N (2015) Explaining speech injustice: individualistic vs. structural explanation. In: Noelle DC, Dale R, Warlaumont AS, Yoshimi J, Matlock T, Jennings CD, Maglio PP (eds) Proceedings of the 37th annual conference of the cognitive science society. Cognitive Science Society, Austin. Accessed 13 Mar 2016

  4. Beebee H, Saul J (2011) Women in philosophy in the UK: A Report by the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy UK. Accessed 13 Mar 2016

  5. Björk BC, Solomon D (2013) The publishing delay in scholarly peer-reviewed journals. J Informetr 7:914–923

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Butler J (1990) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  7. Campbell WK, Sedikides C (1999) Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: a meta-analytic integration. Rev General Psychol 3:23–43

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Clance PR, Imes SA (1978) The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychother Theory Res Pract 15(3):241–247

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Dotson K (2012) How is this paper philosophy? Comp Philos 3:3–29

    Google Scholar 

  10. Frank D (1996) Ethics. In: Nasr SH, Leaman O (eds) History of islamic philosophy. Routledge, London, pp 959–968

    Google Scholar 

  11. Haslanger S (2008) Changing the ideology and culture of philosophy: not by reason (Alone). Hypatia 23:210–223

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Leslie S-J, Cimpian A, Meyer M, Freeland E (2015) Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science 347:262–265

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Overall C (1997) Feeling fraudulent: some moral quandaries of a feminist instructor. Educ Theory 47:1–13

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Saul J (2013) Implicit bias, stereotype threat and women in philosophy. In: Hutchison K, Jenkins F (eds) Women in philosophy: What needs to change?. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 39–60

    Google Scholar 

  15. Reng R (2012) A life too short: the tragedy of Robert Enke (Whiteside S, trans; paperback edition). Yellow Jersey Press, London

  16. Railton P (2015) Innocent abroad—rupture, liberation, and solidarity. In: Dewey Lecture at the APA Central, February 2015. Accessed 11 Sep 2015

  17. Taylor SE, Brown JD (1988) Illusion and well-being: a social-psychological perspective on mental health. Psychol Bull 103(2):193–210

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Wilhite AW, Fong EA (2012) Coercive citation in Academic Publishing. Science 335:542–543

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Wittgenstein L (2003) Philosophische Untersuchungen, auf Grundlage der kritisch-genetischen Edition neu herausgegeben von Joachim Schulte. Suhrkamp Verlag

Web references

  1. American Association of University Professors (1993). The Status of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty. Accessed 27 Apr 2016

  2. Anonymous academic (2014) There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia, on The Guardian: Accessed on 5 Mar 2016

  3. Anonymous Academics (2015) Selection of comments taken from this post on Daily Nous: Accessed 11 Sep 2015

  4. Cassidy S (2014) University inquiry into Professor Stefan Grimm’s death, on the Independent: Accessed 5 Mar 2016

  5. Cherry M, Schwitzgebel E (2016). Like the Oscars #PhilosophySoWhite, Los Angeles Times 4 Mar 2016, Accessed 13 Mar 2016

  6. Davis A (2014) Stress, Underperformance and Mental Health: Why Academia Needs a New Paradigm. Accessed 5 Mar 2016

  7. Dicey Jennings C et al (2015) Academic Placement Data and Analysis: 2015 Report Update. Accessed 27 Apr 2016

  8. Flaherty C (2015) “A Step Forward for Philosophy”, on Inside Higher Ed: Accessed 4 Mar 2016

  9. Goguen S (2016) Working at philosophy, Part 2.5.: How we talk about Philosophy and Leaving It. The Philosopher’s Cocoon. Accessed 28 Apr 2016

  10. Hawkins Lockwood H (2014) The Extreme Badness of Silence on Feminist Philosophers: Accessed 4 Mar 2016

  11. Kinman G, Wray S (2013) Higher stress: a survey of stress and well-being among staff in higer education, UCU. Accessed 5 Mar 2016

  12. Kinman G (2011) The growing epidemic: work-related stress in post-16 education. London: UCU. Accessed 05 Mar 2016

  13. Lewin T. (2013) Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds on The New York Times: Accessed 05 Mar 2016

  14. Marino P (2015) Creativity and criticism on Daily Nous: Accessed 11 Sep 2015

  15. Pannapacker W (2013) “Just Look at the Data, if You Can Find Any” on The Chronicle: Accessed 05 Mar 2016

  16. Park ES (2014). Why I Left Academia – Philosophy’s Homogeneity Needs Rethinking on Hippo Reads: Accessed 10 July 2015

  17. Schwitzgebel E (2010) On Being Good at Seeming Smart on his blog Schwitzsplinters: Accessed 13 Mar 2016

  18. Shaw C (2014) Overworked and isolated - work pressure fuels mental illness in academia, on The Guardian: Accessed 5 Mar 2016

  19. Shaw C, Ward L (2014) Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia, on The Guardian: Accessed 5 Mar 2016

  20. The Economist (2010) The disposable academic, on Accessed 05 Mar 2016

  21. Thomas K (2014) We don’t want anyone to know, say depressed academics, on The Guardian: Accessed 5 Mar 2016

  22. Warell M (2014) Afraid Of Being ‘Found Out?’ How To Overcome Impostor Syndrome, on Forbes: Accessed 34 Mar 2016

  23. Wolff J (2015) Doctor, doctor … we’re suffering a glut of PhDs who can’t find academic jobs, on The Guardian: Accessed 5 Mar 2016

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Maren Behrensen.

Ethics declarations

Conflicts of interest

We hereby declare that we are not aware of any conflicts of interest (economic or otherwise) pertaining to this manuscript.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Behrensen, M., Kaliarnta, S. Sick and Tired: Depression in the Margins of Academic Philosophy. Topoi 36, 355–364 (2017).

Download citation


  • Philosophy
  • Depression
  • Academic precariat
  • Wittgenstein
  • Ideology of smartness