Monday, 28 March 2011

The Phenomenology of depression

I spent an interesting three days at a workshop, organised by Matthew Ratcliffe and Achim Stephan, on the Phenomenology (capital P!) of depression at the University Of Durham last week.

The presentations were interesting and helpful for me. I found myself making copious notes but today, looking at them, realise that I can make almost nothing of them But a few ideas stand out (because the handwriting is better or because i simply remember what I was trying to jot down).

Ben Smith sketched out some of the options for understanding the phenomenon of reduced motivation in depression. On a traditional view of action, motivation is driven by a pairing of belief and desire with the latter as the primary motor. The temptation is to think that in a failure of motivation in depression, the belief component remains intact whilst the desire is lacking. But, Ben argued, this picture is held in place by a questionable Humean assumption about psychology in turn held in place by a questionable Humean assumption about metaphysics.

Without that, one can instead develop a richer account of the way the world itself offers reasons for action which fits some accounts of depression in which the world itself seems thin dry mean and grey, or lacking in meaning.

To try to fill this out Ben suggested that Merleau-Ponty’s notion of a space of motivation might helpfully be added to the McDowellian duality of space of reasons and realm of law. Such motivation could crystalise into explicit reason but seemed itself less than that. That seems an interesting idea but I was not sure what a paradigmatic instance of the kind of intelligibility of this third space might be (by contrast the space of reasons is exemplified by comparison with a rational ideal and the realm of law is a matter of subsumption under a law) nor why there is need for something less than the space of reasons to account for motivation

A group from SANE summarised some preliminary research findings from a questionnaire of people who had had suicidal feelings. They began with the claim that being suicidal ‘is a matter of feelings’, that there is something that is like to be suicidal, and that this seemed to be characterised by four features of the way the self was experienced as a unit and a couple for self as part of a whole. They summarised a number of key metaphors that were frequently used.

It is a very interesting bottom up phenomenology and we should await their results with interest. Nevertheless, afterwards, Matthew Ratcliffe asked a question that had bothered me. On the face of it, there is no uniform feeling ‘being about to buy a book’. Indeed, that is not ‘a matter of feeling’ at all. So why assume that there is such a unity when it comes to feelings of suicide? In fact, i fear the issue is worse than Matthew suggested: there seems no reason to assume that an answer to that question could fall out of a phenomenological inquiry. (It is akin to asking what experiences mark reading.)

My notes on a paper by Jennifer Radden stop at the point that she made a powerful appeal to intuition: one cannot imagine being in pain without being in pain. One can, for example, imagine a flying elephant without there being one but not imagine pain without bringing it about. So – to use an example Peter Goldie suggested – if one imagines catching a falling knife, one can have a kind of visceral reaction. I think that that Peter meant this to suggest that one could imagine this, the response being further evidence. But Jennifer took it to work by bringing about a kind of pain. I wonder whether she is in the grip of an assumption about perceptual imagination: that it is carried by a bearer which is ontologically independent of what is imagined (a picture, perhaps) whereas there can be no such carrier for the imagination of pain aside from pain itself. But that seems a bad picture of imagination...