Against Depressive Realism

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Against Depressive Realism

Adam Robbert

Quote:I’ve heard a few times over the years people associate metacognitive observation (of thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.) with a kind of despair, depression, or alienation, as though this were a good thing, as though the metacognitive insights we associate with philosophy are uniquely delivered by depressed or alienated affect, and that in turn alienation has some unique purchase on developing freedom and autonomy. To be sure, when you’re feeling depressed and alienated one of the unexpected side effects is a kind of metacognitive ability to self-monitor, but it’s not a sustainable way of being in the long run, and it feels more like depersonalization than a healthy developmental attribute. I’m speaking from experience.

Worse, there’s a romance to this situation — the despair of seeing things “as they really are” in their grim truth, from a distance, on the metacognitive pedestal, but this is a trap. It’s an alluring aesthetic for some, but it’s more a crutch than an accurate appraisal. My point is, the metacognitive stance isn’t an emotion free space, it is (like reason, a topic for another day) an emotion-enabled space. Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus is good on this point, where we see an emphasis on contemplative practice as facilitating a different mode of “metacognitive” insight. There is, in other words, merely a contingent relation between alienation and metacognition, and the philosophical literature is rife with examples that lead to a better way forward.

This article, titled “Depressive Realism,” recently published in Aeon, is about as good an example of what I’m talking about as I could hope for. It doesn’t mention metacognition by name, but the idea is similar. Needless to say, I’m not convinced this is a good way of thinking. The article is ostensibly about how depression may give us better access to “the real” than other emotions, like happiness, which, we’re told, lead only to stereotypical thinking and relying on cliché. But the truth is, depression leads to some of the most predictable and boring clichés imaginable, and to concretize these feelings and reify them as true stand-ins for “the real” is irresponsible.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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