Against Depressive Realism

IMG_1166I’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.

Here’s an example from the article about the alleged benefits of depression: “It [depression] helps people reduce judgmental bias, improve attention, increase perseverance, and generally promotes a more skeptical, detailed and attentive thinking style.” And another, “Perhaps the way out is actually accepting our raised level of consciousness. In our melancholy depths, we find that superficial states of happiness are largely a way not to be alive.” This link between depression and an elevated state of consciousness, and happiness with a superficial one, is a great formula for living a tough and damaging life.

The article also mentions Heidegger and his assessment of anxiety and angst as basic (and authentic) modes of being. The sentiment here is the same: Angst has a privileged relation to disclosing being. This might be true in some sense, but it’s not the purview of angst alone to enact these disclosures, and if one relates to Being in this way only, you’re going to get a very distorted, one-sided, and self-fulfilling philosophy. And this is, in fact, what I see when I turn to look at contemporary philosophies inspired by this line of thinking. It’s a kind of ideology of emotions that sees alienation, depression, and angst as uniquely (and exclusively) bearing of real existential or ontological insight.

Contrast Heidegger’s image of being with that of Plotinus for whom the cultivation of virtue, kindness, love, gentleness, and solitude enable access conditions for different comportments with Being. These are practices that deliver clarity of insight, whilst also being sustainable in the long run. Practices of intentional solitude, for example, are similar but much more liveable actions from which new freedoms may also emerge than those that come from “alienation.” When alienation reigns, people see everything in its image, and whatever insights come from this space carry with them the same drudging heaviness that hide a fuller picture of reality.

These images are addictive, and lead us to form whole philosophies of justification around them. As I said earlier, depression creates some unique metacognitive opportunities, but ultimately they are not sustainable, and they can lead to exactly the kind of illusory hypostatization that this article argues against, namely, to a reification of the depressive construct as more real than other emotions. The spectrum of emotions, aesthetics, and concepts each have their own epistemic and existential import, and states of ecstasy and depression alike are very good at leading us to forget this fact.

In any case, I’m throwing this out there partly as a reminder to myself (I’ve long been prone to the trap of alienation and depression) but also because it might be helpful for others here too, since it’s been in the air. Depression is already a difficult thing, and reifying it in this way leads to more of the same kind of inaccurate bias the article purports to expose.

Just say no to depressive realism.


  1. Indeed, tho I say yes to realism being depressing as the major trends shaping our lives tend to be grim but this is quite different from suffering depression and doesn’t have any necessary link to alienation, in my case I’m quite affected by it all and there may be something akin to learned helplessness that comes with realizing the tragic limits of our grasps/control but that’s not alienating,
    as for Heidegger’s likely Catholic pension for pathos at best (in a pragmatist misreading of him) he is pointing to another case of awareness via breakdown (as with tools) but theres is also the constructive path including projects like yours of making explicit what is implicit which afford another viable option.
    I don’t think we can choose our moods/orientations so not sure if it makes much sense to talk about better or worse modes along these lines, also I worry about the use of meta which in terms of being consciously self-referential makes sense but rings too much like the meta in metaphysics and it is just one aspect of, not some base/basis, of being/cognizing,
    thanks for not continuing the lines of philosophy that glamorize suffering as some kind of privileged access to the Real/Other, there is no un-mediated access to anything in
    human-be-ing but we can certainly tweak our media-ecologies.


  2. Hi Robert,
    Thanks for this. Couldn’t agree more. If you have seen schizophrenia, depression, mania and suicidal thinking close at hand you very quickly realise it’s not at all a form of insight one would do well to cultivate, although it might offer hard truths about the viciousness of everyday social interactions or a more general insight into our situation as a species. Nothing of this negates the possibility of “the cultivation of virtue, kindness, love, gentleness, and solitude”, as you say, although I find it very sad that there is no justice in the way fate determines our innate dispositions and life experiences. Some are just dealt a terrible hand.


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