Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventeenth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Karl Viertel (not his real name). Karl studies Classical German Philosophy and Phenomenology. When he is not nose-deep in a German text, Karl may be found on his yoga mat, bicycle, or in the local coffee shop with a good novel and a slice of cake.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Karl! Your appearance in the Dialogues on Disability series under a pseudonym draws attention to professional concerns pertinent to some of the central themes of the series. Please tell us about your situation and the risks that appearing in the series under your real name would have posed.
Shelley, thank you so much for including me in this wonderful series and for allowing me to participate pseudonymously. I struggle with depression and social anxiety. These conditions have been the predominant features of both my life and personality since early adolescence. I frequently battle with feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and alienation and have had five episodes of severe or clinical depression, the first of which began when I was sixteen. These episodes typically involve: rather severe feelings of listlessness (lying in bed for days at a time), avoiding social interactions (especially large gatherings), loss of appetite and rapid weight loss, the most extreme example of which occurred after my first year of graduate school, when I lost forty-five lbs.—at that time, twenty-five percent of my body mass—in three months, as well as concrete suicidal thoughts, and, at times, cutting.
I asked to appear in the series under a pseudonym for two reasons:
First, I am in a non-tenure-track position, seeking a tenure-track job. It seems to me that search committees for these positions tend to look for reasons not to hire candidates and, of course, Google can be very helpful in this regard. Given the sort of stigma that others tend to attach to people with depression, I worried that publicizing my condition under my real name could only hurt my chances in the philosophy job market.
Second, and perhaps relatedly, I’ve found that in instances where one speaks about one’s disability in a public, professional context, a particular kind of narrative tends to predominate, one to which my story does not neatly conform. These are stories in which one can clearly separate one’s life-as-disabled from one’s life-as-professional: one provides, within the story, assurances that one’s condition is under control, which is to say that one’s disability will not significantly affect one’s productivity, team dynamics, or any other features of one’s professional capacity.
Before the last year, I thought this was true of me as well. My most recent episode of clinical depression began last year, and the effects of it reverberated throughout my professional life in unexpected ways. I noticed that I had become more truculent with my students; I had difficulty grading assignments in a timely manner or preparing sufficiently for class; and I’ve really wanted nothing at all to do with my colleagues, many of whom are, in any case, rather cool and distant towards the non-tenure-track faculty.
This situation has thrown into doubt a lot of what I think about my condition; and I’ve not yet been able to reconstruct a coherent picture of it. This, too, is something with which I cannot trust a prospective search committee. I should add that I find it unfortunate that I cannot speak openly about matters like these, while many of our colleagues still look the other way when others among us serially harass women, exploit and belittle graduate students, or otherwise mock the dignity and nobility of our calling.
As I noted in last month’s interview with Audrey Yap, issues concerning identity and self-identity have been a prominent theme in this interview series. You’ve told me that the relationship between the depression and anxiety that you experience, on the one hand, and your self-identity, on the other hand, has become increasingly complex and uncertain. How would you describe this complexity and uncertainty?
Thank you for this question. I self-identify as depressed. I do not self-identify as disabled. Or rather: I have not in the past self-identified as disabled, though recent developments in philosophy, including this interview series, have caused me to reconsider my reluctance to self-identify in this way. For instance, I’ve started to realize that I have had a whole lot of trouble carrying out what are, for others, basic and mundane tasks. Particularly during my clinical depressive episodes, I’ve struggled to meet deadlines, remember appointments, get to appointments on time, pay bills, speak to family and friends regularly, and so on.
Perhaps I’m reluctant to use the word disabled because the prevailing narratives of rugged individualism and self-as-control that inform mainstream American conceptions of masculinity have held a lot of influence over the way that I’ve thought about my condition. I end up thinking that it is a matter of immaturity, or of having all the wrong priorities, or of needing to “stop making excuses,” or “just get over it.”
Perhaps my reluctance to identify as disabled is due to the fact that when I look at my accomplishments, I see how much I’ve been able to do. But the truth is that my accomplishments have always been realized in a context of struggle that many others have not had to endure. And it’s not always evident to me just how much of a struggle it has been; or I tend to forget that not everybody fights the battles that I fight just to get out the door in the morning.
Karl, you regard your research as directly related to the depression and anxiety that you experience. How would you describe this relation and how has it motivated your work?
My interest in the German tradition centers, fundamentally, around the notion of the universal self, the Kantian “I think” and its various developments in the works of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Broadly speaking, I find the idea that we are bound by common rules of thought philosophically viable and, also, a source of meaning and assurance in the face of my feelings of desolation. These thinkers all tried to show us that what it means to be the kind of beings that we are has very little to do with the particularities of our social or historical makeup, that to the extent that we focus on these features of ourselves as primary, we overlook the more profound and equally manifest commonalities that define us. That is, as I read them, the universal self is not a “true” self that lies behind the scenes, but is a feature of our rational lives that appears alongside the accidents of time and place. It is just a matter of directing our reflective capacities in the right direction.
Among the deeper connections, the most prominent one in my work at the moment is the German Idealist notion of “purpose” [Zweck]. The most influential text, in this regard, is Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, although I should add that I’ve recently developed an interest in Goethe’s writings on natural science, which I now see as quite influential in their own right. In the first half of Kant’s book, which deals with aesthetic judgment, he states that the feeling of the beautiful is always accompanied by a feeling of the purposiveness of the beautiful thing, though, ultimately, the purpose of it cannot be articulated. While my perception of a hammer or a pen might well occasion a sense of its purposiveness, it is a purpose that is fully comprehensible by me. While beholding the beautiful sunset, however, it feels as though the sunset is rife with some purpose that I can never quite grasp. This is what Kant calls a sense of “purposiveness without purpose.”
In “The Critique of Teleological Judgment,” the second half of Kant’s book, he develops a notion of purposes found within nature. He speaks of an “internal” purposiveness that defines organic nature as distinct from an “external” purposiveness that defines mechanistic nature. Whereas the hammer does what it is supposed to do only thanks to some influence from outside—I pick up the hammer and drive the nail into the board— an organism, Kant says, realizes its purpose entirely by means of its own activity. There is no hand outside the plant that makes it photosynthesize; nothing outside the animal that compels its metabolic processes into action.
Now while Kant (for reasons that we don’t need to get into here) thought that it was not possible for finite intellects like ours to assign judgments of internal purposiveness with the same validity as those of external purposiveness, he nevertheless thought that rational beings exhibited a higher form of purposiveness than did other organisms: for rational beings are free to choose their form of activity and, ultimately, face a choice over whether or how to fulfill their purpose—a moral choice about one doing what one ultimately ought to do. This idea was absolutely central to the German Idealists, and Hegel articulates his notion of so-called “absolute spirit,” the highest form of human activity, in terms entirely compatible with the internal purposiveness of organic life generally: absolute spirit is “self-thinking thought,” a phrase taken from Aristotle, but also Hegel’s definition of philosophical activity.
Of course I’m skipping over a lot here, and this is a somewhat contentious reading that I do not expect to double as a defense of itself. I should also add that my grip on these ideas remains a work in progress, and I’m not sure that I’m ready, at this point, to fully account for the way that I see myself reflected in this complex web of ideas. But I also think that this is the best articulation that I’ve found of the feeling philosophy incites within me. I do not know that I can articulate why it is that I feel the way I do, but when doing philosophy, I know that I am supposed to be doing this; and when I devote my professional activity elsewhere—I have had three other careers and know that I do not fit into the group of Ph.D.s who are, as is said, not “thinking hard enough,” or “creatively enough,” or whatever about their career options—my efforts are never accompanied by the same feeling of purpose that accompanies my philosophical practice.
In this sense, I not only connect philosophy with a sense of life purpose; but I also associate philosophy with what it means to be alive. Outside of my relationship with my son, philosophy provides the strongest compulsion that I have against my feelings of worthlessness and alienation. I can point to at least three times in my life where these feelings have, in the most literal possible sense, saved my life. In philosophy, I engage in a fundamentally human activity; so I begin to feel as though all my disconnectedness with others is ultimately only superficial in form and that, in addition to the trivial differences between us, there is a profound and enduring unity between us.
You have given us an impression of how depression and anxiety have conditioned your philosophical thinking. How have depression and anxiety conditioned your career trajectory?
My depression and anxiety symptoms went untreated for ten years. I spent a lot of time thinking that other people just had more energy than I did, that I was just shyer than everyone else, and that people who claimed to be happy were dishonest. So I would blame myself for my own “laziness” and “irresponsibility”—words that have followed me my entire life—when I’d show up late to work every day, skip track practice and music lessons, or fall back to sleep in the morning after my alarm sounded.
Still, these things didn’t really pose too much of a problem for my academic performance until my second semester of college, when I had what I now recognize as my second clinical depressive episode. I spent eighteen months in a haze, missing days of class at a time, skipping assignments, failing exams. Without knowing any better, I blamed myself for all of it, which of course worsened all my symptoms. I had to fight, daily, to shake off thoughts of my own worthlessness and inadequacy just to get out of bed; frequently, I could not. It was also during this time that I had my first concrete thoughts of suicide. Looking back, I actually feel lucky to have made it through those years alive.
It was at the end of that time that I found philosophy, and I think this discovery had a lot to do with my recovery. I found myself drawn to the German Romantic narratives about the strength of the human will and triumph over struggle, and in that vein, it was Nietzsche and the notion of “ja-sagen” that spoke to me most directly. Art that is similarly themed—from Beethoven and Landschaftsmalerei to the Avant-Garde Jazz of the Civil Rights Era—also became favorites of mine around this time.
Nevertheless, when it came time to apply to graduate school, my G.P.A. was far too low to make me competitive with other students, and I was lucky to find my way into a M.A. program where I could develop my study of German philosophy. Even then, my depression went untreated during my first year, and it was during that time that my third bout with clinical depression began. Once again, class attendance became an issue and, once again, my grades suffered. I ended up with, I think, three Bs on my graduate transcript.
Now the story’s not all sad: I started on therapy and medication after my first year of graduate school. As a result, I began to feel “opened up,” more alive, as platitudinous as that sounds; and what I would have previously called a love of philosophy was only a false shadow of what I then came to feel. I became obsessed with books. I found myself suddenly able to devote hours and hours to my studies. I read and re-read: the first Critique (thereby proving true the old joke about Kant), Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Husserl’s Ideas I, and Heidegger’s Being and Time. I also developed an interest in the works of Quine, Sellars, and the so-called “Pittsburgh Hegelians.”
Philosophy was once again—and remains still—a therapeutic practice and a source of great calm. Though I was by no means healed, and though my social anxiety—which became particularly acute around this time—made many places at least uncomfortable, if not frightening, I knew that when I was doing philosophy, I was involved with something that I was meant to do. To this day, philosophy remains my greatest coping mechanism for dealing with my social anxiety. I carry my books around, like a security blanket; and if I ever start to feel too uncomfortable in a setting or situation, I find a way to extricate myself from it—with varying degrees of tactfulness—and run off to a coffee shop to read or write for a bit.
Still, Ph. D. programs did not—and really could not—see anything but the most superficial products of all of this, mine not being one of the normatively-sanctioned narratives of prospective graduate students. Even when I visited graduate programs, or talked to whatever faculty I could find, well, for one, my social anxiety would frequently take over, and I would start to feel as though my voice dropped out of my throat, for another, I still could not very well tell these people about my condition without fear of judgment that would affect my chances of admission: “he’s not accountable,” or “he’s just making excuses for his laziness.”
It took me three years to find my way into a small Ph. D. program, which is not very well known and has only a niche specialty. Needless to say, I received excellent training and support from the faculty there, which really allowed me to come into my own as a philosopher. I got some papers into good conferences, learned how to teach, overcoming my fear of speaking in front of large groups, and wrote a very strong dissertation. After graduation, I started publishing in very good journals, and have started to win some awards and funding for my work. But now, I face a stigma of pedigree. I have been effectively shut out of the tenure-track market, while contributors to online conversations in philosophy regularly argue that doctoral programs like mine shouldn’t even exist. I’ve found myself surrounded by elitists, a victim of what Peter Railton, in his beautiful Dewey Lecture, called “the ideology of smartness.”
A chief aim of Dialogues on Disability, and indeed of the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog more generally, is to identify mechanisms and practices within philosophy that produce the exclusion of disabled philosophers. How, in your view, do the current practices of philosophy search committees work against candidates who experience depression?
Well, as I’ve just said, I think the obsession with pedigree is inordinately prominent and that can be especially harmful to people, like me, who recognize their depression or other disabling circumstances later on. Many people with social anxiety find things like networking, creating small talk, or speaking in groups to be incredibly stressful or even painful. It is entirely common for me to perseverate about the details of my interactions after I attend a talk in which I ask a question, or after I go to dinner or the bar with other attendees of the talk, or go for a night out with other faculty members in my department. I end up teeming about my “crudeness” or “indelicateness” for hours afterwards, to the point where I cannot focus on even very small tasks or even sleep until I have literally obsessed to the point of exhaustion. Nor does it necessarily feel better upon waking; rather, the feeling can stick with me for days, during which time I’ll generally shy away from contact with almost everyone. This feeling creates, as a result, a general disincentive to spend time socializing and networking. Judging a philosopher’s qualifications according to the people that she knows may work against a candidate who experiences social anxiety.
To take another, related, more particular concern: I’ve always found it worrisome that alcohol features so prominently in the hiring process. A well-known faculty member in my department once claimed that the real test of a candidate comes at dinner-time during the campus visit. As he put it, “I don’t want to end up hiring a candidate who can’t handle his(!) alcohol.” This assertion raises particular problems for me: for one, my antidepressants are processed in the liver, and so I need to avoid heavy drinking; for another, alcohol is, of course, itself a depressant. When, in the past, I did drink, I’ve been incredibly sensitive to it. Even a beer or two has triggered strong depressive symptoms that lasted for days at a time. Obviously, how much I can drink has nothing to do with my ability as a philosopher and it doesn’t make me a better colleague. But of course, such arbitrary criteria inevitably seem to creep into the decisions about who gets hired and who doesn’t; and again, the worry is that this will work against people who experience depression but are otherwise great candidates.
Finally, and this is perhaps a bit more personal in nature than the other practices of which I’ve spoken: when interviewing, I think it is important for people with social anxiety—or at least, it’s important for me—to see the faces of the interviewers. I am a rather intuitive person, and in stressful contexts, I need to be able to gauge the mood of the room in order to speak with confidence. If I’m interviewing over the phone, or if I’m on Skype and can only see the face of the person who asks me a question, it is very easy for me to begin to assume the worst. I’m sure that this is a common feature of the lives of even people who do not experience social anxiety, but in instances like these, my guess is that it is a matter of degree. Sure, we all do it, but I can freeze up, start perseverating in medias res about my answers, or spend the next few days lost in thought over what may actually have been a perfectly good interview.
You agree with Audrey, who hopes that one day soon depression will be “normalized” in academic philosophy and throughout academia. What strategies do you think professional philosophers can use toward this end?
Professor Yap mentioned that “atypicality” seems more acceptable in logic than it does in other kinds of philosophy. If memory serves, Yap said it was a sign of brilliance, and so even something to be held in reverence by others.
If this is so, the attitude of contemporary logicians has a precedent in the German philosophical tradition. Hegel, for instance, faced struggles with social anxiety from a very young age, and never really mastered the art of the philosophical lecture. Yet, this only added to his prestige: it was considered a mark of the philosophical genius who, in commune with the realm of ideas, struggled to tether himself to a grounding in the quotidian. Fichte wrote and rewrote (and rewrote, and rewrote) his Wissenschaftslehre. If he were alive today, he would almost certainly be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive. And of course, we can point to all manner of biographical stories—Kant’s daily routines, the tempestuousness of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s, well, Nietzschean-ness—that are all born of depressive symptoms, and yet, contribute essentially to these thinkers’ brilliance.
Sadly, it is really the current context, wherein universities and fields of research are expected to model their activities after successful businesses, that contributes to the disparagement of the philosopher who struggles with depression. By emphasizing, on the one hand, mere productivity as an end-in-itself, and by making virtues out of a hyperbolic optimism and bureaucratic spiritedness, on the other, the central values and virtues of the modern workplace are at least opposed to, if not downright inimical towards, those who experience depression. When we share our depression openly, or even struggle to fight our symptoms, we’re considered harmful to morale, a drag on the team, or even perpetrators of that great mortal sin of professional life: slothfulness. In this case, what bears emphasizing is the difference between the discipline of philosophy and the practices of contemporary businesses.
Philosophy is, in this way, different in kind; its best work does not result from rapid-fire, results-oriented overachieving. Its truths, such as they are, are not commodities; and its great works cannot be run out like weekly financial reports. However poorly one who suffers from depression and anxiety may fit within the world of business, however much one’s symptoms may need to be repressed as a condition of success therein, I think there are certain common depressive traits that complement quite well the demands of the life of ideas. The philosophical work requires periods of gestation and contemplativeness, and certain brands of depression manifest themselves in a deliberateness of thought and action that accommodates the maturation of great ideas. My own predisposition towards rational contemplation, attraction to complexity and abstraction, and the felt need to seek out necessity within apparent contingency are all traceable to experiences and coping mechanisms acquired during my various struggles with depression.
Furthermore, as a matter of life practice, philosophy is born of struggle. It is a feature of our lives because it allows us to orient ourselves when our sources of meaning seem to lose their coherent shape, or better: when the seeming coherence of our sources of meaning show themselves to be incoherent in fact. Of course, it has other benefits, cultivates other “practical” skills that allow us to market the discipline to administrators and materially-minded students. But if we ask why, ultimately, it is important to develop the skills that philosophy allows us to develop, it is because what is most valuable in our lives—truth, goodness, and beauty—are as elusive as they are necessary, and we need to know that our life’s actions are oriented towards their attainment. In those moments, it seems as though those who have faced these kinds of struggles before are those most well equipped to, as Hegel says, “find their feet within absolute disruption.”
In any case, I also realize that these changes, which are for some reason especially difficult for professional philosophers, require people who are willing and able to catalyze that change. My guess is that it will be people who experience depression that will have to bear the burden of so doing. And while there are a good number of scholars who will listen—and have listened—from a perspective of great conscience and concern, I am also cynical enough to think that a vast majority of academics are not reachable along these lines.
So, however base it may seem, and however much it may seem to diverge from my deontological orientation in practical matters, my sense is that the best way to get large numbers of academics on board with a progressive idea is to appeal to their vanity. It is the great motivator, the hammer that bends the arc of academic progress towards justice. We need, that is, to make other academics feel proud about counting people with depression amongst their colleagues, so that they can go to conferences, or talk to their deans, and speak in self-congratulatory tones about the number of candidates with depression that they’ve been hiring.
Perhaps, then, we could start changing the kinds of stories that one tells about hiring practices. Maybe there are “diamond-in-the-rough” stories that philosophers could start telling one another about how wise they were to have seen the potential in candidate so-and-so when she was still finishing her dissertation, or how charitable it was of them to take seriously the interview with candidate X from No-Name University, or how wonderful the culture of the department must be to have helped some scholar come into his own after he was hired. Or, perhaps philosophers could talk about how some candidate was focused on her work, or oriented towards her own ideas, rather than say of her that she was anti-social or couldn’t hold her liquor. Then, hiring committees can feel good about their more virtuous approach to the search that focused more strictly on the merits of the philosopher as a philosopher.
Karl, thank you very much for this terrific interview. I’m sure that many philosophers have learned a great deal from your provocative and insightful remarks about ableist hiring practices and normative conceptions of philosophical potential.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Karl Viertel’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, September 21th at 8 a.m. EST for the eighteenth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at email@example.com. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.