Those who ask the difficult questions, like “Why are we here?”, “From where do we derive morals?” and “What does it all really mean, when you get right down to it?” have given humanity amazing philosophical insights and ethical guidance. Unfortunately, thinking too much about these issues can sometimes also lead to the brains of those philosophizing rejecting the difficulty — feeling the pressure just a little too much! Then again, maybe it’s a wee bit of madness that leads great philosophers to try to seek out the answers in the first place…
10. William James
Physician, psychologist and philosopher William James is best known for his work on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of pragmatism, seeking to discover how one should act when one does not have knowledge of ultimate truth. Like his siblings (one of whom was the great novelist Henry James) he suffered from various ailments in his youth, both physical and mental. His mental illness, known at the time as “neurasthenia,” included many separate and severe depressive periods which lasted for months and during which he considered suicide. However, he published throughout his life and died of a heart condition in his sixties.
9. John Stuart Mill
One of the crucial figures in the development of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill was a child prodigy whose father deliberately sought to educate him from an early age in the philosophy. His father’s intensive instruction eventually took its toll, and at the age of 20 he was struck by a nervous breakdown and a depression which he credited to having been deprived of a real childhood. Eventually, he recovered and went on to a scholarship that included the publication of his book On Liberty — a profoundly important philosophical work and one of the foundational texts of liberalism.
8. Søren Kierkegaard
Considered the grandfather of existentialism, or perhaps the first existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard was profoundly critical of the idealist philosophers of his time such as Hegel and Schelling. One of his areas of focus was on life as a “single individual,” emphasizing personal choice and human reality. He regarded depression as a failing, maintaining that the depressed individual always had “an equal or perhaps greater possibility of the opposite state.” This view is all the more poignant when you realize that Kierkegaard himself, and many of his family members, were themselves sufferers of deep depression. Kierkegaard is quoted as saying, “My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known…”
7. Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault engaged in critical studies on such social institutions as psychiatry and prisons, with his writings on discourse and power profoundly influential during the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. His importance within philosophy and across a variety of academic disciplines is marked by the fact that he is one of the most frequently cited scholars within the humanities. The author of such texts as Madness and Civilization, his prominent influence on the anti-psychiatry movement is notable — especially given the fact that he gained a degree in psychology and, perhaps more significantly, suffered the torments of acute depression which even led him to attempt suicide.
6. Paul Feyerabend
Paul Feyerabend spent over 30 years on the staff of the University of California, Berkeley, working in the field of the philosophy of science. He took an anarchic view of science, rejecting the common wisdom that there could be universal methodological rules. His most famous work, Against Method, provoked strong reactions, and he dealt with them while struggling with major depression, due in large part to the intensity his work. Indeed, in his autobiography he referred to it as his “faithful depression,” comparing his affliction to a pet.
Commonly recognized as the founder of the Western philosophical tradition, Socrates was not shy about mentioning what we might now describe as his mental illness. This openness is no doubt due to his outspoken belief that madness, when inspired by the gods, can give man his greatest blessings — such as love, poetry and philosophy itself. Socrates relied on his “daemonic sign,” or independent voice in his head, to warn him when he was making a mistake. It was this voice that steered him away from entering politics.
4. David Hume
David Hume was a pivotal member of the Scottish Enlightenment, seeking to create a “science of man” that investigated human nature and motivations. He is one of the most important figures of Western philosophy, credited for his influence upon them by Adam Smith, Kant and William James, amongst others. While still a teenager and studying at the University of Edinburgh, he discovered “a new Scene of Thought” and embarked upon ten years of scholarship, the rigors of which brought him to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Sensibly, he realized that continuing on this path would prevent him from reaching the insight he wished to gain and he embarked upon an active lifestyle to preserve his mental health.
3. Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger concentrated his philosophy on the question of “Being” with his book Being and Time, considered one of the 20th century’s most influential philosophical works. His membership of the Nazi Party and professed support for Hitler makes his work and life controversial, and he was banned from teaching in a 1945 denazification hearing. He suffered a nervous breakdown, and while it might be nice to believe that it was due to his guilt over his complicity with the Nazi regime, it is more likely that his internal turmoil was fueled by the prospect of losing the university career he had toiled to gain.
2. Adam Smith
Author of The Wealth of Nations, the first work of modern economics, Adam Smith was an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and is renowned as the father of capitalism. However, his existence did not consist solely of a devotion to scholarly pursuits. He began to suffer shaking fits while studying at Oxford, now thought to be symptoms of a nervous breakdown. During his life he was known for talking to himself and suffering from imaginary illnesses, as well as chronic absent-mindedness that led to such incidents as walking for 15 miles outside the town clad only in his nightgown.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche
As the man himself once proclaimed, if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will stare back at you. Friedrich Nietzsche’s preoccupation with the will to power and the death of God may have been what drove him to insanity. One oft repeated story recounts his collapse in front of a horse after seeing it being whipped, and certainly, in the late 19th century, he began to send strange letters detailing imaginary torments. While the idea of an inquiring mind destroyed by its own pursuits is appealing, doctors at the time diagnosed him with tertiary syphilis, and later diagnoses have included manic depressive illness with periodic psychosis and frontotemporal dementia. His influence lives on in postmodernist, nihilist and existentialist schools of philosophy.