On hope and feelings at war

I don’t know about you, but most of my basic beliefs seem to be shattered. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, my life feels totally altered. No day passes without bouts of despair. Of course, my point is not that my despair is anywhere near that of the Ukrainians (it is not), but merely to make sense of my experience. Having grown up during the Cold War with parents who lived through WW II, I feel like I’ve come full circle. The reason I find this noteworthy is that I feel fairly alone when considering many compatriots and people around me. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this, but for me this is a war on Europe and everything I believe in. While many people seem to take the question whether Europe is actually under military attack very seriously (and, of course, we should), my feeling is that “my world” has been invaded already.

Let me get one thing out of the way: If you look for clever analyses, look elsewhere. I have nothing important to say. Being a German citizen, I am deeply ashamed of the government of my country, for it does too little to support the Ukrainian people. (Here is a petition that you should consider signing.) But I happily leave political and strategic analyses to people more competent. All I’m attempting is to share my grief and some impressions – in the hope that this might be soothing or whatever to others.

So what is it that’s getting to me? Somehow there seems to be so much hatred in the world that it might become uninhabitable. What does that mean? Climate change is threatening to make the world uninhabitable in terms of heat etc. But there might also simply be too much hatred. – I come from a working class family in what was called Western Germany. My parents were poor and timid, in the way that refugees from the East seem to feel out of place, but they always inspired love and hope in me. Although I’ve hardly kept contact to family members from Eastern Germany, I always felt a strong bond with them, and when I moved to Hungary in the early 90s, I felt very much at home. The same was true of other European countries: wherever I came I felt at home. Europe was home. And it was, despite all shortcomings, a beacon of hope and progress.

The first time I thought something was off was after people voted for Brexit. (Of course, there are many other events that were bad and sinsister, but for some reason this held a special weight.) From my early days onwards, I grew up with a love for Britain. This love was intensified through music and, later, through briefly joining the academic world there. When I crossed the border, I felt like coming home. Brexit has taken that away. It felt like people were spitting me in the face saying “you were mistaken”. The election of Trump was another such event. Yes, a lot is rotten in the world, but certain places held a promise for me that has been diminished since 2016.

Looking back at this today, these events feel like a preparation for what was to come. People who know me know that I felt and feel a very strong bond to Eastern Europe. I don’t know why, but visiting countries like Hungary and Romania always felt a bit like coming home. Although I was mainly an onlooker at the time, 1989 defined my understanding of my place in the world. In a nutshell, you might say that I experienced 1989 as real progress. Not the end of history, for sure. I am very much aware that much went wrong and that the “former East” was clearly colonised by the West. But still, things seemed to get better.

In 1945, when my mother was five years old, her home was invaded by Russian soldiers. One of them directed his machine gun at the children huddled against a wall, shouting “one, two, three, I shoot you!” My mother never told me what precisely had happened. But whatever else she (or my father for that matter) might have left out of their accounts, I never would have thought that Europe would return to a state of being a source for these kinds of stories. – This dream was shattered, of course, with the war in former Yugoslavia. But, it seemed, this wasn’t fatal for the European idea. Note again please that I’m not trying to diminish anything here. I’m talking about my experience. Not world history.

Anyway, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all these dreams seem shattered. I am grateful that my daughter Hannah, who is five years old now, does not (yet?) have to undergo what my mother might have lived through at the same age. But I begin to realise that her world is very different from the one that I had the privilege to spend the last fifty years in. It is a world where Europe is filled with war and hatred. And now this world is becoming even smaller by the hour. Smaller like eyes narrowed by hatred.

Although I’m suffering from anxiety, it’s strange that the current situation doesn’t instil fear. Rather, it leaves me with a strange and perhaps futile determination. The courage of the Ukrainian people is inspiring, as is – for very different reasons – the spirit of my students. Reading the news these days mainly reduces me to tears. My life and most things that matter to me, it seems, are put on hold until this war will be over. At times it feels like there is nothing left, nothing worth living for, in the face of these atrocities. My hatred for Putin and his supporters seems endless. But then, there is my daughter and all the young people for whom we must remain hopeful.

I have often cynically thought that the idea of progress is a sham. Call me pathetic, but listening to President Biden’s speech and thinking of the wonderful people I know gave me hope.

We must stand with Ukraine. It is not just a manner of speaking when people say that they are defending our freedom.

Petition: Stop the import of gas and oil from Russia!

Evelina Miteva and I have initiated the petition “Stop the import of primary fuels from Russia”. Here is a brief explanation. Please sign by clicking this link.

Putin has cruelly escalated the war against Ukraine through numerous attacks against the civilian population. Threatening to use nuclear weapons, he is simultaneously trying to keep the rest of the world in check. No one should be allowed to get away with something like this. Germany, too, is called upon to do everything sensible to stop this painful war.

What have we done so far? Well, Germany has eventually managed to help suspending SWIFT and delivering some weapons. However, we continue to buy oil and gas from Russia. This way, we pay hundreds of millions into Putin’s war chest every day. By contrast, many experts and politicians now recommend stopping imports of primary fuels or at least Nord Stream 1 as a first step.*

A common objection is that this would be quite expensive. However, this overlooks how much more expensive an escalating war and possibly Germany’s entry into hostilities would be. We must act quickly. Please sign to make the German govement reconsider the options of an embargo.


* Here is a summary of some recent analyses.

A photo from my history book

The Terror of War” 1972, by Nick Ut

The photo above was taken on the 8th of June, 1972, in Vietnam, after a napalm bomb attack (you can read more about the photo and the photographer here).*

I must have been eleven or twelve years old when I first saw it in my history book at school, perhaps in 1981 or 82. It has been deeply ingrained in my memory ever since.

Reading about the air raids in Kiev daily now and seeing a constant flow of photos and videos, my memory becomes more vivid again. The images mingle. Still shocked and confused, there is not much I have to say right now.

I keep wondering what images my daughter (who is just five years old) will grow up with.

Seeing the courage of all the people fighting against Putin’s attacks in various ways gives me hope.


*Thanks to Siegrid Agostini who posted this photo this morning.

On anxiety, society, and tacit magical thinking. A conversation with Marise Timmenga (podcast)

This is the eighth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Marise Timmenga who is a student at the University of Groningen. After discussing my recent post on my anxiety disorder, we thought that we might contribute to social awareness by talking about some of the ingredients of anxiety. We ended up having a quite intense conversation, which I cut down to a podcast of just under an hour. If you feel like skipping bits or want to focus on a specific topic, here is a rough overview:

Introduction   00:00
What anxiety disorder can be like   01:45
The misleading mind-body dualism   06:00
What helped?   08:43
Awareness and the (un)availability of psychological vocabulary   13:20
Social infrastructures: What can others do to help?   15:00
Do you really have to settle it yourself?   16:25
Educating health professionals   17:50
Mental health in academia   22:05
Some ways of sorting it out – and trigger warnings 25:40
Catching tacit beliefs: magical thinking as a crucial ingredient   34:25
What does anxiety do for me?   35:55
The role of guilt, moral judgments, and pessimism   44:22
Magical thinking as self-ascribing agency   48:30
The role of disowned beliefs   50:40
Having anxiety as a way of keeping yourself safe   52:30  

Why don’t we mine contemporary philosophy for tools to do history?

Philosophers often turn to the history of philosophy for instrumental reasons. The aim is not to ‘do’ history but to prevent reinventing the wheel or to mine historical texts for interesting arguments or ideas. This approach is common both in teaching and research. Undergraduates are often taught surveys in order to develop some ‘vocabulary’, and philosophical discussions are often prefaced with some big names when introducing, for instance, a “Humean account of whatever”. To my surprise, I rarely find any appeal to the converse approach, that is: historians of philosophy instrumentalising contemporary philosophical arguments or ideas to capture historial ideas or debates. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a fruitful approach both for teachers and researchers.

Let me start with a simple example. I’m currently running a course on Condemned Philosophy where I discuss attempts at condemning or censoring philosophy. While focussing on a particular medieval case (the condemnation of 1277) I also introduced modern examples (such as the letter against Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge). The topic of this course is certainly interesting for a number of reasons. But when thinking about such motions and trying to capture what’s going on more generally I find it helpful to turn to terms coined in argumentation theory and social epistemology. An obvious feature of both condemnations is that certain standards of rationality or evidence are said to be protected against the opponents in question (against pagan or continental philosophers). So why not discuss these cases as instances of what contemporary philosophers call deep disagreement or epistemic injustice? Arguably, such classifications give us a way of capturing what is at stake in condemnations and what sort of reasons we should be looking for when exclusionary moves are being justified. What’s more, the notions of deep disagreement or epistemic injustice are of course controversial in themselves. But their controversial status actually helps in thinking about historical sources in pluralistic ways and helps in trying to get a nuanced understanding of what it is we’re looking at when poring over different cases of condemnation.

In a way, historians do this all the time. Interpreting historical ideas or debates involves taking them as something. Taking Ockham’s account of mental propositions or Locke’s theory of ideas as accounts of mental representation, for instance, is a common move amongst historians. But usually such interpretations are seen as historical accounts of the material, that is, they are either taken as historically well defended or as anachronistic failures that miss the mark. In other words, such interpretations are not taken as merely instrumental, but as proper or improper readings of the pertinent texts. By contrast, my take on the condemnations as cases of deep disagreements or cases of epistemic injustice does not involve the claim that the historical agents themselves would have accepted such descriptions as a valid reading of their disagreements. Rather, it is a tool to decidedly enrich our means of understanding, classifying and evaluating what is going on.

The point I’m trying to make is, then, that we historians should approach texts not just by trying to find historically adequate interpretations, but approach the material with various instruments and make good use of the ample conceptual resources provided in contemporary philosophy. Just like a contemporary philosopher engaging Aristotelian accounts of ethics doesn’t need to care about Aristotle, historians don’t always need to care about the question whether there is a real historical relation between projects or authors of different periods when using current conceptual tools. We don’t need to connect historical dots between the shunning of Aristotelianism in Paris in 1277 and the shunning of continental philosophy in 1992 in Cambridge to see that these events share more features than might meet the eye.

But why, you might ask, should historians bother to use such merely instrumental devices? Well, first of all they allow us to update our grasp of the material. Whether we like it or not, when we refrain from employing contemporary terms it doesn’t mean we’re closer to the actors’ categories, but most likely just closer to the 19th-century surveys that still dominate our historical approaches. Moreover, it allows philosophy students to connect the dots between historical texts and their courses in contemporary philosophy. So rather than arguing over adequate approaches to history, I’d suggest we make ample instrumental use of all the devices at hand.

Don’t read! Or how to start writing

I had an intriguing conversation with a student today. He told me about the thesis he is currently writing and complained that he’s drowning in the literature. He had just rushed through a list of names in the secondary literature when I stopped him by asking what his initial interest had been. After a little moment of puzzlement, he began to tell me, with sparkling eyes, about how he got interested in social notion of the self. It was clear that he was fascinated but had already had a hard time trying to relate this to the secondary literature he was supposed to invoke. – When people start writing a philosophical essay or thesis they are often advised to get an “overview of the literature first.” The next step is to structure the paper by comparing two positions and eventually taking a side. I made this mistake myself for too long. Somehow it seemed natural to set out by doing “the reading”. By now I’m convinced this is a bad strategy. More often than not it crushes good ideas and leaves you with a half-alien set of positions that you’ll have difficulty to form an opinion about. In what follows, I’d like to explain why these problems arise and how an inversion of the order might help. (Spoiler alert: you’ll still have to read, but much later in the process.)

How things might go wrong. – Students are often asked to find a topic or even provided with a set of suggestions. In academic philosophy, this often amounts to finding a position or conclusion to be defended. How do you do this? Well, start reading (secondary literature) and something will come. But this way of beginning often means putting the cart before the horse. Firstly, in view of the vast literature, taking a position will always feel arbitrary. Secondly, given the overall unfamiliarity with the literature, students will likely feel unsure about whatever they say. – Of course, the advice to read first is understandable: it is designed to avoid reinventing the wheel. The incentive is to get an overview and develop one’s own position by ever so slightly deviating or contradicting the literature. Yes, the wheel won’t be reinvented. But the likely outcome is that good ideas get crushed under the wheels before they are looked at.

The problem of legitimacy. ­­– Why do ideas get crushed? Well, think about what reading authoritative texts (in the secondary literature) does to you. Even dry reports of the state of discussion exert normative force. You’ll be inclined to align your terms, your thoughts and your arguments with the state of discussion. This alignment makes your own piece sound authoritative but it will likely bury your initial thoughts. You will now think of them as immature beginnings that eventually led you to the actual discussion. In other words, secondary literature has a deligitimising effect on your ideas. Your ideas? Worthless musings… Of course not. But the effect of supposed authority is strong. Going this way, you’ll structure your piece in line with the actual discussion, you will hopefully tick all the right boxes, apply the hip terms correctly and forget about your early musings. At the end, you’ll note a small unclarity in the literature, improving the field with a valuable correction.

What to do? – Look, I don’t want to talk you out of this. Much of the time this works nicely, even if it leaves you a bit unsure about your aims and goals. If you’re in a hurry, it is good to go along with this advice. Why then change a running system? – Well, perhaps because it might work slightly better and because it might allow you to connect to your own ideas. So here is a suggestion of how to begin in a different way: Try to retain as much as possible of your original ideas. That doesn’t mean to stubbornly hold on to them. Rather, you should try to figure out what you actually think. Often that’s not altogether easy or clear. But you’ll get used to it. But what are your ideas anyway? Now, that is not so obvious. If you want to find your own ideas, you’ll have to watch your reactions. Observe how you react to other ideas! Be it in discussions or in (primary) texts. Something might stand out, upset or irritate you – that’s where your ideas lurk.

The beginning: locating an issue. – If you think you should start by finding some literature about your topic, you overlook that you already have begun with something else. But what was that? When the time comes for you to find a topic for a paper, you should not look ahead but back. Yes, you already have begun. Probably you were confronted with some funny idea or read a bit of primary literature that seemed interesting or puzzling. That is your starting point. Stick with a concrete formulation or the concrete passage that gave you pause. Quote that passage or sentence. Think about it by going through every sentence. Clarify any terms that are unclear with a dictionary. Then write a paraphrase in your own words. Start playing with it. Take out sentences and ask yourself what that does. Formalise it, if you like. Get a feeling for what the passage depends on. Create a map of where that passage belongs. What are other bits of text or associations that support it? Etc.

Understanding yourself through the text: seeing friction. – Remember you picked the passage because it stood out. Now try to spell out what exactly is so very interesting or puzzling and why. This has two parts: (1) You have to figure what the precise formulation is and (2) how it irritates or even counters your expectation. The first step means locating the precise word or idea that gives rise to the issue. It might sound trivial, but it is that term or phrase that your whole paper will be about. Because it is this piece that needs explaining. The second step is more difficult. First you have to see why this concerns your expectations: Well, if something irritates you or looks odd, it’s often because you expected something else to be said. Something is said that you would not have said or not have said this way. That is your expectations frustrated, as it were. But your expectation is not in the text. It’s in your head. Now, your expectation (frustrated by the text) is your entry point for the explanation or argument that your paper is to develop. Unfortunately, it is often not entirely obvious what gives rise to your irritation. Is there something in the text that sounds unfamiliar? Does it counter a belief you hold? What belief? Your task is to find out the assumption (you hold) that makes the text come out wrong, odd or unfamiliar. Once you see that, you have a friction between the text and yourself. Now you begin to understand how your reactions to the text arise. Now you enter into a conscious dialogue with the text. This dialogue arises out of your ideas; the friction makes them visible.

The next steps. – Now it’s still not time to read. Probably the temptation is enormous by now to search for bits and bobs of discussion on the web, but that has to wait. Once you have an understanding of the tension that guides you, it’s good to write an abstract (or introduction) and design a structure. What needs explaining? What is the friction or problem you see? As I have said in an earlier piece, you can employ a number of strategies to spread out your proposal. Only when you have done so, should you begin to dip into the literature. The upside is that now you will have concrete questions that you want answered. At the same time, the fact that you have written out your ideas will (hopefully) prevent you from feeling delegitimised by the discussions you are going to encounter. Rather you will enter the discussion with your own questions and worries. Those need answering.

Exploration. – As is perhaps obvious, the idea is not to discourage reading. Quite the contrary: you should read as much as you like, be it to explore or whatever. But if you want to write, you have to find a way to protect a space for your own ideas to unfold. Your ideas and questions are not your own because no one had them before or because they counter the secondary literature. They are yours because you find them interesting. They guide you. But you have to find them through the friction with others.

Oh no, not that!

Is it a good idea to publish rubbish on a blog? Perhaps it’s even a bloody privilege. Who knows? Anyway, I’ve been thinking through a number of issues I wanted to write about. But whenever I sit down to write, I end up wanting to write something different. So everything I attempt to say crumbles into something else.

The frustration of these failed attempts is so strong by now that I simply want to voice it. Here, now I said it. So what now? Might I not say something sensible while I have your attention? – Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Thinking about that is like plunging into the Kantian manifold – without the I accompanying anything. – So here is me trying to be clever when some important issues need addressing? Well, not now. I give up, I can’t write a thing now. Perhaps that’s worth saying.

In any case, take care!

Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s a piece of music that features this dithering impatience:

Waiting for Autism. A guest post by Paul Lodge

I have written in a couple of places over the last two years in tentative ways about ‘what it is like’ to live as someone with a bipolar disorder diagnosis (see here and here). I continue to be happy with the idea of representing myself to others as falling under this category in writing, and do so in day to day conversations with people in my more immediate vicinity. But there is always a serious concern in the back of my mind about the crudeness of the criteria that are used to lump people together under this heading. It is manifest in the fact that one of the ways of breaking the ice in those conversations is to allow a slightly uncomfortable joking about some of the more traditional conceptions of manic behaviour: “No, you don’t need to worry about whether I will take my clothes off and dance on the table in the middle of the next faculty meeting – however preferable that might be to the in which such meetings usually unfold.”

I found a way to conceptualise another of the background concerns in the wake of reading a series of papers by Louis Sass and Elizabeth Pienkos, in which they discuss differences between what it is like to be bipolar and schizophrenic. The issue here was that my status as bipolar left me falling into the schizophrenic camp far more often than Sass’ and Pienkos’ analyses should have allowed.

Interesting as the bipolar vs schizophrenia issue is in itself, I want to focus here on something else, though the relationship to this realization should be readily apparent. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that a person working in another faculty has taken on a central role in the University’s strategy for equality and diversity issues. I’ve worked with this person from time to time over the last fifteen years or so and always found them sympathetic. I put this mainly down to the fact that they speak with a strong northern regional accent (as I did before my years living in the US), and have been involved in the efforts to increase the representation of students from state-funded schools in Oxford (something which has been central to the identity of the college in Oxford of which I am a member). However, it is also because they say what they think without seeming to care too much about the ramifications.

Too cut a potentially long digression short, we agreed to meet up to talk about the ways in which ‘mental disability’ might be more of a focus as the strategy moves forward. Not unsurprisingly to me, it was a really enjoyable, long, and lively conversation, of the kind I find relatively easy with one, but no more than one, other person. It was perhaps easier than usual, given that we both disclosed our diagnoses very early on, and it is here that we get to the focus of this post. They told me that they had received an autistic-spectrum diagnosis very recently. And, as we talked about how that related to the struggles they have navigated, and performed into the shadows, on their journey to becoming a Full Professor, I heard many things that resonated. We discussed various social difficulties that I had thought were best bundled under the bipolar label, or treated as a function of poor socialization, egotism, or simply a result of growing up in Yorkshire.

The meeting was enough to get me thinking. But it was followed the very next day by attending the first event organized by Neurodiversity at Oxford which is aimed at anyone, students or staff, who are looking for community. The event was centred around readings by writer poet and Joanne Limburg, another person who received an autism diagnosis later in life. As she read a selection from her beautiful writings and talked about her experiences growing up as a child and fashioning a life as an academically high achieving individual, I found myself very emotional (as I do even now while reflecting on it) holding back the floods of tears that wanted to emerge. It was like watching Elsa singing ‘Let It Go’ for the first time all over again. I was also very moved to hear of how Joanne’s life has been transformed by finding spaces in which she can meet with others who have the same diagnosis, where she can be herself without feeling social anxiety and the constant fear of performing the ‘wrong’ version of what it is to be a person. And I was also intrigued by her discussion of the way in which she has reconstructed her sense of self in the wake of the diagnosis.

Afterward the event I talked to another of the late autism academics who was there, and asked in more detail about how the diagnosis had changed her life and how she got the diagnosis in the first place. The next day I called my local doctors’ surgery and passed the initial screening required for a referral, doubtless aided by the fact that they already have me down as someone with a mental health problem. All this will happen on the NHS, and it seems the wait will be around 6 months.

So now I am waiting. I’m not quite sure for what. The colleague I mentioned first (I think I really can, and should, say ‘friend’ at this point) warned me that she initially ‘failed’ at the first step of the diagnostic testing – which is a very long questionnaire – because she showed up as too empathetic. It seems it was only her capacity to articulate the reasons for this that got her through to the next stage. I’m not sure whether I will fall at that hurdle too, or others. I’m also not sure how it will feel if I don’t come out with a diagnosis, though I know part of me would like to have the chance to find out what it is spend time with people who find community with those who are autistic. And, as a someone who has spent so much time in academic philosophy, I’m already thinking in that kind of way about what it might be to be in a position to use lots of new concepts to understand my past, present and future self and its actions and relations with other selves. It’s exciting and daunting. But mainly it’s just a messy thing waiting to fall out one way or another.

Joanne Limburg is a very impressive person and a wonderful writer. No doubt aware of the fact that she was talking to a room of people self-identifying as neurodivergent in various ways, she pulled away on occasion from her own identity as autistic. At those times she spoke to something else, her sense of the way in which being autistic allowed her a kind of freedom that went beyond the freedom engendered by her new-found sense of explicit solidarity, a freedom to feel more comfortable with her sense of being ‘weird’. Even if I don’t end up being autistic, I’m grateful to her and to my new friend for already feeling more comfortable with some of the bits of my weirdness that I could never squeeze into my bipolar diagnosis. And, of course, that is really a matter of already feeling just a little bit less weird and less alone in that weirdness after so many years.

Philosophy, language, and my long road to tenure (podcast)

After one of my lectures on the history of philosophy for students from other faculties, Daniel Rebbin and Colm O’Fuarthain, two psychology students participating in the lecture, kindly invited me to a conversation on their Mental Minds Podcast.

So we talked about many things: for instance, about my approach to philosophy, the importance of being confused, language, dialogue, my way into academia, pretence, anxiety, and the meaning of life. Enjoy the conversation and check out their other podcasts. Below I added a rough table of contents (the times might not always be correct):


00:00 Introduction              

01:40 Why should we study and how did I get into philosophy?                      

03:15 On confusion and expectations

10:10 Do we always focus on what people say rather than on phenomena?

12:36 Language as a mode of direct perception

15:31 Interaction through language

18:37 Limits of language, and how we share experiences

29:19 On going into academia and the relevance of philosophy for our lives

43:05 The role of luck, chance, and shame

52:34 Intrinsic motivation? – Adolescent wishes

56:30 What have professors gone through to become professors?

1:21:30 My anxiety disorder

1:30:40 What advice would I give my younger self?

1:42:00 What gives me meaning in life?

Curing my anxiety disorder and the pitfalls of rationalism

As I noted in an earlier post, I have been suffering from illness anxiety disorder, formerly known as “hypochondria” for about twenty years. Five days ago, I had my last therapy session. The reason is that I reached the main goal of the therapy, that is: being able to live with uncertainty. Since I had so many kind reactions to my last post on this issue, I thought it would be nice to post an update and say a little bit about the therapy and how it helped. It was what is called cognitive behavioural therapy, and I received treatment for about eight months. On the whole, I think that the therapeutic devices are so straightforwardly mechanical that they might help with other troubles, too. At the same time, I am still struck by the rationalist thought patterns that might be responsible for part of my anxiety. Let me try and put some order into my thoughts now.

The worst of all possible worlds. – Imagine you notice something, for instance some unusual sensation like a spot on your arm that wasn’t there the evening before. You might think, “oh, a spot” and move on. The fact that I can think that, too, now is perhaps one of the greatest successes of my therapy. Usually, I would think that this is probably the symptom of an incurable disease. If you don’t believe this, it’s easy to shrug it off, but if you do believe it… But how did I get out of this structure of catastrophic beliefs? It’s helpful to break down this question into two parts: (1) What sort of belief made me enter catastrophic thought cycles? (2) How did I block them? Question (1) has a number of answers. Let me focus on the most surprising aspect. One of the most problematic thoughts I tend to have is that there is an explanation for the “symptom”. Now you might think that this is indeed a plausible thought to have. And indeed, as someone trained in the history of philosophy I know I am not alone in recognising this as a variation of the rationalist principle of sufficient reason (PSR).  There is an explanation for everything. Fine. Problems start if you actually expect that you or your doctor or the internet can provide an explanation. For if you’re like I’ve been and there is no obvious or reassuring explanation available, you think, “hey, this might have a sinister or rare cause”. So the PSR keeps the search going until you either find reassurance or an even worse “symptom” to worry about. The thought I didn’t ever entertain is that there might be no explanation available.* So when my therapist suggested this idea I just gave him a blank stare. This leads us to question (2). A common approach in behavioural therapy is to “challenge” such thought cycles. So how do you challenge the PSR? Well, first you try to figure out and write down your precise thoughts. Then you raise challenging questions. The most successful question was this: “Is it actually helpful to worry about this symptom or search for an explanation now?” If you’re honest and not in an actual emergency, you’ll end up having to answer this question with “no”, again and again. What I learned to accept is that it is often more helpful to resign to the fact that no explanation is available rather than keep searching for one. This is, for me, a very concrete way of learning to live with uncertainty.

Magical thinking. – Observing my thought processes, I often wondered why I was so glued to certain patterns. One miserable day I was lucky enough to catch one of the culprits in the act. I thought something like the following: “If I don’t take this symptom seriously, it will turn out even worse.” The thought was so elusive that I had trouble ‘catching it’. But even when I got hold of it, I had trouble seeing what it meant. But suddenly it struck me: This is a variation of the magical thoughts I had as child. Magical thinking is the assumption that your thoughts or some neglect in thinking will cause bad events, like “if I think badly of my parents, they’ll have an accident.” I’m told this is fairly common in children, while adults grow out of it. And of course, I wouldn’t dream of ascribing such assumptions to myself. But here I was! I realised that my thought “if I don’t take this symptom seriously, it will turn out even worse” could most plausibly be rendered as a magical thought like “if I don’t keep fretting over this symptom, I will deserve the illness I ignore right now.” The causal assumptions in the magical thought are closely tied to a moral judgment of deserving or being guilty of my threatening fate, if I neglect it. Of course, it’s hard to be sure, but I’m pretty convinced that it’s this childish superstition that glued me to my anxiety variant of the PSR. While I was shocked and somewhat ashamed to discover this in me, I was equally relieved, because seeing this pattern greatly helped distancing myself from my obsessive search for explanations.

Moving on. – Catching precise formulations and what they mean is actually quite crucial for moving on. I know that I cannot be straightforwardly cured of anxiety, but I can aid the cure by “learning to live with uncertainty”. The reformulation of my therapeutic goals alone already helped me embracing them as something positive rather than as negative. Being interested in social philosophy, you can imagine that I often annoyed my therapist by venting about the missing social aspects in therapy, though. What you (or at least I) need is not just overcoming my mental habits. What I need is a social infrastructure that is understanding and able to deal with conditions like mine. It makes a hell of a difference how a doctor or indeed anyone articulates their diagnosis or suspicions. But you can support your social environment in this. To achieve this, I began to force myself to apply the question “is it actually helpful to worry about this now” not only to my “symptoms” but to all sorts of issues my interlocutors confront me with. Pushing back against concerns of others like this did not make everyone around me happy… But despite some misgivings here and there, this change in my conduct seems to have overall positive effects. What helps is taking the time to explain how and why I attempt to respond and challenge requests with this question now.

The upshot is that, despite my initial scepticism, I would really recommend this therapeutic approach. It is not a magical cure, but that might be for the better.


* I think this “anxiety PSR” is also an epistemic variation of what is known as the just world fallacy, but I might go into this another time.

Relatedly, I just came across a nice piece on the epistemic merits of CBT: “A common idea about CBT is that it does not contribute to the person’s understanding of reality (validity) but encourages ways of thinking that boost the person’s wellbeing (utility). In our brief commentary, we argue that CBT can also contribute to some of the person’s epistemic goals.”