Thursday, 1 June 2017

Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

In this post, Colin Feltham, Emeritus Professor of Critical Counselling Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, and also an External Associate Professor of Humanistic Psychology, University of Southern Denmark, discusses his new book Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Some of his work that bears on similar themes includes Death (In The Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, in press); Anthropathology: the abiding malady of the species (In The Evolution of Psychopathology, in press); Keeping Ourselves in the Dark (2015); Failure (2012).

Although my academic and professional background was rooted in counselling and psychotherapy, my writing for the past ten years has also focused on what I call anthropathology (the principle of evolved, pervasive human pathology); on philosophies of failure and pessimism; on aspects of evolutionary psychology; and on the inescapably depressing features of human existence, most notably death.

In Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives I hijack the narrow psychological concept of depressive realism (DR) to look very broadly and pessimistically at human evolution and history, religion, philosophy, psychology and psychotherapy, socio-cultural phenomena, and science and technology. Undeniably, this book often adopts a stance that can be accused of grandiosity, grim cherry-picking and dogmatic negativity, but it is in line with the original claim that mild depressives are ‘sadder but wiser’ individuals.

It’s clear that DR is at odds with the cognitive behaviour therapy assertion that negative thinking is mostly erroneous and depressogenic. Indeed, much of my argument here is at odds with the essentially pro-life ethos of everything from religious faith, through philosophy and politics and everyday life.

I pursue the observation raised by the Buddha and later surfacing in philosophers like Schopenhauer, Cioran, Zapffe, Benatar and Brassier, that life is characterised by suffering, absurdity, and senescence, and is ultimately always annihilating. Some similar material is found in Ernest Becker and the terror management psychologists, and is certainly unmissable in writers like Giacomo Leopardi, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin.

In terms of imperfect cognitions and cognitive error, from a global DR perspective drawing on insights from evolutionary anthropathology, I question the implicit assumptions of human progress (as does John Gray) and in doing so inevitably find fault with philosophy, politics and psychotherapy as salvational projects: all turn out to claim much more than they ever deliver, and hence are often dishonest and disappointing.

We all excel at perceiving others’ errors and limitations while considering our own minimal. Psychoanalysis, for example, while posing as a clinical epistemology masterfully exposing self-deceptions, is riddled with untenable claims, and it continues to propagate many theoretical and clinical falsehoods and unverifiable entities. Academia, like the Church, has taken itself too seriously, is largely lost in irrelevant minutiae, and fails to see its own sad relativity and decline. All human institutions and mechanisms are subject to entropy and this includes typical heuristic strategies and cumulative information overload. Homo sapiens may well be at a point of irreversible overpopulation, unmanageable complexity, mass delusion, and self-destructiveness.

These are obviously all quite unwelcome observations and open to counter-critique and correction. DR is a minority worldview that may be dismissed as merely cranky or misanthropic but it has a deep lineage and probably triggers denial in many who depend on positive illusions for their everyday and professional morale. In Depressive Realism I have also tried to deconstruct some of my own depressive assumptions and conclusions, and I hope I am aware of the ridiculous corners one can paint oneself into!

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