Therapeutic Philosophy and the Pharmacopoeia of Humankind

Some time ago, I attended a conference — I won’t say where the conference was — at which a certain speaker was talking about what he called the “fundamental conditions of human existence”. The speaker was a tall, rather distinguished looking Norwegian academic; and as he spoke, he laid out what he believed these conditions to be. “Existential loneliness,” he said. “Consciousness of impending mortality. Exposure to the terror of existence…” At the end of the paper, there was a chance for questions. I raised my hand. But unfortunately, time being limited, and I didn’t get a chance to ask my question; and what with one thing and another, I didn’t get round to asking the speaker in person. The question, however, has stayed with me; and so I’ll raise is here instead. The question is this: are these things — existential loneliness, consciousness of impending mortality, terror, exposure, etc. — the fundamental conditions of human existence, or are they instead the fundamental conditions of Norwegian existence?

It may seem as if this was not an entirely serious question; but, in one sense, it was a wholly serious question, because, as I was listening to this paper, I couldn’t help finding myself wondering quite how fundamental these conditions were, or wondering whose existence the philosopher was talking about. Did this apply to all of us? Why didn’t I recognise myself in this diagnosis? Would it, in fact, have made a difference if I was Norwegian?

In is true, of course, that we are all born, we all go about our lives with the various drives and impulses that come with being human, and we all die: these are things that unite us all. But the trouble with the notion of “the human condition” is not only that the authorities are really not agreed on what this condition might be, but also that this condition is more often than not seen as something that ails us, and those who like to talk about the fundamental conditions of existence often present themselves as diagnosticians of the sickness that is human life.

The notion of philosophy as diagnosis and as therapy is one that has a long and distinguished pedigree. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in part because questions of health and sickness have been very much on my mind. As recently as a month ago, my partner was diagnosed with breast cancer; and if I have been relatively quiet on this blog, it is because I have been preoccupied with matters of more pressing importance elsewhere. For much of the last month, we have been thinking hard about health and about sickness, trying to work out the implications of the diagnosis, becoming familiar with medical processes and procedures and with the inside workings of hospitals and so forth. It has been a difficult few weeks.

But this is not what I want to talk about here: or not directly. Because spending the last few weeks actively involved with questions about the way that medicine works, has got me thinking about the way that philosophical diagnosis often works. I have long thought that philosophy — that strange business of thinking through existence and finding creative practices in response to this thinking-through of existence — is to some extent a diagnostic exercise, one that explores, and makes concrete proposals, about how one might live well, just as medicine is a diagnostic exercise that explores, and makes concrete proposals, about how one might be well. A long time ago now, I found myself intrigued by the notion in Buddhism that the so-called Four Noble Truths are diagnostic in intent, and are directly modelled on a medical model. First you diagnose the symptoms, then you diagnose the cause, then you establish if there is a cure, and then you set out the stages of the cure. This kind of model has, to an extent, become a model for how I think about philosophy more generally.

But there is, I think, a problem with the tendency to see philosophy in the light of this kind of medical analogy. It is a problem that exists in certain presentations of Buddhism, but that also exists in other forms of philosophy that attempt to explore the ills of how we are living, and to suggest how we might put these ills to right.

The problem can be made clearer if one looks more closely at how diagnosis and treatment work in medicine. The fourfold formula above is a pretty good approximation. You start with, “Oh, look, there’s a problem!” Then you look into the possible causes. Then you think about how, knowing the cause, you might treat the problem (sometimes, you don’t need to worry about underlying causes to treat symptoms, but often it can help). Then you prescribe whatever therapeutic course is the best response to the problem. So what is the difference when it comes to philosophy? The difference, I think, is that a good doctor will not assume that there is some kind of fundamental condition of corporeal existence, a fundamental condition for which there is a single cure. A doctor who prescribed antibiotics (or exorcism, or cupping, or a week’s holiday) for everything under the sun—broken legs, viruses or what have you — would be a poor doctor indeed. There is no single fundamental condition that is “illness”; and so there is no panacea for all ills. This is why doctors need a degree of cunning. They need their wits about them, they need to know that bodies are complex and that they behave in all manner of different ways, and they need to know that there are innumerable ways of responding to these complexities. Not only this, but there is not always a problem: a good doctor is also able to diagnose, sometimes, that nothing  much is wrong, and that patient can be sent upon their way, reassured that nothing (at least at the moment) needs to be done.

In the light of this, sometimes it seems to me that philosophical diagnosticians lack the cunning of their medical counterparts (not for nothing were the precursors of today’s doctors called “cunning men”). Let us say, for the sake of argument, that if doctors treat bodies and what goes wrong with bodies, philosophical diagnosticians try (at least) to treat lives, and what goes wrong with lives. But it seems to me that good philosophical diagnosticians, just like good doctors, should be capable of recognising that lives too are complex things, and that just as there is no single “human condition” that needs treating, so there is no single treatment that is appropriate. Indeed, a good philosophical diagnostician, I think, should — just like a doctor — have the ability to recognise that sometimes there is nothing much wrong with the way that life is going, and to refrain from offering remedies that in truth remedy nothing (and that may have unwelcome side-effects).

This is why talk of the “human condition” is so unhelpful. It would be unwise to consult a doctor who believed that there was a single illness that pervaded all of humanity and that required a single cure; and I think it would be unwise to consult a philosopher who claimed the same thing. For philosophy to be useful, we need to free ourselves firstly from the idea that there is something inherently and necessarily wrong about our existence, and secondly from the idea that the things that do go wrong within human life can be gathered together into a single problem. Then we can revisit the various philosophies that aim to respond to the different problems with which we might be confronted not as “cures” for some over-arching “human condition” or sickness, but instead as contributions to what might be called the pharmacopoeia of humankind, a store of knowledge, experience, hunches, proposals, suggestions and ideas to which we have access, and which might be used — now here, now there — to address problems as and when they arise. It is this approach that I took in my little book Introducing Happiness—A Practical Guide, published earlier this year: a book that has disappointed some readers in its refusal recognise either a single problem — “unhappiness”, for example — or a single solution, for example, “happiness”.

So let me end on a personal note. The last few weeks have been unusually difficult. Buddhist friends might say that I’ve been encountering what they call “Reality” (spoken in such a way that the capital “R” is almost audible). Certain Norwegian philosophers might like to claim that I’ve been face-to-face with “the human condition”. But what has been going on, it seems to me, has been rather more everyday and pragmatic. These few weeks have been made up of now this, now that particular demand or difficulty; and in responding to these demands and difficulties, no single body of knowledge has provided the resources that have helped us, between ourselves, to respond to each of these problems. Nevertheless, over these few weeks, I’ve been enormously grateful for the little philosophy I have studied over the years, this rich pharmacopoeia that has been bequeathed to us all, whether drawn from the ancient Greeks, the Buddhist traditions, Chinese thought, or more recent philosophy (a body of knowledge to which we have, these days, the most extraordinary access). I have been grateful, because this body of knowledge has helped with navigating the difficulties of these peculiarly difficult few weeks, and because it will, I am sure, help with navigating the difficulties of the weeks to come.

There is no human condition. There is no philosophical cure for the human condition. Recognising these two things, I am reminded, once again, of the very usefulness of the various philosophical traditions as a resource for living.

Comments 16

  1. I like this very much, Will, especially bout the pharmocopoeia and the range of ills and illusions of wellness that we might have. I do though have a residual affection for the idea of ‘the’ human condition, Norwegian existence on one side … but I would think of it in terms precisely of our capacity for illusion and self-deception, more darkly our capacity for evil as well as good, our tendency towards zealotry and intolerance which we attribute to others without recognising it in ourselves … and so on. In other words, a moral condition of duality or doublemindedness, a failure of the power of action in face of the need for the virtue of parrhesia as we confront tyranny and injustice, our impulse towards complicity. I’m not so sure that at that point I want the philosopher/doctor’s bag of remedies … I want a philosophical community which supports and sutains the possibilty of justice and truth rather than tyranny and lies

  2. What do you mean there could be ‘nothing wrong’ with our lives? that sounds terrifying to me – it needs to be remedied! 🙂 Great article and I agree with most of it – however I find it very, very difficult to believe that death and the contemplation of nothingness might not be that much of a problem for some people. It can be temporary, and it can be not-that-scary perhaps, but I do consider this anxiety as the defining feature of what ‘the human condition’ could consist of, however blurry this expression can be. And I think it is of the domain of philosophy, because science can only try to ‘stop death’ in some way or another, which simply masks the problem rather than dealing with it… it’s not pharmacopoeia, though, as you explain very well.

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    Michael, I think that you are right about the importance of community (and perhaps here the analogy becomes rather more strained) instead of just a “bag of remedies”. And it is important to note, I think, that what is wrong may sometimes be not so much sets of individual problems — maladies of the soul — as a set of broader social issues, although these two can’t perhaps be fully disentangled.

    Either way, I think philosophy can have something to say both diagnostically and also in terms of coming up with creative responses to these diagnoses. And because the problems that afflict us are multiple, whether individual or social, so are these diagnoses and remedies might also be multiple — and worthy of serious exploration within this “philosophical community” (which I assume is not the same as “a community of philosophers”. In terms of how this differs from broad claims about the human condition, I was impressed a long time ago by the more scholastic Tibetan approach that sees the four “noble truths” not as general existential claims, but as ways of classifying phenomena: is this particular thing a) a suffering; b) a cause of suffering; c) a cessation of suffering; or d) a means or way leading to the cessation of suffering? This is different from the approach to the same list that takes these four “truths” as unshakable truths about existence, as they are often taken. It’s a move from broad claims about the “human condition” to a more forensic and diagnostic approach to the ills that sometimes afflict us.

    Clémentine… put down the Kierkegaard right now, and have yourself a mince pie :). More seriously, I’m interested by your equation of death with a philosophical kind of nothingness. Epicurus would approve, no doubt (well, he’d approve of the nothingness, but not of the fear). And fear of death may be something we perhaps all have in common, although as you point out only some of the time — not all of the time, which makes me wonder why we should take it as fundamental. And the particular philosophical anxiety-in-the-face-of-nothingness that we equate with fear of death may perhaps be a more local concern than philosophers admit.

  4. Funny that we talk of the human condition but not of the sparrow condition or the elephant condition. Is it only we who merit a condition? Perhaps in addition to making us special, having a diagnosable condition confers a sense of control over our lives – if we nail down exactly what makes us human, even if it is pathological, and then believe we can fix it, we become gods of a sort, masters of our own destiny. Which I suppose should make our inevitable termination all the more intolerable. Except that I’m not sure it really does. As Larkin, who was no fan of death, once noted perceptively, ‘beneath it all desire of oblivion runs.’ Certainly, I often feel grateful that this condition, whatever it might be, isn’t going to last forever.

  5. Thanks for this post, Will. It seems almost so logical that I’m ashamed I never thought of it! Generic terms like ‘the human condition’ always seem to be insoluble, and don’t fit into reality (with or without a capital ‘R’!).

  6. Enjoyed the read, and somehow kept expecting a nod to Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Western philosophy and religion as symptomatic of a cultural illness rooted in Platonism and Christianity.

    To me, China bears out the truth that there is no universal “human condition” in its decidedly dreadless stance toward death and mortality. Dao De Jing Ch. 16, though possibly about breathing exercises, nonetheless always hits me as a supremely well-adjusted response to the natural mortality of everything:

    “The myriad creatures all rise together
    And I watch their return.
    The teeming creatures
    All return to their separate roots.
    Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.
    That is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.”

    Zhuangzi Ch. 6 points to a similarly “healthy” “human condition”:

    Master Ssu, Master Yu, Master Li, and Master Lai were all four talking together. “Who can look upon nonbeing as his head, on life as his back, and on death as his rump?” they said. “Who knows that life and death, existence and annihilation, are all a single body? I will be his friend!”

    The four men looked at each other and smiled. There was no disagreement in their hearts and so the four of them became friends.

    All at once Master Yu fell ill. Master Ssu went to ask how he was. “Amazing” said Master Yu. “The Creator is making me all crookedy like this! My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me. My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head, and my pigtail points at the sky. It must be some dislocation of the yin and yang!”

    Yet he seemed calm at heart and unconcerned. Dragging himself haltingly to the well, he looked at his reflection and said, “My, my! So the Creator is making me all crookedy like this!”

    “Do you resent it?” asked Master Ssu.

    “Why no, what would I resent? If the process continues, perhaps in time he’ll transform my left arm into a rooster. In that case I’ll keep watch on the night. Or perhaps in time he’ll transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet and I’ll shoot down an owl for roasting. Or perhaps in time he’ll transform my buttocks into cartwheels. Then, with my spirit for a horse, I’ll climb up and go for a ride. What need will I ever have for a carriage again?

    “I received life because the time had come; I will lose it because the order of things passes on. Be content with this time and dwell in this order and then neither sorrow nor joy can touch you. In ancient times this was called the `freeing of the bound.’ There are those who cannot free themselves, because they are bound by things. But nothing can ever win against Heaven – that’s the way it’s always been. What would I have to resent?”

    Suddenly Master Lai grew ill. Gasping and wheezing, he lay at the point of death. His wife and children gathered round in a circle and began to cry. Master Li, who had come to ask how he was, said, “Shoo! Get back! Don’t disturb the process of change!”

    Then he leaned against the doorway and talked to Master Lai. “How marvelous the Creator is! What is he going to make of you next? Where is he going to send you? Will he make you into a rat’s liver? Will he make you into a bug’s arm?”

    Master Lai said, “A child, obeying his father and mother, goes wherever he is told, east or west, south or north. And the yin and yang – how much more are they to a man than father or mother! Now that they have brought me to the verge of death, if I should refuse to obey them, how perverse I would be! What fault is it of theirs? The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death. When a skilled smith is casting metal, if the metal should leap up and say, `I insist upon being made into a Mo-yeh!’ 17 he would surely regard it as very inauspicious metal indeed. Now, having had the audacity to take on human form once, if I should say, `I don’t want to be anything but a man! Nothing but a man!’, the Creator would surely regard me as a most inauspicious sort of person. So now I think of heaven and earth as a great furnace, and the Creator as a skilled smith. Where could he send me that would not be all right? I will go off to sleep peacefully, and then with a start I will wake up.”

    And Confucius? “Never talked about death, miracles, spirits,” but instead about “knowing life instead of death.”

    I’m starting my own intensive Mandarin studies in China this summer, so I’m enjoying reading your experiences of the path ahead, by the way. Just discovered your space.

    Sorry for the long post.

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    Thanks for the comments – interesting stuff (I’ve always had an affection for the notion of the Great Clod). Of course, part of the value of the passage in the Zhuangzi, in particular, is that we do fear death—or at least we fear threats to our wellbeing and personhood. There is a kind of biological in-built fear of danger. My cat has it too, so it’s not just me. And it’s pretty useful. I’m keen to hold on to it. But I’m not sure that this equates to a kind of Norwegian existential trembling… Nor is it the whole story. Whilst I do fear death, I don’t always fear death. And I very much doubt anybody always fears death. We have multiple responses to these things. And fear is only a part of this mix. One thing perhaps that this Zhuangzi piece does is draws out other responses that are already latent.

    Good luck in China this summer. I’m still making do for the time-being with Skype lessons and reading, although hoping to head out to China again before too long for another burst of immersion.

    1. Sorry to have only now discovered the reply.

      Point well-taken re: the background fear of death to which Zhuangzi is responding. He is addressing that with the “don’t be afraid of the change!” admonition. So fear of death was indeed a popular sentiment in mainstream ancient China.

      Still, the Confucian and Daoist responses to this fear are distinctively healthy to me–again, in the Nietzschean “medical” sense–because they don’t resort to metaphysical comforts to remedy it. They “stay true to the Earth,” as Zarathustra urged, painting death as part of the obvious natural cycle that while sad, is by no means malignant. I’m not aware of another Axial civilization that refused to play the metaphysical comfort card against mortality. And that’s what I love about China: death is at least safe and, conversely, we’re lucky to be alive for the spell we have. You seem familiar enough with Chinese poetry to know that the “death ends all” trope repeats itself from Zhuangzi in poems throughout every succeeding dynasty for the next 23 centuries.

      Re: your point about avoiding death and danger: since life is desirable, we don’t want to be idiots and end it prematurely. Who wants to check out of this temporary Heaven early? Again, the Daoists leave me with a self-identity as an animal among 10,000 other animals, so your cat and I both have an instinct for life and preservation. But that doesn’t make death a thing of existential angst.

  8. Hi Will,

    I just dicovered your blog. I like this post, especially the line: “Indeed, a good philosophical diagnostician, I think, should — just like a doctor — have the ability to recognise that sometimes there is nothing much wrong with the way that life is going, and to refrain from offering remedies that in truth remedy nothing (and that may have unwelcome side-effects).”

    I notice you didn’t mention psychology at all. Psychologists have recognized the same problem in their field, and have created a new approach called “positive psychology.” Are you familiar with it?

    Although I agree with the general thrust of this post, I do suspect that fear of death, loneliness, etc. do exist for most of us. However, we are mostly unaware of them; the way they manifest in our thinking and how we live our lives is not-so-obvious.

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    Hi, Scott, and thanks for persevering with the broken comment system!

    I’m aware of positive psychology, and am interested in it and in the questions that it raises (I mention it in passing—as I mention many things but only in passing—in my little book Introducing Happiness).

    I wonder if the question of fear of death, loneliness etc. is not a question of their existence, but a question of whether our existence can be reduced down to these things as somehow ‘fundamental’. This is my objection, I think: that these things are seen as somehow more deep-rooted, whilst good cheer, joy, pleasure, ease and so on are somehow seen as existing in spite of these more fundamental conditions.

    1. I wonder: could they be fundamental aspects of the human condition in addition to the positive ones you mention? Maybe philosophers focus on the undesireable aspects of this “human condition” because they’re trained to work on problems. The same is probably true of psychologists and medical doctors and even chiropractors. Hopefully what the positive psychology movement is stressing and what you highlight here will becomes more widespread. Many problems will be counteracted or may never even arise if we focus more on the positive aspects of our nature, (not that I think identifying positive and negative aspects in an unproblematic exercise). The Dalai Lama talks much about compassion being an antidote.

      BTW, I didn’t mention it, but your “refrain from offering remedies that in truth remedy nothing (and that may have unwelcome side-effects)” reminds me much of the Laozi‘s (Daodejing‘s) approach to many problems in ancient China, including the Confucian and Mohist zealous preaching of morality.

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        Yes, there are, perhaps, connections with Daoist responses to problems. And it may be that I overstate the case when I say that “there is no human condition”. There are broad patternings of thought and behaviour rooted in our biology: we are not infinitely malleable. But once we say that phenomenon x or y is fundamental to the human condition, we elevate it above all other phenomena. And then we start finding it everywhere (and when we don’t find it, schooled as we are in suspicion, we take that as evidence for its presence too!). Maybe it’s that terrible definite article “the” that causes some of the problems here…

        1. Re: the “human condition” thing, which to me comes close to ye olde “human nature” canards, the study referenced in this article situates your Norwegian guy quite nicely — as a psychological “outlier” in the human experience(s).

          Maybe we need to start saying “Western Nature” instead of “human nature” to subvert this easy universalizing.

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          2. Hi Will,

            I believe this is the link Clay was trying to share:

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    Great! Thanks, Scott & Clay. I’ll have a read (I like the strapline “Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World”).

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