Philosophy is an ancient discipline, the word’s Greek root professing a love of wisdom. It asserts that a meaningful life is an examined life and proceeds from this core to the investigative branches of logic, epistemology (examining the limits of knowledge), metaphysics (the study of what underlies and underpins nature including ontology, theology and ideology). Ethics and Politics consider the good and the ordering of communal life. Finally Aesthetics examines the beautiful.
These various aspects are considerably and intricately related. For instance the good is often associated with what is truthful and the intrinsically beautiful. Long established pithy philosophical utterances such as ‘nature or nurture’; ‘the ghost in the machine’; ‘happiness is the highest good’ and ‘I think therefore I am’, continually arise in day to day conversation and while appearing basic even simplistic are nevertheless profound and robustly debated and formulated philosophical assertions.
Philosophy as an activity comprises a series of questions reﬂexively addressed to ourselves and reﬂectively to the phenomenon of other subjects in a world of objects. Who am I? What can I know to be true, and what are the limits of knowledge? Does God exist? Can we know truth, can we handle truth? Does life have ultimate meaning and purpose or must we deﬁne that for ourselves? Philosophy considers questions regarding the greatest good of subjects individually and corporately where the good and happiness are synonymous. Considerations regarding the purview of mental health pictured as a well ordered and functioning mind in a generality of circumstances are explained in diﬀerent ways by various philosophical perspectives.
Mental health wellbeing and mental un-wellness consider questions relating to happiness, melancholia, addiction, trauma and anxiety amongst others. Unwarranted suﬀering piques the demand for explanation and alleviation. The ability to question and explore these states may enable the ability to bear, endure or even reframe our experience.
The assessment, diagnosis and treatment of a mental health symptom are markedly diﬀerent from a purely medical symptom. A perforated ulcer symptom is an altogether diﬀerent prospect from post traumatic stress disorder. A medical symptom from the outset has to be distinguished from the features of a mental health symptom, the former can be expressed as painful or inhibiting bodily function whilst the latter possess or captivate the subject in an anguish expressing itself in impaired physical and emotional states. Often people are drawn to, even compelled to address a mental health incident or symptom by a question. A general rule of thumb that something is going on is when the response to a triggering event is disproportionate to the stimulus. There are the so called ‘big questions’, involving life, death, the existence of God, the origin of the universe. However the suﬀering of an individual expresses an individual question to the subject regarding the nature of their existence and how they sit in the world of time, relationships and nature. Sometimes we have a personal question, relating our experience of suﬀering and episodes in our life which against our better judgement keep unintentionally repeating such that we notice a pattern occurring at some other level, apparently against the grain of our conscious control. Symptoms that can debilitate and exasperate which can entrap, continually repeat and even destroy us or those we love.
Whether we engage life at a surface or at a deep level , when we undertake such considerations we are essentially in the realm of philosophical investigation. We are not alone in this, some of our greatest cultural artefacts, literary and religious works involve fellow subjects wrestling, struggling, in the turmoil of such issues. Edward Munch in the dislocation, swirling dissolution of his painting ‘the scream’ has been said to represent the iconographic painting that captures the zeitgeist of our time, a moving depiction of profound overwhelming existential angst.
Philosophy is perceived to be a thinking activity, however working in mental health is working discreetly and conﬁdentially with another where thoughts and images are conveyed through words in a manner which is not merely conversational but where someone is enabled to speak and work through issues and symptoms rather than being condemned to repeatedly act out. Anna O one of Sigmund Freuds ﬁrst case studies described this working through using freely associating speech as her ‘talking cure chimney sweeping’. A talking cure which by the power of expressed words had an eﬀect upon deeply entrenched symptoms.
Ultimately questions of philosophy and their impact upon our subjective experience of existence involve the ability to live with uncertainty and see the possibility of diﬀerent perspectives and interpretations of the same phenomenon. To be able to bear the truth of a situation in the force of its brute reality rather than donning ‘rose tinted spectacles’ of moulding an interpretation or meaning to something we can deny, project or distort.
By Donat Desmond