August 8, 2016

In Which Philosophers Fail to Understand Psychology... or People

I recently ran across the term akrasia, the Greek word for a lack of self-control. In a philosophical sense, it means, more or less, doing things against your better judgement.

Sokrates thought it didn't exist. Aristotle believed it stemmed from a discord between the opinion and the appetite. Modern philosophers have come up with various other completely crap ideas about it.

All of them ignore a major category of not doing stuff you know you ought to do: executive dysfunction. Plus various other inabilities to get stuff done.

Examples from my own life:

  • A severely depressed person knows that they should pay their bills on time, knows that this is the right thing to do, but finds themselves unable to overcome the depression in order to do so.
  • A manic person knows that they should not spend money on random items they don't needs. They know this is the right thing to do. Yet they find themselves buying junk anyway. The illness is so strong that strength of will does not enter into it.
  • A person with ADD knows that they should pay attention in class, knows that they need to do so in order to get a good grade. Yet they cannot make themselves listen attentively to a lecture. It is simply impossible for them to do so.

Disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and ADD are very common. Sokrates and Aristotle didn't have the benefit of the understanding we now have of them, but modern philosophers do have that knowledge available, and yet they seem to ignore it, as far as I can tell. They seem to ignore the idea that there may be reasons that the best path is one that cannot be achieved, that willpower cannot overcome some things.

Why don't philosophical frameworks examine this kind of question with the thought Maybe there is a problem here? Maybe there is some other reason. Because clearly people do this thing, this is plainly a real phenomenon. Perhaps it is one that is accounted for by some other field. Perhaps we can't logic our way around this, maybe there's something that's not in the model. But no, there's this tendency to assume that the map is the territory, that the model is the world and contains everything that the world contains. Even though the model obviously leaves things out.

But perhaps, just perhaps, if someone does not do what their best judgement is should be done, there is some other reason than a false dichotomy of personality, or a weird impulse, or a failure to properly examine the situation. Perhaps there are things that prevent us from doing what we know we should do, and those are things that should be acknowledged and examined.

Philosophy that does not account for the world is useless.