This morning our seminar discussion in Phil 301 touched upon the relationship between philosophy and madness. We talked about the idea that philosophers all seem to be mad or at the very least depressive. I thought it would be interesting to flip this around and think about the question of philosophy and sanity. This is a question which has, for better or worse, been omitted from recent philosophy. In contrast, it has been very fashionable to discuss the insane, as we see in Foucault’s History of Madness and Deleuze’s Schizo-Analysis, and indeed it is quite commonplace and even fashionable to suggest that everyone has a bit of madness in them. Why is this? Why is philosophy bereft of descriptions of sanity? What does a human have to be to be sane? It is very tempting to answer this question by resorting to clinical or negative definitions i.e. a subject is sane if they do not exhibit the symptoms of madness. If madness - which can be the result of many things, both internal and external - is not present, then the subject is sane. This would correlatively entail that when certain neurological patterns are present a subject is sane. While this may be true in a clinical sense, it remains unsatisfying for explaining why sanity does not have a rich conceptual heritage in our everyday existence and our philosophical heritage, and it does not explain why it is absent from our bank of cultural tropes and memes. I mean we could easily imagine an evolutionary account of insanity but not sanity. We just don’t see movies and great poetry made about sane people. Drama and excitement is probably always more interesting, which is why what the swashbuckler and adventurer does, would be considered mad in the ordinary sense. I’m not saying sanity is absent from culture, it just always seems more tacit. I can’t think of any great philosopher who has dealt with this issue in depth off the top of my head, at least in a positive sense. Erich Fromm did write the on the sane society but that was a critique of the illusion of sanity. Again, what does it mean to go sane?
Therefore, the question of sanity would make for a very interesting philosophical research proposal (second years? Dissertations? Any takers?). What does it mean to be sane? Adopting a provisional ordinary language approach we might mention the following positive features to get us started: stability, regularity, mental harmony, reasonableness, sobriety, coolness, judgemental, soundness. These would I suppose be some basic touchstones albeit internal human qualities; this would have to be compounded by external factors such as a flourishing society, an ability to keep friends, social stability and opportunity, and a low crime rate. All of these remain provisional of course, since one can easily show that the mask of the psychopath and sociopath is their ability to adopt the ‘reality’ of the sane; this would be where they would function best. The juridical definition of compos mentis (mental know-how or ability), although more attractive and useful, would seem to fall short in light of this also.
I think it is worth considering sanity outside of a hard rational approach. One of the first things that I think I would suggest would be a phenomenological principle. Sanity would, as Husserl suggest be intentional. It would always already be world-oriented. Sane existence would require the backdrop of a world to always accompany whatever conscious content we experience. This would entail that the world and not solipsism is always at stake for us. Once this is in place any other deviation from it can be accounted for, or have a base origin from which different content can be derived from. On top of this I think it would be wise to consider sanity in terms of moderation. [Kind of like leaving the radio on for the dog when you leave the house!] This would be compounded by an Aristotelian principle. Moderation requires a practical and measured orientation towards the world, one which is both habituated and open to new possibilities. In this sense, the human subject will have a degree of freedom and necessity, balance as well as the ability to cope with unpredictability. I do think that we can learn from Derrida’s deconstructive logic here also. The binary between sane/insane is both basic and overly reductive. If we looked at sanity from a deconstructive perspective we can see why sanity requires a smidge of, if not insanity, at least the very least some minimal deviance. If our lives always have some degree of undecidability and disjointedness, then this is absolutely necessary for a sane existence. This is because sanity requires an ability to engage in struggle and overcoming. The ability to cope with conflict signifies a distinct and world-oriented maturity; in a sense learning to live with the struggle that we are. In addition, we can thus we can say that sanity requires self-development. There is also a moment here where the deconstructive logic would trump Hegel and Freud. If consciousness is a demand for self-recognition, and a desire to possess the others self recognition, then this can lead to all types of mental deferrals and insurmountable neurosis. If human existence is disjointed, then the deconstructive approach would allow us to see the incessant demand for self-recognition [think of the myriad places this is evident in contemporary culture and market hyper-narcissism] overcome, since those who are sane are in less need of being recognized; again an example of maturity, unlike the child who always demands constant attention. To put in simple terms, people who are aware of their lack of control, and exist in relation to and are comfortable with this unpredictability, aware of the limitations that face us all, and who do not think the world owes them a favour, are the sanest of all. Sanity requires understanding how abilities and limitations are intertwined and that this is our normal condition. It is just absurd to suggest that we are essentially success or essentially failure. Sanity requires an attention for out amor fati. Humans are more ambiguous than that, we have the ability to cope with the fact that it is alright to be both good and bad at the same time. Politically, and this is another big question, this has to be matched and cultivated in a just society.
The question of sanity is an intriguing question? Can anyone think of representations in literature of sane people? Has there ever been a celebration of sanity? Brief Encounter is a movie that springs to mind. But that would not hold a candle in the canon compared to Hamlet’s teetering on the brink.