Depression and David Hume

According to David Hume, previous thinkers had misunderstood the relationship between action and emotion (or what he called ‘passion’). While previous thinkers declared that logic and rationality alone can compel action (we can act rationally), Hume argued that only the passions were intrinsically motivating (so that, as he famously declared, reason is the slave of the passions). You can recognize the truth of any proposition whatsoever, but it will never compel you to action. Hume would tell us that Vulcans — people without any emotions whatsoever — would never actually be compelled to action. There would be no motivation to learn more, to be more logical, to suppress one’s emotions, to help others, to explore, to discover new things, or to do anything at all because an individual void of emotion is void of motivation. They would sit in one place staring blankly into the void.

But that’s what depression feels like. I can recognize all the reasons why it adversely affects me to not be responsible. I can recognize that I will continue being unhappy with my apartment if I don’t clean it. I can recognize that I will not accomplish my goals if I don’t do certain small things each day to get there. Yet unless I actually am moved to action somehow — Hume would say that a passion is stirred within me — I don’t do it.

For those who do not suffer from depression, it is easy to think that I am just being lazy. Hell, it is easy for me to think that I am just being lazy. It is also easy for those who do not suffer from depression to think of depression as sadness. But sadness I can do something about. Sadness I know how to change. Sadness is motivating.
What I do not know how to deal with are those periods when I stop caring.


  • Jaime Wise
    August 26, 2014 - 8:34 am | Permalink

    Apathy is often one of the more isolating symptoms of depression, because people around you don’t usually understand why your behavior changes, and are often suspicious if you ask for help during this time. The worst part is your least likely to take corrective action during that phase of a depression cycle, so things can quickly go off the rails.

  • Renee
    March 26, 2016 - 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I have been there. Still have to fight every day not to be there. I hear you on this.

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