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"I am convinced that boredom is one of the greatest tortures. If I were to imagine Hell, it would be the place where you were continually bored" - Eric Fromm

Has there been any significant philosophical studies on the issue of boredom as a problem of humanity, as a root of all evil(and good) in some sense - because it makes you do things.

How does western philosophy take on the problem of boredom?

4 Answers 4

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Well, this dude named Erich Fromm talks a little bit about it...

No, but seriously, it's a big deal among certain critical theorists like himself and Martin Heidegger who argue that boredom is a common pathological response to highly industrialized societies. Their criticisms draw from the traditional Marxist school of thought, arguing that these types of societies force people to engage in alienated labor, pulling them away from things that naturally belong together as part of the systematic oppressive process of capitalism. As dogmatic capitalism begins to erase individual identity, boredom becomes a systemic problem. Fromm specifically argues that the never-ending search for novel thrills that characterizes consumerism in industrial capitalist societies is not seeking a solution to boredom, but rather a distraction from the problem of boredom, driving it further into our subconscious minds. And drawing it one step further, Fromm cites boredom as being the driving force behind "aggression and destructiveness today" in his paper, the Theory of Aggression.

Heidegger takes issue with the mechanization of capitalism and how it contributes to boredom. He gives the example of an automobile assembly line, which requires continual physical engagement on the part of the operator, but no real conscious thought. One looks "busy", but really is just perpetually waiting, waiting for the tedium of the job to be over, waiting for someone else to finish a task, etc.

For more on this line of thought, I strongly suggest reading Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. It's a great introduction to the Frankfurt School and their thoughts on the culture industry and capitalism while remaining somewhat uncharacteristically lucid. It introduces the idea of "consumerism" as a form of social control, which is truly revolutionary.

Taking a slightly different angle, it's also a notable concept in existentialist literature. Heidegger himself picks up the topic of boredom a second time in his writings on "nothingness" and the meaning[lessness] of existence. To him, boredom reveals a lot about Dasein. In Being and Time, his most famous work, he writes:

Even and precisely then when we are not actually busy with things or ourselves this “as a whole” overcomes us — for example in genuine boredom. Boredom is still distant when it is only this book or that play, that business or this idleness, that drags on. It irrupts when “one is bored.” Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals beings as a whole.

That is, this boredom works to create a pervasive state of anxiety in which Dasein begins to truly reveal itself. Heidegger and the question of psychology is a great introduction to this line of thought that doesn't require actually reading Heidegger's own characteristically dense (perhaps impossible?) prose.

Arthur Schopenhauer (notable, among other reasons, for his profound influence on Nietzsche) also takes up the topic of boredom, arguing that it actually proves the vanity of human existence. He reasons that if life was truly possessive of positive value and real content, then there should be no such thing altogether as boredom. He asks, shouldn't mere existence be enough to both fulfill and satisfy us? The entire book containing this discussion (Essays and aphorisms) is actually available online through Google Books. You might consider reading through it sometime when you're, erm, bored.

And if you have access to scholarly periodicals through a site like SpringerLink, you might try and ferret out a copy of Patrick Bigelow's The Ontology of Boredom, which seems like it might be a direct answer to your primary curiosities.

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  • "shouldn't mere existence be enough to both fulfill and satisfy us?" It is.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 1:31
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Why only Western philosophy? I see meditation as an intentional engagement with boredom. If we consider how a monk say an immured one, is different from a prisoner locked in a cell, the difference is clearly about attitude, rather than circumstance. I would argue meditation helps to investigate non-conscious sources of impulses.

I see boredom as our biological drive, pushing us to practice and keep skills and faculties accessible. So we see children experience it most strongly, fitting with their neural plasticity, e.g. rapid language learning capacities. From antagonistic pleiotropy (a gene is considered to possess it if it controls more than one trait, where at least one of these traits is beneficial to the organism's fitness early on in life and at least one is detrimental to the organism's fitness later on due to a decline in reproductive impacts there) that behavior that stops influencing reproduction will stop being selected for. Boredom is a universal trait among children, so we can interpret as serving biology. Over time being selected for conditions of needing to tolerate boredom, we could expect a species to adapt to be more comfortable with it, e.g. in domesticated animals, a dog's brain is 15% smaller than a wolf's which we can relate to different selection pressures. We enrich the lives of children with toys and education, in order to enhance their development of capacities, and their tolerating boredom more would mean their learning less.

Edited to add

Biologist Denis Noble argues from the opposite direction to this 'gene's eye' view, that genes which code for open-ended creative behaviours are the most useful for serving the needs of organisns, like say FOXP2, the 'language genes' seem to stimulate babbling which enables language development, rather than hard-coding language like say the Universal Grammar hypothesis describes.

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    People would learn an enormous amount from meditation. For myself, i decided when I was about 14, long before any spiritual practice, that I was never going to be bored. It's a choice.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 1:29
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Boredom is the catalyst for creativity, if you look at at any human who welcomes it in their life you will see that this person has a rich imagination and a teeming need to fill this void. Modern life provide everything we need to not be bored, and this is why the quality of media is increasingly becoming repetitive and mundane.

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    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 20:44
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As one is free, one must presume that boredom comes from lack of novelty in the world (generally, correctible by travel or venturing into the Unknown) or lack of passions (solvable with a mate or getting off drugs).

Which one is the problem?

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    It is good to define problems in terms of things one can solve oneself.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 0:00

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