According to wikipedia on Pessimism and Pragmatic Criticism

...Al-Ghazali and William James rejected their pessimism after suffering psychological, or even psychosomatic illness...

Other authors such as Socrates, Diogenes, David Hume, William James and a large etc. had several kinds of mental troubles. Nietzsche was seriously depressed during his nihilistic period and it's very well-known for philosophers to have periods of severe depression during existential doubts.

In some other cases philosophy has had a very positive psychological outcome because it has been providing people with wisdom and knowledge and different visions and approaches to certain topics such as religion, nationalism, materialism, ethics, morality, human nature, beauty, truth etc.

Are there any books in psychology, philosophy or neuroscience who talk about why negative or obsessive thinking is bad for your mental health? What makes for instance pessimism be bad for your mental heath? Are there any explanation for this apart for spiritual theories in some religions? Are we genetically predetermined to think in an specific way because otherwise we could end up mentally sick? Is it just the habit of over-thinking what is unhealthy and we should learn to stop the mind from time to time like in Buddhism? Is it perhaps not the idea but the emotion attached to it that brings discomfort? If so why the pessimist philosophers mentioned above and other philosophers had to quit or evolve their philosophies to overcome their mind discomfort?

Are there any guides or tutorials which warn us about the dangers of philosophy or give us advice on how to think before we start investing time and effort with hard philosophical mind-jobs?

"Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts." Buddha

  • I do not see any reason why philosophy can cause mental illness... To some philosophers it happened to suffer of psychological/psychic problems... as many of us. Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 11:21
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I believe it's too recurring in philosophy. Questioning existence, morality or just going all the way looking for the truth can be hard. I just want literature on this topic.
    – user22051
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 11:39
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    Cause and effect may be reversed. Unstable and damaged individuals may be more likely to delve into philosophy. Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 19:56
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    Tried to frame title a bit more narrowly/neutrally — very interesting q btw
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 0:48
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    I believe there is an established link between improvement of mental health and educational attainment (i.e. -- academic degrees and the like). I see no reason why this would not extend to Philosophy -- but I will be cautious in drawing conclusions. I suggest that someone should look into this paradigm and write an answer based on this premise. Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 14:54

2 Answers 2


in psychology, philosophy or neuroscience who talk about why negative or obsessive thinking is bad for your mental health?

In neuroscience this is correlated with activation of the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Default_mode_network and the internal voice/critic and self-identification. Task-focussed mental states such as 'flow' contrast with this, where you 'lose' yourself, and conceptual linguistic thinking may be minimised or not involved at all. There is evidence to suggest meditation can also have similar neurological consequences as flow.

There is a growing body of evidence that anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, and other mental health problems, may be linked to an overactive default mode network or inability to get healthy breaks from it. Therapeutic options are increasingly focused on inducing neuroplasticity eg as discussed here "Waking Up Podcast #127 - Freedom from the Known" https://samharris.org/podcasts/127-freedom-known/

Wittgenstein proposed that philosophy is essentially therapeutic, and about people applying the ideas and tools to their own problems, and generating new pictures and framings of things, rather than 'truths' like science aims for

"So, philosophy, insofar as it is possible at all, cannot be a body of doctrines. It must be an activity. It must aim not, like science, at truth and knowledge, but only at clarity and, with the achievement of that clarity, peace." From this article https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/ludwig-wittgenstein-honesty-ground/

This article https://aeon.co/ideas/whence-comes-nihilism-the-uncanniest-of-all-guests develops the idea that philosophers are tinkering with values, which must then be lived and taken up to build healthy cohesive societies, philosophers as a kind of witch-doctor or shaman I would say from this view, this not a path for everyone, because it needs robustness to stand in that place of unknowing, uncertainty, without fixed values. Wittgenstein said if you can be an engineer, do that, be useful. Only be a philosopher if you cannot reconcile yourself to doing anything else.

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    I'm aware this answer is years old but I wonder if you had any specific papers in mind when answering that you remember and could link to?
    – Jon
    Commented May 14 at 10:59
  • @Jon: What are you looking for? Philosophical background? Practical guidance? You might like: 'Are philosophers just like poets when thinking about consciousness?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/77726/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 15 at 7:30
  • More on info on this claim: "There is a growing body of evidence that anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, and other mental health problems, may be linked to an overactive default mode network or inability to get healthy breaks from it."
    – Jon
    Commented May 15 at 11:24
  • @Jon: 'What Is the Default Mode Network?' psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/default-mode-network 'The brain's default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease' pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18400922 'Default mode network activity and connectivity in psychopathology' pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22224834 'The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation' pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25783612 'Transdiagnostic and disease-specific abnormalities in the default-mode network hubs in psychiatric disorders: A meta-analysis' ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7355168
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 15 at 12:38
  • Thanks, I'll have a read
    – Jon
    Commented May 15 at 16:12

PATRICIA TURRISI, 'The Problem of the Philosophical Person', The Pluralist, Vol. 4, No. 1 (SPRING 2009), pp. 68-76, deals with the 'madness' of Socrates and William James. But it's an article, not a book, and too long to quote here.

For Nietzsche :

Jurgen Kleist, Zarathustra s Last Dance, SBN 10: 1448638682 / ISBN 13: 9781448638680 Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, United States, 2011.

One might question whether Holderlin was a philosopher. But grant him the status, then his mental problems are explored in :

Peter Weiss, Holderlin, Seagull Books London Ltd, United Kingdom (2011) ISBN 10: 1906497729 ISBN 13: 9781906497729.

I don't accept the premises of your question but that shouldn't concern you. You have made a reference request, and I have responded with references. Pursue your inquiries !

  • Well, this doesn't answer the question. At least summarize.
    – Cloud
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 10:13
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    The question was a reference request and was marked as such. I supplied references.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 11:35

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