Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Paul Lodge

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain, and I’d like to welcome you to the sixty-fourth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

The land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Paul Lodge. Paul is Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, where he has been teaching for the last seventeen years. In his spare time, Paul likes to write and perform music. Many of Paul’s songs have lyrics by his brother Richard, but he also enjoys setting poetry. Recent projects have included “Cotton Mill Poems,” a collection of settings of poems written by local people during the Lancashire cotton famine of the 1861-1865, and “Cantat Ergo Sumus” which consists of settings of poems written by philosophers.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Paul! Paul, you were born and bred up in the north of England which, economically, culturally, socially, and politically, is quite different than southern England. Please describe your upbringing and how it set you on the academic path.

I was born and grew up in a place called Garforth, which is just outside of Leeds in West Yorkshire. However, I spent the last two years of primary (i.e., elementary) school in a small town called Castleford and my secondary school was in the village of Featherstone, both of which are in the heart of what was the West Yorkshire coalfield. During this time, places such as Featherstone were eviscerated during “the miners’ strike.” Ultimately a tragic failure, this attempt to save the coal mines and the livelihoods which they had, for decades, supported in many small communities, set neighbor against neighbor and family member against family member, as some impoverished miners gave in to the need to return to work, whilst others stayed the course. My dad was the headteacher at a primary school in Castleford and my mum had a series of clerical jobs, so we were wealthy in comparison to the families of many of my schoolmates. But the culture in which I was grew up was staunchly working class, made up of people with an unquestioning loyalty to the politics of the U.K.’s Labour Party; and it was a culture going through a radical trauma.

The earliest experiences which I now connect up with philosophy go back to when I was aged five or so. My dad had studied for an Open University humanities degree in the early 1970s, which included an introduction to philosophy, and I remember there were two philosophy books in the house: a text book on Socrates and a copy of a volume of Descartes’ writings. However, I associate my first “philosophical thoughts” with another core component of my upbringing, namely, Catholicism. Catholicism was built into the fabric of life. The schools that I went to were state schools, but they were Catholic schools, and I attended church week in, week out, until I was about sixteen, regularly serving on the altar and doing the readings. So, it is perhaps not surprising that an embryonic philosophical tendency emerged in my early teens as a response to the confusions that arose as I reflected on Catholic teachings—the incarnation, virgin birth, and eucharist were particular sources of puzzlement—as well as the apparent conflicts between my own understanding of the ethics of Christianity and the institution that is the Catholic church.

Luckily, I had a religious education teacher at school, Bill Darlison, who was an inspiration and whom I am proud to call a friend now. Perhaps sensing some of my confusions, Bill lent me yet more Open University texts when I was about fifteen. I read these texts, but understood little of them; so, they were of no direct help. But names like “Wittgenstein” and philosophical questions and concepts started to filter into my consciousness. On top of that, there were philosophical references that crept in from the comedy that my friends and I consumed watching TV and videos—whether it was Monty Python’s philosophers’ football match or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with Deep Thought providing the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. In addition, there was Bob Dylan dreaming that he had seen St Augustine and the “philosophical novels” by authors like Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Hesse that I found myself reading.

These influences didn’t translate into a decision to study philosophy at university, however. I applied to do mechanical engineering and management in my last year of school. But I started to get cold feet when I looked around campuses and pulled out of the process. This decision was partly due to a recognition that I had applied for engineering because it was a safe route for boys of my background whose parents aspired for them to get “good jobs”. As I came to realize only later, I also experienced quite serious depression during the last two years of high school and my grades had slipped considerably.

Thus, the decision not to go to university at that time was also due to a sense that I would not be capable of working at that level. The idea of studying philosophy arose only when I returned to thoughts of going to university some nine months later, having done much better than I’d expected in my A level exams. I now had something of a clean sheet and made what felt like an authentic choice in applying to do philosophy and psychology out of a desire to find some kind of self-understanding that might allow me to think myself happy.

So, initially, you worked in philosophy of mind and psychology. Do you want to say more about how you landed upon this specialization and also what led you to move away from it?

Philosophy of mind was a requirement for my undergraduate philosophy and psychology degree and it was something I enjoyed studying. I stumbled into a M.A. in philosophy of mind after I told one of my undergraduate tutors that I was thinking of becoming a teacher. He asked me whether I’d thought of teaching at a university. The University of Leeds was my destination of choice, mainly for personal reasons; I don’t really remember whether the subject area was all that significant. But a M.A. offered a way to test the waters of academia with only a year’s commitment.

It was a complicated time; and I, again, struggled with something close to depression throughout. A few months after finishing, however, and six weeks into a teacher-training course, I found that I was really missing philosophy and decided to apply for a Ph.D. I ended up at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which, at that time, was very concentrated in philosophy of psychology and cognitive science. My decision to go to Rutgers had more to do with the fact that it was one of two departments that made me a fully funded offer than it had to do with anything else. But once I was there, philosophy of mind and psychology were the natural choice.

My movement away from these areas involves more complication. It coincided with my most serious period of depression and my one and only manic episode. I had been interested in the history of philosophy as an undergraduate; and the most positive feedback that I received during my first year at Rutgers was in response to a paper that I’d written on Leibniz for a class given by my eventual thesis supervisor Martha Brandt Bolton.

This first encounter with Leibniz left a very strong impression on me. I was deeply puzzled over why anyone would hold such strange views and wanted to understand that. But I also felt some kind of kinship and sense that I sort of knew what was going on.

At that time, I was on course to work on evolutionary psychology. This work plan seemed like a more obvious route to professional success, given that it offered me potential for support from some of the luminaries in that field at the time. However, the work done at Rutgers at the time was relentlessly “naturalistic” and the evolutionary psychology project would also have been relentlessly negative; neither of these prospects sat well with me. In the end, however, it was probably the different ways in which particular people reacted to my manic episode and its aftermath that made the difference.

Please describe your research and teaching on Leibniz.

My work on Leibniz has covered much of his philosophy, something that’s been possible because I have written about almost nothing else, although I read philosophy quite widely in a magpie-like way. I began with a thesis on one of Leibniz’s most important correspondences, that is, his correspondence with Burcher de Volder. The key features of this eight-year exchange are Leibniz’s critique of Cartesian physics and its epistemic and metaphysical foundations, along with a presentation of his opposing views. The correspondence and related topics kept me going for many years, partly because I undertook a critical edition and translation of the text into English from manuscript sources.

A second focus in my writing has been various aspects of Leibniz’s philosophical theology: his conception of faith and its relation to reason (a paper co-authored with Ben Crowe); his theodicy (both the topic and the book of that name); and his views on mysticism and on salvation. But I’ve also written on other issues, including Leibniz’s “mill argument” (initially co-authoring with Marc Bobro), and his justification for the principle of sufficient reason. Most recently, I’ve been sketching out the idea for a longer project, the manifesto for which appears in a recent paper entitled “Leibniz’s Philosophy as a Way of Life?” The reference in the title is to the work of Pierre Hadot, who encourages us to think of the ideas of philosophers as providing something analogous to frameworks that are perhaps more readily thought of as religious traditions in the “West”. In this work, I’m trying to get at what it would be to be a Leibnizian in something like the way that one might be a practicing member of a religion. All of this work, and more, is posted on my academia.edu page.

I don’t actually teach Leibniz very much. In part, that’s due to idiosyncrasies of Oxford and what I’ve been asked to do as a result; but it’s also a reaction to the way in which I myself was initially taught historical figures, where much of the emphasis was placed on how much better we now understand philosophy than they did. I like to teach against the grain of that kind of approach and, for various reasons, it’s much harder to do that with Leibniz in the time available during an academic term than it is with others from his time period—especially given that Oxford terms are only eight weeks long.

In our correspondence, you indicated to me that you have started to think more critically about mania and depression, as well as to write about these dimensions of human experience. Would you like to share some of your reflections on these experiences?

That’s almost right. I’m trying to use my philosophical training to think and write about conceptual issues that arise in connection with “bipolar disorder”; it’s impossible to ignore the place of depression in that; but I’m much more interested in mania and hypomania—which is, roughly speaking, a toned-down version of mania. For one thing, having left depression behind, it is mania and hypomania that place existential demands on me. For another, whereas depression has received a reasonable amount of attention from philosophers, mania and hypomania seem to remain seriously under-explored, especially in ways that pay attention to the perspectives of the people who experience them.

Attempting to combine academic writing with my life as someone with a bipolar diagnosis is a very new thing for me. I’ve spent most of that time reading and reflecting. But I have a sprawling 16,000-word draft that engages with some of the best recent work, namely, a series of papers by Louis Sass and Elizabeth Pienkos, on what might be termed “the phenomenology of mania.” I managed to distill some of that reading and reflection into a short article “What is it Like to Be Manic?” that appeared in The Oxonian Review earlier this year.

Some of what I’m grappling with in the Oxonian Review article is the extent to which the accounts of aspects of manic experience in the Sass and Pienkos papers—which distill ideas from many sources—chime with my own. I also gesture at another issue, namely, the fact that all the work that they discuss is concerned with accounts of manic episodes. Whilst bipolar disorder often involves the recurrence of mania and hypomania, even people with quite pronounced versions of bipolar disorder are not manic or hypomanic all, or even most, of the time. But all of them have been manic, and a key feature of bipolar disorder is how your own conception of having been manic and others’ (possible) conception of it colour everything else.

One of the central challenges here is that, as maniacs, we simply don’t have language in which to speak about mania and hypomania, other than that which has been developed by others in therapeutic contexts—whether it be language developed within a range of psychological frameworks, or the language of neurophysiology and neuropharmacology. Mania and hypomania are very strange to experience. And my sense is that the only readily available option in the 21st Century for integrating the strangeness of experienced mania and hypomania with everyday life is to embrace a very different kind of language, namely, that which belongs to a spiritual, religious tradition. But for many of those diagnosed, this is not a realistic, or desirable option.

I can feel rather overwhelmed when I try to think about what the next steps with my work in this area might be. But I think that I want to start with basic issues, such as trying to provide an account of previous attempts to say what mania is and various pitfalls that those attempts contain. I’m also interested in the possibility of work that would bring together people who have had experiences that count as instances of mania and hypomania in order to develop ways of talking that have inter-subjective purchase independently of the need to make sense to those outside the community. It would be another instance of the kind of consciousness-raising that we know has been essential for the finding of voice in the case of other subaltern groups.

Despite the fact that you have passed as nondisabled for most of your career, Paul, you seem to have encountered considerable ableism and inaccessibility in your working life. Please explain the ableism that you have confronted. How do you think philosophy, with its abiding veneration of rationality, and academia, with its demand for productivity, need to change in order to provide space for philosophers and other academics who experience what you do?

I should say at the outset that I find it very hard to provide an account of the way in which I’ve encountered ableism. I didn’t try to conceptualize my relationship to my career in terms of disability until very recently, and I haven’t constructed a detailed narrative in these terms. Furthermore, as I alluded to above, when it comes to mania and hypomania, I’m not sure the concepts have yet come to light that would enable me to speak and write about these matters as I would like to speak and write about them. Nevertheless, setting those issues aside, here are a few things that I can say at this time.

Depression can render any activity extremely difficult. The only period during which I experienced depression of this kind was when I was a second-year graduate student. At that point, I did get the advice and encouragement that I needed to seek medical help for the first time in my life. Other than that, however, my recollection is that I was left to get on with trying to run my first-ever class and take courses. Things didn’t change when I had my manic episode later that year, other than the fact that I was given an even wider berth by most of the people that I knew.

I continued to teach unsupervised and, though my memory is hazy, I don’t think that I missed a single class even at the height of my mania! I still don’t quite know how I managed to get back on track, let alone finish my Ph.D. on an uninterrupted schedule. It now seems like a staggering systemic failure. I think that we are still a long way from knowing how to manage such situations. I suspect that the more compassionate approaches that I’ve seen used recently, where students are given time away from study, would have led me to my drop out of academia altogether. Indeed, a cynic might even think that that is their systemic institutional function.

A third issue had a more pervasively corrosive effect during the time that I have passed as “sane,” and does even now that I am more open about myself. Living with a bipolar diagnosis and the experiential traces of mania, hypomania, and depression has left me with a profound sense of social alienation and anxiety. Part of this derives from the fact that I have never had a full-blown conversation which was predicated on an explicit recognition of a shared bipolar identity—not with academics nor with anyone else. I’m sure that this absence is partly due to the fact that I didn’t publicly identify as bipolar until recently.

But the situation is more complex. During the last few years of trying to be more open, I’ve found that there are people who will acknowledge this shared identity, but who clearly do not want to talk about it, let alone make it publicly known. Of course, there could be many reasons for this reluctance and even refusal, and I would be the last person to negatively judge such unwillingness to talk about this identity, or at least unwillingness to talk to me about it. With regard to the manic component, it’s obvious that we are still dealing with a taboo—especially in academic philosophy, which for many is still predicated on taking rationality as constitutive of what it is to be a flourishing human being.

To identify as a philosopher and “insane” isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it is certainly something that I didn’t want to risk until very recently; since then, there have certainly been situations in which I have talked openly with people from whom I expected very different reactions, having left these situations with feelings of deeper alienation and regret. Such reactions are perhaps the most obvious manifestations that I have confronted of both other people’s ableism and my own internalized ableism. My own reactions are reflected in the fact that it wasn’t until I had achieved promotion to full professor that I was willing to self-identify publicly as someone with bipolar disorder. Even now, an interview like this fills me with anxiety, trepidation, and concrete fear that I will be taken less seriously as a thinker and will find myself even more socially isolated because other people, other philosophers, will find my embrace of this identity uncomfortable.

Beyond that, there is the more mundane way in which the features that lead us to diagnose people as having bipolar disorder make the social aspects of life and, by extension, academic life, difficult. When my mood—I’ll use that word, but bipolar disorder really isn’t a matter of mood—moves in the manic direction, a whole host of classic symptoms appear. For example, I get very irritable in ways that carry over into the way that I react to the people I’m around—most notably, I can be too dismissive. I also talk more (or write more in emails) than is socially acceptable and, relatedly, become less interested than usual in what others say and do than in what I say and do.

Furthermore, all of this happens without my awareness, at the time, of the fact that I’m doing so. Later, when I realize how I have acted, I become horrified at my behaviour. At that point, another classic symptom kicks in, namely, a kind of self-torture as I play over, interminably, what are often exaggerated versions of my failures and their possible consequences. The overall structure of a life which includes these kinds of episode is profoundly altered by them. If one knows that one goes into states where one is unaware of the ways in which one is violating social norms, this knowledge can give rise to pervasive anxiety. The loss of trust in one’s ability to be socially acceptable can have a deep effect, which only adds to feelings of alienation.

As you can imagine, the most obvious academic challenge arising from this state of affairs is how to manage in a profession which is (or at least was pre-COVID-19) increasingly obsessed with conferences, workshops, and other “networking.” I have some standard ways of dealing with the stresses. The simplest is just to avoid people, by staying away. But social-academic events are not completely avoidable. So, when I do participate, I all too often find myself having to dip out of things to spend time on my own; or, if I can’t do this, I sit or stand in silent agony, not trusting myself to join in appropriately—which I then worry might be perceived as problematic in its own way. The most extreme and upsetting case of this sort of situation occurred when I turned up for a conference at which I was supposed to speak, went out for a pre-conference dinner, found myself in an incredibly irritable mood, and decided my only option was to take the train home without even spending the night.

Here is an irony. When I started out as an academic, one attraction, for me, of the academic life was that the majority of people in it worked in relative isolation, with conferences and workshops much less common. Certainly, it didn’t feel then—as it sometimes does to me today—that there was no space for the “lone scholar,” that the academic life couldn’t serve as a place of haven for people for whom the bustle of the “real world” poses significant challenges. A safe space that could be inhabited by, among others, the bipolar, now seems to have entry conditions that make it all the harder to access and to be less of a safe space once one has entered it.

I have to admit that I don’t really have any clear ideas about what might count as appropriate remedies. I’ve spent too much time developing coping strategies to imagine that things could be made easier through systemic changes. It may well be that this instance of ableism will not and cannot really be addressed until groups of people who have faced similar challenges gather together in sufficient numbers to find ways to articulate the challenges in their own terms.

Paul, would you like to make any additional remarks about something you’ve discussed in this interview or recommend some articles, books, or other material on any of the topics you’ve discussed in this interview?

I’ve talked about the downsides of the bipolar life; but, I wouldn’t want to paint an entirely negative picture. When asked recently by a friend whether I would rather not have had the experiences that life has brought, my answer was a resounding “no.” Appearances sometimes notwithstanding, I am very happy and my life is full of moments of joy. I have a wonderful family and some dear friends who take me as I am. I write and perform music and, when I am alone with my books, thoughts or songs, or looking out of the window at the trees and clouds, some of the strangeness of the mania can return and carry me away to places of real bliss.

[Description of photo below: Paul is at a standing microphone performing. Paul’s hands are active on an acoustic guitar, with its patterned shoulder strap, and his eyes are closed as he feels the lyrics and melody of the song that he performs.]

I feel as though I’m getting better at navigating the social world as I get older. Moreover, it seems to me that my continuing engagement with philosophy is at least part of the reason for this flexibility and comfort—though I wouldn’t, not even for one minute, want that greater ease to be taken as an uncritical endorsement of such an engagement. 

As for reading: If I put on my Leibniz-scholar mask again, Leibniz by Nicholas Jolley (Routledge) is my favorite suggestion for anyone who wants to approach him for the first time. As for primary texts, whilst a little outdated, the most representative selection is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters edited by Leroy Loemker in 1969.

It’s hard to single out other things. However, I mentioned Pierre Hadot above; his book Philosophy as a Way of Life made a big impact on me, as have Michèle Le Doeuff’s Hipparchia’s Choice and Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising by Rob Burbea.

As for mania: There are lots of “self-help” books and memoirs, as well as the voluminous literature that has been generated by the natural sciences—much of which (up to as far as 2007) is summarized in Manic-Depressive Illness, edited by Frederick Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison.

But, as I said above, when it comes to approaches that one might think of as philosophical, mania remains uncharted waters in lots of important ways. The series of papers by Louis Sass and Elizabeth Pienkos which I mentioned summarise much of the relevant phenomenological psychology of the past hundred years or so. Their intention in doing so was to open up space, and it is explicitly presented as tentative.

There are others who are doing great research, of course. For example, Wayne Martin and Marcin Moskalewicz have been looking in greater detail at the relationship between mania and temporality; and, whilst not about mania per se, I’m a big fan of Madness and the Demand for Recognition by Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, although there are certainly things that I would want to push back against in Rashed’s book. But all this work is at the cutting edge. Indeed, I’d love to hear from anyone interested in trying to think about mania and theorize it further.

Paul, thank you very much for your fascinating insights throughout this interview. I was very pleased that you recommended the Rashed book so highly. I was intrigued by the title of the book when it was first published. Now I will definitely check it out.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Paul Lodge’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, August 19th, at 8 a.m. ET, for the sixty-fifth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.


9 Responses

  1. art

    Thank you for this interview and the series on Philosophy’s Disability Problem. Opportunities to feel less alone are rare as you seem to know. This was a comforting read.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It is validating to read comments about the experience of academia that are very like my own.

    I believe Professor Lodge is correct in saying that the expectations of more and more social interactions via philosophical “conferences, workshops, and other ‘networking'” have radically changed working conditions.

    For some, of course, these expectations are a great boon. For others (e.g., those who are very introverted, or who suffer from anxiety or depression), like me, they simply present multiple ordeals. And if people like me go to these events, and try to protect ourselves by limiting interactions, or choosing only certain kinds of interactions, we are thought to be “uncollegial” or “unfriendly” or lacking in anything worthwhile to offer.

    Liked by 2 people

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