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Fatigue and Exhaustion. A Philosophical Topography

This dissertation takes the form of a philosophical topography of fatigue and exhaustion. Sociological and social-philosophical analyses that claim burnout and depression as socially significant pathologies provide the background motivation for this investigation. However, it is not directly about the sociology of contemporary capitalism, nor does it intend to give a psychopathological account of the particularity of burnout. Instead, I take up a line of inquiry neglected in these sociological analyses by investigating the places in contemporary philosophy where fatigue and exhaustion become thematic in discussions of anthropological, ontological, and ethical questions. The critical literature on burnout and depression in relation to contemporary capitalism presuppose the embodied self experienced as a limit in relation to increasingly accelerated and technologically-mediated social relations, without thematising the question of what it means for the human subject to experience itself and its freedom as a limit. This means that the phenomenology of fatigue is often neglected and the body is treated as an objective, physiological obstacle, rather than as lived body. By focussing more intently on the phenomenology of fatigue and exhaustion, this dissertation hopes to complicate such analyses. 

The dissertation consists of two main parts that are distinct in their approach. The first is historical and genealogical in its approach and seeks to account for the conditions of possibility of the emergence of new forms of psychic suffering as socially relevant phenomena. The second part draws on philosophical- and, in particular, phenomenological approaches to fatigue and exhaustion to explore the question of the experience of limits and of oneself and one’s freedom as limit. Interweaving different levels of analysis, drawing on different philosophical methodologies, and exploring analyses of fatigue in the context of various philosophical projects, I give an overview of the philosophical significance of fatigue and exhaustion ranging from reflections on melancholia and depression in art, fatigue in nineteenth-century sociology and psychology, the concept of acedia in the context of ancient desert asceticism, existentialism, phenomenology, and critical theory. This allows me to broach themes such as the relation to the embodied self, to the world and the loss of world, and to others as philosophers have approached them by means of analyses of fatigue and exhaustion.

The genealogical thread of the dissertation was aimed at understanding two key aspects of contemporary problematisations of fatigue and exhaustion and related pathologies such as depression and burnout. First, I aimed to illustrate the continuities and departures between contemporary accounts of such conditions as depression and burnout, on the one hand, and the philosophical tradition surrounding melancholia on the other. The second aim, by no means unrelated to the first, was to demonstrate some genealogical trajectories by which the contemporary investigation and critique of social norms in light of pathology and psychic suffering emerged and gained legitimacy. With regards to both these genealogical aims, the phenomenon of acedia emerged as central. Acedia reveals both the dimension of ordinary suffering that is central to contemporary depression and burnout as well as the genesis of the idea that there are forms of psychic suffering that are manifestations of failure in specific normative contexts, such that this failure is not the failure to adhere to social norms, but rather, failure in adherence to social norms. This genealogy lays the basis of the notion of social pathology that only explicitly emerged around the beginning of the twentieth century. Depression and pathologies of exhaustion, such as neurasthenia in the nineteenth century, are not accidental in this genealogy. Instead, I have argued that it is precisely in relation to these pathologies—and the genealogical route by which concern with them can be traced back to acedia—that ordinary suffering, ambiguously related to more extreme psychopathologies, emerges first as a moral concern and later as a social problem. And it is from within the genealogy of this moral and social problematisation of psychic suffering that we can understand the emergence of contemporary social-critical and philosophical interest in fatigue.

The second broad orientation of my research—the investigation of tiredness and exhaustion in philosophical texts—led to the emergence of three key traits: lack of alterity, lateness, and weariness of the self. These are phenomenological traits of experiences of fatigue that make it amenable to the thematisation of broader philosophical and social questions. They should be understood as articulations of the limit-questions that emerge from a phenomenological investigation of tiredness and exhaustion rather than
straightforward descriptions of what it is like to be tired or exhausted. These core traits of fatigue, that emerge across a range of philosophical texts, provide a basis for a deeper understanding of the centrality of phenomena like burnout in contemporary society as well as the specific socio-political problematics that have been taken up in socio-critical thought in relation to these social pathologies.

Date:1 Oct 2018 →  1 Jul 2024
Keywords:phenomenological psychopathology, depression, cult of performance
Disciplines:Philosophy, Theory and methodology of philosophy
Project type:PhD project