Addendum on Illness

11 December 2009


Further to my last post, The Experience of Illness, I find myself still sick, and only marginally better than the day before. However, I am mildly pleased to be able to say that I recovered one of the ideas that I lost during the first stages of my illness, though I’m not yet to the point of writing anything down: the ideas I have at present are precariously preserved exclusively in consciousness, and when I fall asleep, I fall asleep with the worry that they will not be there when I wake up.

Yesterday, when I was feeling particularly fatigued again, I noticed that weakness of the will is magnified by an order of magnitude (if not several) by the experience of illness. My resolutions to accomplish the simplest tasks slipped away scarcely noticed. This strikes me as weakness of the will of the purest sort, because it is a weakness of the will that follows from the physical weakness of the body. Many accounts of weakness of the will assimilate weakness of the will to the classical Greek term akrasia (ἀκρασία), and akrasia in turn is assimilated to irrationality, but there is nothing essentially irrational in being too weak to follow through with a resolution.

If a person who is ill resolves to prepare some healthy food, but fails to do so out of weakness, instead eating prepared foods that leave the person feeling less well than before, we understand this as a literal expression of weakness. The individual knows that healthy food would be better but is incapable of pursuing the optimal course of action. The most common examples of weakness of the will are not too far removed from this, for examples, instances of people who claim that they want to stop drinking or smoking but find themselves unable to do so. Weakness of the will in a more strictly moral sense shades away from these concrete examples, but should not necessarily be thought to represent a different kind of experience. One may know the morally optimal course of action without having the strength to follow through with it. This is not at all unusual, and even in our regimented lives in the midst of industrialized society we face such decisions on an almost daily basis. Who can count the number of times they have hesitated to do battle with a bureaucracy, even knowing that one is right, because one knows that one doesn’t have the strength for the fight? Far from being an instance of irrationality, such a judgment involves a rational assessment of one’s capabilities and an adjustment of one’s expectations in line with one’s capabilities — an eminently reasonable, if humbling, undertaking.

Recent philosophy has moved progressively farther away from Cartesian dualism and toward the reintegration of mind and body. This has been a necessary corrective to an idea extrapolated beyond its scope of validity. But while this has given us a better appreciation of the embodied mind, the consequences are not such as to flatter our vanity. The moral capabilities of an individual are a function of the physical vigor and vitality of the individual — this is the harsh and unforgiving lesson of embodiment. However much we might like to think of ourselves as refined, spiritual, and elevated, even the most subtle and sophisticated minds must acknowledge that the mind is more clearly and distinctly aware of the pangs of hunger and the plight of illness than any idea. It is only after the body has been satisfied, and entered into a state of quiescence, that the mind can move on to extra-corporeal pursuits.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Experience of Illness

9 December 2009


Everyone needs a Czech saint like St. Agnes of Bohemia when they are ill and need to be tended.

Yesterday I didn’t post anything to this forum as I became rather ill. I came to my office, but only laid on a couch all day long and took phone calls. Other than that, I was spectacularly unproductive. I have no idea exactly what kind of sickness I have, but it hit me pretty hard yesterday.

Just before I became ill I had several promising ideas in my head that I had planned to write down in a notebook, but as illness overcame me I didn’t get to writing them down and now I have lost all but one. I didn’t even feel strong enough to listen to a book on tape during my commute; I drove around the Portland area on my usual business errands in silence. Such is the weakness of the flesh, and the mind, being grounded in the flesh of the brain, follows. A malady of the body can make itself felt in the mind, just as a malady of the mind can make itself felt in the body.

I have often thought about the experience of illness because whenever I experience illness it strikes me as changing my perspective on the world dramatically. When I am sick, my thinking changes. I am no longer racing ahead from one idea to another, trying to take in as much knowledge as the day will allow, I find myself merely trying to survive from the beginning of the day to its end, and getting to bed without delay in order to maximize the time I can sleep. This reminds me, in retrospect, of my description of making the one thousand foot climb from the parking area on Cotopaxi to the Refugio José Ribas. Regarding this experience I wrote:

This brief experience of climbing at over 14,000 feet reduced me to a state of near total idiocy within the space of five minutes. I found myself focusing exclusively on the rasping sound of my breath and where I would put my foot next. The whole climb came to seem so impossible that I looked only to the next rock that was large enough to serve as a place to rest. Climbing even this short distance was like a personal odyssey, as though I was utterly trapped within the private confines of my skull, where the sound of my breath inside my head was the most prominent feature of my experience, while the sound of the wind outside my head blocked out all contact with the rest of the world.

While my recent illness has not involved a strong wind cutting off my communication with the outside world, some of the features of that experience make sense in relation to illness, especially as the primary symptom I am presently experiencing is fatigue. One experiences fatigue in making a physical effort at 14,000 feet, and one experiences fatigue attempting to go about the ordinary business of life while ill.

In a state of sickness, one’s horizons are dramatically constricted. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I called this the Weltanschauung of illness, and devoted two aphorisms to the topic, as follows:


What is to be learned from weakness.—With every infirmity I experience, I recognize in myself a former arrogance.


The Weltanschauung of illness.—Sickness fundamentally alters one’s condition and changes one’s relation to the world. In the vigor of one’s health it is difficult to imagine an indifference to life, yet most have had the experience of being so ill that one doesn’t care if one lives or dies. After the sickness has passed, it is difficult to recapture this frame of mind—impossible to fully inhabit it.

Thus the experience of illness can even have a moral quality by making us aware of the arrogance of health taken for granted and making it possible for us to better understand the condition of those for whom illness is the rule rather than the exception. But, as I noted in the above aphorism, it is so difficult to recapture of feeling of indifference to life from the point of view of one’s full vitality, an especially vivid a priori imagination is necessary to understand others even with whom we share some experiences.

I have written about Collingwood’s a priori imagination in relation to the philosophy of history on several occasions (for example, in Krakauer on McCandless where I also suggested a broader interpretation), and it strikes me now that the a priori imagination is not merely a tool for coming to understand the past, but it is a tool, a though experiment, however imperfect, for understanding the other, whether the other is rendered other in virtue of being past for for any other reason of otherness.

Yesterday several people told me how awful I looked, but as it would push the bounds of good taste to post a photograph of myself in a state of sickness, I will refrain from that unflattering indulgence.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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