Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History, by Frances O’Gorman (Bloomsbury, 2015)
Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? Edited by Katrina Hutchinson and Fiona Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2015)
The noonday demon is upon me; it’s taking an almost super-human effort to tap out these tiny letters, and I’m hating every second of it. It’s the devil’s hour (3 o’clock) on Sunday afternoon, and I’m afflicted by accidie, that “apathetic and self-disgusted inertia” which – according to Peter Conrad, in The Guardian – was a common cause of complaint for medieval monks, and which he sees to be a conceptual precursor to the peculiarly Modern notion of “worrying.” I’d say it’s something closer to the conceptual precursor of the “afternoon tummy slump,” but I’m too exhausted to say exactly why.
Conrad’s focus is Frances O’Gorman’s recent book, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History, an anxious little text, which takes as its subject those perennial philosophical questions like “Hang on, did I turn the oven off?”, and “Is the back-door locked?”. According to O’Gorman, “worry” is a particularly Modern emotion, emerging in the nineteenth century as the result of intellectual emphasis on human freedom. It is not a psychiatric condition, it’s a post-Enlightenment trope, “a particular reprisal of secularisation” – as Josephine Livingstone has it, in The New Republic.
“Drunk on the idea that we are free and rational individuals,” says Livingstone, “we know that our destinies are up to us.” “We worry,” says Conrad, “because we no longer believe in the gods who used to control our destinies; responsible for ourselves, we are obliged to make existential choices that ought to propel us ahead but more often leave us feeling dejected.” It’s all a bit gloomy, isn’t it? It also suggests that theists can’t be worrywarts, which is odd, considering they’re often threatened with the scarily bright future of eternal hell-fires and noonday and every other kind of demon.
So how does O’Gorman think we should tackle this Modern malaise? Worry charts the rise of the self-help book, a market which, as Livingstone points out, exploded after the First World War, “presumably because everybody in Europe was dead or traumatized.” Interestingly, Peter Conrad thinks O’Gorman’s text serves a sort of cathartic function for the author (he’s set “himself a brisk therapeutic task by writing a book that attempts to cure or at least comprehend his misery”); so we find ourselves at the meta-level of the self-self-help book. Which is neat … but ultimately pointless, because “worry,” as O’Gorman puts it, “is inextricable from the world in which, as Westerners, we now live.” A fact I’d find a lot more depressing if I could just keep my eyes open.
But there are other things to worry about than worry, and one of them is the representation of women in philosophy; the subject of Katrina Hutchinson’s and Fiona Jenkin’s recent collection of essays, Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? These essays, from a wide range of philosophers, are obviously important, and have been warmly received by the reviewers. Writing in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Peg O’Connor suggests, “every philosophy department needs to have at least one copy of this book so that it can be passed around and then discussed.” It is a call for change in the discipline, and a welcome one.
David Papineau’s comments on the book are, on the whole, sympathetic and sensible, though there are a couple of slightly strange passages in his piece for the Times Literary Supplement. Discussing the oppressively macho environment of the philosophy seminar, he notes how things have changed since his student days. “Nowadays, we affect a veneer of civility, and it is no longer considered entirely proper to bludgeon the speaker into submission once you have made your point.” Is this badly phrased – or does he really think that people are just pretending to be nice to each other in the seminar room? How often does he experience the urge to bludgeon?
Another concern arises when he makes an analogy to professional snooker. He cites Steve Davis’s explanation of the shocking under-representation of women in the game, in which the snooker player points out that “as a group, [women] are disinclined to devote obsessive effort to ‘something that must be said is a complete waste of time…’.” Irrespective of whether or not this is true, the analogy becomes somewhat twisted in Papineau’s commentary. Davis thinks snooker is pointless and boring. Papineau thinks that philosophy is worthwhile, but tedious to master (“the mind-numbing rigors of practice would still dissuade most women”). The result is the implicit suggestion that women just don’t want to put the hours in. This is, perhaps, an ungenerous reading: nevertheless, I’m left with a vague sense of worry, which has nothing at all to do with the noonday demon.