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Department of Philosophy


Publication details for Professor Matthew Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe, M. (2013). Depression and the Phenomenology of Free Will. In Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry. Fulford, K. W. M., Davies, M., Graham, G., Sadler, J., Stanghellini, G. & Thornton, T. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 574-591.
  • Publication type: Books: sections

Author(s) from Durham


This chapter sketches a phenomenological account of impaired agency in depression. Depression, I suggest, can involve what we might call a diminished experience of free will. Although it is often assumed that we have such an experience, it is far from clear what it consists of. I argue that this lack of clarity is symptomatic of looking in the wrong place. Drawing on themes in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, I propose that the sense of freedom associated with action is not - first and foremost – an episodic ‘quale’ or ‘feeling’ that is experienced as internal to the agent. Rather, it is embedded in the experienced world; my freedom appears in the guise of my surroundings. This makes better sense of what people with depression consistently describe: a diminished ability to act that is inextricable from a transformation of the experienced world. As well as illuminating an aspect of the experience of depression, I also seek to illustrate something more general: how phenomenology and psychiatry can interact in a fruitful way. Phenomenology supplies us with an interpretive framework through which to make sense of first-person reports of altered experience in psychiatric illness. In so far as it facilitates plausible interpretations of otherwise elusive phenomena, in a way that has potential repercussions for classification and treatment, it is vindicated in the process. In addition, the commerce between phenomenology and psychiatry can lead to further refinement of the former, rather than simply its uncritical application (Ratcliffe, 2008; Ratcliffe and Broome, forthcoming).