Bert van den Bergh - Philosophy
Bert van den Bergh researches the malaise of late modernity: A cultural-philosophical interpretation of the 'depression epidemic'"Are we just putting a new label on an old phenomenon? Or are we dealing with something really new here?"
Since the late nineteen-nineties Bert van den Bergh has been teaching Cultural Philosophy at the Department of European Studies of The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Based on the academic studies he did – philosophy and psychology – his interest often follows themes that can be found at the intersection of these disciplines – for instance the theme of the 'depression epidemic'.
He is currently trying to tackle this hot issue in a philosophical way. According to the World Health Organization, the mental disorder depression is 'the leading cause of disability worldwide'. How come? What kind of suffering are we dealing with here? What exactly is this late modern 'discontent in civilization'? These questions are explored in his PhD project, which since February 2013 is supported (link Dutch article) by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) through the Doctoral Grant for Teachers.
Depression vs. melancholy
In his research, Bert aims to further the understanding of depression as an experience by situating the phenomenon of depression within the philosophy of culture. Part of this is an investigation of the concept of 'melancholy'. "What we now call depression, used to be referred to as melancholy," Bert explains. "So are we just putting a new label on an old phenomenon? Or are we dealing with something really new here?"
"To cut to the chase: is depression a reduced version of melancholy, and is there no place in our culture for this other aspect of the proverbial 'black dog'?."
According to Bert, we are dealing with a new phenomenon. Depression is far more negative than melancholy. "But is it not more than simply a failing? Is there not also something of the good old melancholy in there too?" Bert wonders. "Melancholy was pain, suffering, dread, isolation, but also a noble experience, linked to creativity. To cut to the chase: is depression a reduced version of melancholy, and is there no place in our culture for this other aspect of the proverbial 'black dog'?"
What is striking is that the redefinition of the term 'melancholy' coincides with the beginnings of psychiatry as a discipline in the early nineteenth century. Bert: "From then on, the term 'depression' comes into vogue, and in the past 25 years we have even started talking about a 'depression epidemic'. There is a relationship there that I aim to unravel."
Alongside the rise of psychiatry in the nineteenth century, a second moment in history lies at the heart of Bert's research: the year 1980. This was the year in which the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the 'bible' of psychiatry, appeared. "Thereafter, there was no longer any place in the DSM for theories about the causes of disorders like depression. It's just about the identification of symptoms and allocating patients to assumed categories of illness," Bert explains.
"As a philosopher of culture, I am curious about what all of this says about our contemporary culture, about our conception of the good life and how you are meant to fulfil this."
This third edition of the DSM became a world-wide hit. "What made this latest edition so popular?" Bert wants to know. "Was it that we then suddenly had a means of pushing both the sick and the healthy in a particular direction? And in what direction then? And how does this relate to the eventual 'depression epidemic'?"
From these two moments in the past, he is attempting to understand the present. "As a philosopher of culture, I am curious about what all of this says about our contemporary culture, about our conception of the good life and how you are meant to fulfil this, how you may not be able or willing to fulfil this. The links between these moments and the situation today are becoming ever more apparent."
As a researcher at Higher Vocational Education (Dutch: HBO) level, Bert is an exception to the rule. "I am part of the first group of researchers in Higher Vocational Education. We are currently still at the pioneering stage, so I feel a bit like an adventurer. It’s a pretty expansive position, as we have a great deal of freedom and, for example (with the exception of the thesis), no obligation to publish. You can wait to publish until you think it makes sense."
"It’s nice to be dragged away from your research every now and again to teach a class; it helps you to not get bogged down in something that isn’t going so well."
He teaches two days a week at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, and can spend the remaining three days on his research thanks to his grant and the support from The Hague University of Applied Sciences. A good combination, in Bert’s opinion.
“It’s nice to be dragged away from your research every now and again to teach a class; it helps you to not get bogged down in something that isn’t going so well. But research also means sitting there, pacing up and down, and a lot of thinking. And when you have to prepare your classes, you’re regularly switching between one thing and the other in a way that has a restraining effect on your research.”
At The Hague University of Applied Sciences, he is a member of an ‘expertise circle’, in which researchers discuss one another’s work. The same happens at the doctoral candidates’ meeting within the chair group Philosophy of Man and Culture at Erasmus University. “These meetings are very stimulating,” Bert says. “Because the framework is so broad and there are different perspectives, you can come across new ideas or you might discover unexpected overlaps with other research.”
One of the highlights of his research to date was the international conference – the fifth in a series – he organised at the end of 2014 at the Erasmus University, together with a Danish and an Irish researcher. “So many things came together at that moment,” Bert recalls. “Your network comes together, the connections become very close and it felt like a great form of recognition, particularly when an important French philosopher I didn’t think would come did turn up.”
"Carrying out research means making discoveries. The picture you start with is always only partially confirmed, your assumptions are constantly undermined."
Following the conference, a plan was submitted to publish a 10-part series of books on 'social pathologies of contemporary civilization'. Bert: "This plan received a positive response from a publisher. It would be great if my thesis could be part of this."
Research = discoveries
Until then, Bert will continue diving deeper into the material. "Carrying out research means making discoveries. The picture you start with is always only partially confirmed, your assumptions are constantly undermined. Sometimes this can drive you to despair, but then, this is why you do it. You are able to arrive at an ever more precise representation of how it is."
Also, as the research advances, it also becomes more enjoyable, Bert has discovered. "In the beginning, you find texts on the same topic and you see these as competitors. Later, you start to increasingly find your own way and to see these kinds of books or articles as stimulating. Instead of competition, it becomes a dialogue. Research is not lonely, but actually very sociable. You are not in an ivory tower, but constantly in conversation with other researchers."
And the more you find out, the clearer the relevance of the research becomes: "There are so many people working on this subject from different disciplines," Bert says. "Just imagine if we were able to change thinking on depression, for example by giving more exposure to the positive aspects, then all kinds of different ways of dealing with depression can open up."