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Wisdom Won from Illness

Wisdom Won from Illness

Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis

Jonathan Lear

ISBN 9780674967847

Publication date: 01/02/2017

Wisdom Won from Illness brings into conversation two fields of humane inquiry—psychoanalysis and moral philosophy—that seem to have little to say to each other but which, taken together, form a basis for engaged ethical thought about how to live.

Jonathan Lear begins by looking to the ancient Greek philosophers for insight into what constitutes the life well lived. Socrates said the human psyche should be ruled by reason, and much philosophy as well as psychology hangs on what he meant. For Aristotle, reason organized and presided over the harmonious soul; a wise person is someone capable of a full, happy, and healthy existence. Freud, plumbing the depths of unconscious desires and pre-linguistic thoughts, revealed just how unharmonious the psyche could be. Attuned to the stresses of modern existence, he investigated the myriad ways people fall ill and fail to thrive. Yet he inherited from Plato and Aristotle a key insight: that the irrational part of the soul is not simply opposed to reason. It is a different manner of thinking: a creative intelligence that distorts what it seeks to understand.

Can reason absorb the psyche’s nonrational elements into a whole conception of the flourishing, fully realized human being? Without a good answer to that question, Lear says, philosophy is cut from its moorings in human life. Wisdom Won from Illness illuminates the role of literature in shaping ethical thought about nonrational aspects of the mind, offering rich readings of Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, J. M. Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson, and others.


  • Lear takes a subtly radical position in Wisdom Won from Illness, arguing that psychoanalysis is not merely a venture one undertakes in the hope of relieving suffering (of achieving a level of contentment, of escaping symptoms of depression and anxiety), but in the hope of living well. This is one of the poignant qualities of this collection of essays: it asks more of humans than that they be content; it asks that humans not only live happily, but excellently. And it doesn’t merely hope for humans to do this, it expects it of them, and shows in clinical vignettes drawn from Lear’s private practice that the human need for truth—to understand ourselves and the world in which we live, and to be able to consciously marshal our unconscious life for our own development—is overwhelmingly powerful. Lear, like all great teachers, has the remarkable ability to remind us of this truth, even when this truth has gone out of fashion. Such a grand expectation for human life belongs, traditionally, to philosophy, not to psychoanalysis, but in Lear’s hands psychoanalysis is unique in that it can do the healing work of medicine and the enlightening work of philosophy.

    —Benjamin H. Ogden, Times Literary Supplement


  • Jonathan Lear is John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor on the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. His works include Wisdom Won from Illness, Radical Hope, A Case for Irony, and Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life.

Book Details

  • 344 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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