Are Philosophers Crazy? Where This Assumption Comes From

With some philosophical statements, one can easily get the impression that the author was or is definitely crazy. But what exactly is there to this assumption?

In short, there were crazy philosophers, but most are not. Often the impression is created by the fact that the philosophical statements are formulated complex on the one hand and represent abstract thoughts on the other, which often deviate from the normal perception of society.

This is exactly what we will look at in this article. We will also take a look at which philosophers were or are actually crazy.

Complexly formulated philosophy = crazy?

The more complex an issue is formulated, the more abstruse it may seem. But does that automatically make it unreasonable or even crazy? Of course, it is not quite that simple.

One of the philosophers who formulated particularly complex was undoubtedly Lao Tzu. Who knows his teachings will probably agree that it is usually not enough to read a sentence once. Personally, I have to admit that I have read some sentences five or six times and still haven't fully understood some of them. This can be frustrating from time to time and make you think that maybe there is no clear meaning in the particular statement. But that, if you are honest with yourself, is a limitation of your own making and has nothing to do with the sanity of the author.

In general, philosophy is a discipline based on reason. Nothing is as central as thinking. Accordingly, philosophers practice to become better and better at thinking. This may sound banal, but it is not. We humans have the tendency to overestimate our own ability (Source). So we assume that we are all particularly good at thinking. I am no exception. But since I started to deal with philosophy years ago, I noticed that I do think and often come to quite passable conclusions, but I am definitely not as good as assumed.

One could refer here to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that we greatly overestimate ourselves when we are in the beginner's area of a subject. The further we progress and the better we understand a subject area, the better our self-perception becomes. In the midfield, we realize that we don't even know a large part of it yet, let alone understand it. Often at this stage we even think that we are worse than we actually are. And when we actually become an expert, our self-perception improves accordingly. We become aware of what we know and know what we don't know.

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the assessment of one's own competence as expertise progresses

Anyone who has listened to intellectual greats formulate will understand what I mean when I say that proper reflection is much more than what is done by the masses. 

A fascinating example in this respect I find Jordan B. Peterson, who can construct and also formulate enormously complex thoughts. It's almost as if you can see him meshing the gears in his head as steam comes out of various valves, creating something that goes many levels deep with great effort.

There lies the essential difference. Less skilled people, like me, usually move only a few layers deep when thinking. Philosophers, however, often (consciously but not always) try to understand things by analyzing many layers.

It is therefore understandable that philosophical concepts cannot be conveyed with a few words. Instead, it requires complex structures in writing and language.

While we are on the subject of writing and language, it is also the case that many of the great philosophers lived in other epochs in which the mode of expression was sometimes extremely different from that of today. Ancient language has a tendency to seem strange to us. This strange feeling can also be misinterpreted as craziness under certain circumstances.

Concepts deviating from societal perception = crazy?

According to Definition in the Duden there are basically two meanings for philosophy:

  1. The pursuit of knowledge about the meaning of life, the nature of the world, and the place of man in the world; doctrine, science of the knowledge of the meaning of life, the world, and the place of man in the world.
  2. the personal way of looking at life and things

So it is not surprising that philosophers deal with facts that contradict our usual perception and our usual views or at least differ strongly from them. This can certainly be perceived as crazy.

This phenomenon can be observed in many fields of nature. Everything that does not correspond to the consensus of the many meets with rejection. With some only at the beginning (if a certain receptivity and curiosity exists) with others however vehemently. The rejection can have different reasons. For example, fear of the new, fear of loss of identity, arrogance.

So let's address all three points:

Fear of new things

Evolutionarily, man has a shyness towards things that are foreign to him. This also makes sense, because otherwise potential dangers could be noticed too late. It is therefore a mechanism to ensure survival. But rationally this mechanism is unnecessary in certain areas and should be considered antiquated there. But this is not so. An intellectual thought game, should not seem further threatening. After all, we have the possibility to accept or reject it. After we have listened to it and thought about it.

Fear of loss of identity

Suppose a philosopher says that life is meaningless and we should not sacrifice ourselves reluctantly day after day. We should not stubbornly work towards a hypothetical goal at the end (e.g. retirement), the achievement of which is not at all certain and we could relax instead, since life is only a game that we can play but do not have to. 

A statement like this can be seen as an attack, especially if one is conditioned to define oneself by performance, living for retirement, and so on. After all, that would invalidate one's own value system.

In almost all philosophical teachings, however, such statements are not meant as attacks. Rather, they are friendly requests to see things in a more relaxed way. However, this often remains hidden, because one does not deal more deeply with the respective teaching. Instead, one does not even get involved in the topic. If one would do it, one would soon learn that it does not mean that one should fall into lethargy and no longer strive for anything, but simply have the reassuring certainty that everything is half as serious as one would like to believe.


Arrogance is another factor through which philosophical concepts are often rejected. It is nothing new that man believes he already knows everything. Already Epkitet said:

"It is impossible for a person to learn what he thinks he already knows."


Those who succumb to the mistaken belief that they already know everything run the risk of laughing at new things and dismissing them as crazy and abstruse.

Which philosophers were crazy?

Not all philosophers were in their right minds. There are quite historical examples who were either considered crazy and drew philosophical conclusions, or who were actually considered crazy because they drew philosophical conclusions.

For example, there are stories of philosophers who drugged themselves in order to expand their senses and thus set out for new shores of thought. 

Others, however, lost themselves because, while philosophizing, they came to conclusions that made them doubt their identity to such an extent that they lost their minds. An example of a philosopher who just managed to save himself was, for example, David Hume, one of the most important figures in Western philosophy. When he was still a teenager and studying at the University of Edinburgh, he discovered "a new scene of thought" and began a ten-year course of study, the rigors of which brought him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Sensibly, he realized that continuing on this path would prevent him from gaining the insight he desired, and he began an active lifestyle to preserve his sanity.

On the whole, however, I would like to distance myself from the term "crazy" and use "mental illness" or "mental disease" instead.

Here is a list of those philosophers in history who suffered mental illnesses (some demonstrable, some probable):


"You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign that appears to me and that my accuser Melitus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had since I was a child. The sign is a voice that comes to me and always forbids me to do something I want to do, but never orders me to do anything, and that is what prevents me from being a politician."

Socrates, who is generally regarded as the founder of the Western philosophical traditions, was very open about dealing with what today would probably be called a mental illness. He believed that madness, when inspired by the gods, could bestow upon man his greatest blessings. For example, love, poetry, and philosophy itself. He even relied on his "demonic sign," which he described as an independent voice in his head that warned him when he was about to make a mistake. 

Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard, is considered one of the founders of existentialism. He was very critical of the idealistic philosophers of his time. One of his emphases was on life as a single individual, focusing on personal choice and human reality, and he viewed depression as a failure. He was convinced that every depressed person always had "the same or perhaps even a greater possibility of the opposite state." 

This statement is remarkable, considering that Kierkegaard himself and many of his family members suffered from severe depression. One of Kierkegaard's most famous quotes: "My depression is the most faithful lover I have known..."

Kierkegaard's depression had a strong influence on his work. Furthermore, he was considered an eccentric person who probably also suffered from severe social anxiety.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, the first work of modern economics, is considered the founder of capitalism. His life, however, was not all devotion to science. While studying at Oxford, he suffered from bouts of shaking, now considered symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Throughout his life, he was known to talk to himself, suffer from imaginary illnesses, and be chronically absent-minded. One surviving consequence of this, for example, was that he would walk 15 miles outside of town dressed in nothing more than a nightgown.

Friedrich Nietzsche

"And if you look into an abyss for a long time, the abyss will also look into you."

These words of Nietzsche have a certain weight, if one looks at the course of his life. His preoccupation with the death of God and the will to power was long considered to be the cause that drove him to madness. Although the idea of an inquisitive mind destroyed by its own pursuits is alluring, doctors at the time diagnosed him with tertiary syphilis, and he was later diagnosed with manic-depressive illness with periodic psychoses and frontotemporal dementia. 

His last works The Antichrist, Ecce Homo and The Diary/Adult are quite reflective of the progressive illnesses accordingly.

Besides the explanation of the mental decline by syphilis, however, there are also several reasons to believe that his illness may have been a genetic, degenerative brain disease. The young Nietzsche suffered from frequent migraine attacks with auras and was prone to depression. Hemelsoet and Devreese (2008) have speculated that a better diagnosis for Nietzsche would be CADASIL syndrome, which might better explain his slide into dementia and ultimately his psychotic breakdown in Turin.

Michele Foucault 

Foucault was known during his time at the École Normale Supérieure for decorating his room with gruesome paintings of torture and war. Young Michele was prone to auto-aggressive behavior through which he hurt himself. He also once chased a fellow student with a dagger. During an acute depression he even attempted suicide.

It is believed that these experiences probably inspired him to create the Madness and Civilization project.


Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka Monument in Prague

Kafka was prone to depression and suffered from tuberculosis, from which he died quite early. He wrote quite a bit about it in his diaries, and the proximity to death definitely had an influence on his work.

Albert Camus

Reading his personal notebooks suggests that Camus struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression during much of his short life. 

William James

The psychologist and philosopher William James, like his siblings, suffered from various physical and mental illnesses in his youth. His mental illness "neurasthenia" was characterized by several single, severe depressive phases that lasted for months and during which he contemplated suicide. There is also some suggestion that he suffered from bipolar disorder. However, he published throughout his life and died a natural death in his sixties.


Now you know that there are philosophers who could be called "crazy", but the majority do not fall into this category. You also know why they are often perceived as such.

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