Suicide in Contemporary Western Philosophy I: the 19th century

In Michael Cholbi & Paolo Stellino (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Suicide. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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This chapter explores some of the major developments in the philosophical understanding of suicide in 19th Century Western thought. Two developments in particular are considered. The first is a widespread shift towards thinking about suicide in medical terms rather than moral terms. Deploying methods initiated by a number of French and German thinkers in the preceding century who worked at the then emerging interface between the social and biological sciences, a number of 19th century thinkers ejected what they took to be old metaphysical superstitions about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and replaced them with (allegedly) hard-nosed scientific diagnoses of ‘health’ and ‘sickness’. Dismissing traditional moral arguments against the permissibility of suicide, the phenomenon came to be viewed as a symptom of decline or degeneration. How variations of this view, in biological and social contexts, reorientated practical responses to suicide in terms of treatment rather than moral condemnation is explored. The second 19th century development in philosophical thought with respect to suicide the chapter considers concerns its place in one of the most significant controversies in Germany from 1860 to the turn of the century: the Pessimismusstreit or ‘pessimism dispute’. While philosophical pessimism might be thought to vindicate or even entail suicide, many of the most prominent pessimists—including Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann—denied that this was the case, and perhaps surprisingly took suicide to involve a special kind of moral and/or epistemic failing. The chapter aims to elucidate the different arguments which pessimists appealed to in order to ground this position.

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Patrick Hassan
Cardiff University


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