Adderall and philosophical life

The Sunday New York Times front page article on the pervasiveness of Adderall use among wealthy high school students, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill: Taking Stimulants Not for a High, but for a Higher SAT Score” (June 10, 2012), misses the philosophical point. The reporter Alan Schwarz covers the usual suspects–availability, pervasiveness, potentially adverse side effects, rising expectations, and the question of cheating–without inquiring whether any high school student would have a good reason for taking Adderall in the first place.

The nearest to a philosophical point is made by one Philadelphia school spokesman, Douglas Young.

“It’s time for a serious wake-up call,” Mr. Young said. “Straight A’s and high SAT scores look great on paper, but they aren’t reflective measures of a student’s health and well-being.”

The implication is that getting good grades is less important, in the table of values of any human life, than health. The assumption is that health is an ultimate value, perhaps the highest value of modern life. I am afraid that it is not. (Nietzsche convalesced just fine and the other night Neil Young spoke of loving the time of sickness.)

When all is said and done, nothing has been brought into question. Only after one puts into question all the taken-for-granted final aims–success, achievement, ambition, peer recognition, and health–and only after one concludes that none of the above could reasonably count as a final end of radiant life could one come to philosophical life. For Adderall only makes sense as a techne–as a prudential means for a high schooler who wants to achieve the dubious aim, e.g., of getting into Harvard–after one has taken as given the final aim of success. Students bemoaning or lauding their clever fellows, affluent parents bemoaning their children’s surreptitiousness, counselors bemoaning health concerns, and psychologists bemoaning (while profiting from) addiction are all pre-philosophical characters. The proper philosophical attitude toward tedium is apatheia.

I work with conversation partners who have spoken of the horrors of Adderall. Those horrors, however, are not health concerns but aesthetico-ethical claims about a loss of a sense of wonder in the face of mystery, the blanching of aesthetic properties, the fundamental inability to be in touch with the world of others. It is this phenomenological loss of being alive to the sensuous world and to sensuous others that is horrible. Under Adderall, there is no reading aloud Whitman’s Song of Myself with naked limbs and fluttering lungs, no experience of the heights and depths and breadth of the human adventure, no  possibility of the joyous exploration of eros, no cobalt skies or humid hair or cleft-shaped lily pads. When I look closely, I see a diptych: in the first panel, there is the shudder of waste, of cosmic loneliness; in the second, the sober, eternal fecundity of philosophical ecstasy.