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A Discursive Account of Multiple Personality Disorder
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A Discursive Account of Multiple Personality Disorder

Multiple personality disorder poses a number of problems for philosophers. Ideological battles rage over whether the syndrome is real or an artifact of therapy and of selected therapists. These battles tend to spring from a realist and fairly naive philosophy of mind and depend on an empiricist view of the mind and mental contents. Discursive psychology offers a different way of looking at consciousness and the self in which the narrative role of a subject is an important part of the constitution of the self. The narrative constructed is influenced by cultural and interpersonal contexts and reflects the types of self-conception available from them. In this view there is no simple opposition between the real self and the constructed self, and social and personal influences including prevalent conceptions of the mind are in part responsible for both.


discursive psychology, self, social construction, personal identity, multiple personality

In this essay I will use a discursive account of personality psychology to illuminate the puzzling case of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) now classified as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DSM IV) and grouped with the other dissociative states such as fugue, depersonalization, and amnesia. Among this difficult group of diagnoses, MPD is especially notorious because of the philosophical problems it generates and the unbelievable rise in its prevalence in recent years. To examine these problems I will need to give a brief account of discursive psychology as I see it, outline the controversies surrounding MPD, and provide an account of personal identity which yields an understanding of the issues raised by multiple personality.

In addressing this issue I will assume that there is such a phenomenon as MPD (at least in some of the regions represented in recent psychiatric literature). I will assume that when discovered, it is often found to have some connection with a history of child abuse. If we allow ourselves the benefit of these assumptions, MPD is a disorder in which there is evidence of two or more distinct personalities within the same individual; the dominant personality at a given time controls that person’s behavior, and each personality is complex and integrated. Some centers add a requirement that there be amnesiac discontinuities between personalities (Putnam et al. 1986). The condition was first described in France and Germany in the nineteenth century, but in its modern form, it is almost entirely an American production. There has been a virtual epidemic of alleged cases in the U.S. and Holland since 1980, when a survey reported about one hundred cases in total in the U.S. (Ross 1991); at present, such cases number in the thousands.

I do not have the space here to go into the validation of MPD as a diagnosis, and to some extent my analysis will problematize that discussion, [End Page 213] but I do think that the concepts surrounding it are interesting enough to generate a series of philosophical questions. I will not assume that there are as many cases as its advocates claim, nor that “repressed memory syndrome” (Ganaway 1989) is a genuine phenomenon, nor even that MPD is a discrete entity which can always be identified as distinct from other types of dissociation.

A Discursive Approach to Psychology

Discursive psychology takes its name from discourse (Harré and Gillett 1994). Discourse is an interpersonal activity in which individuals are present to each other and learn or negotiate ways of signifying what is around them. They signify objects according to the meanings current in that discourse. In this sense the philosopher of discursive psychology is Wittgenstein (1953), who linked the meanings of words, and therefore the contents of thoughts, to contexts in which people acted on the world and each other. This activity traded in words, which are used to name things according to the way that they figure in the practice concerned. Discursive psychology recognizes that such naming and signifying of things is a cultural production heavily dependent on the situation of the discursive activity.

For instance, imagine that I am sitting in front of a cloud chamber and see a curving path in the chamber. My companion tells me, “That is an...