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  • If Jaspers Played Billiards
  • S. Nassir Ghaemi (bio)

Jaspers, eclecticism, psychiatry

Suppose billiards were played differently: Let us say that each ball is supposed to go into a specific hole, and no other. Player Kraepelin hits only the black ball and claims it should be allowed into every hole; player Freud hits only the white, claiming the same. Player Meyer, seeking to please everyone, argues all balls should be allowed in all holes. (Player Engel, less of a nebbish, divides the balls into three groups, and says one of each group should go into each and every hole.) Player Jaspers, knowing the rules better than the rest owing to his careful study of the history of billiards, takes a different approach: He hits one ball into one hole, another into a second, a third into a third, and so on. Each ball goes in its own hole, and no other.

The audience, watching the scene, clearly understands that Freud and Kraepelin are opposites; Meyer and Jaspers, in contrast, seem to randomly hit the balls into any hole. It takes many games for careful observers to note that Meyer is indeed random, but Jaspers consistently hits the same balls into the same holes.

One member of the audience, Dr MacFarlane, persists in thinking Jaspers inconsistent though. Indeed he puts one section of the General Psychopathology (Jaspers 1913/1997) up against another. So is the case with The Bible—and the collected works of Marx, Freud, Einstein, or any thinker who has lived long and originally enough to justify an "early," "middle," and "late" moniker. We can critique the General Psychopathology, especially, this way: Owing to revisions over decades, the early, middle, and late Jaspers (in the only English translation) are all mixed up. It is not difficult to contrast one Jaspers with the other.

Let us also suppose that the matches are being played in London. There, it is a problem that none of the protagonists (save Engel, who is a bit player) are native English speakers. One member of the audience, Professor Ehrlich, has studied with Jaspers, and thus, besides speaking his native German, is familiar with Jaspers' turns of phrase. So, as Jaspers explains what he is doing, trying to describe how he is hitting specific balls into specific holes, the English-speaking audience fails to understand him. Ehrlich sees how this misunderstanding is very basic: It has to do with language.

A third audience member, Dr Owen, likes Jaspers, and senses something special about him, and even understands much of what Jaspers is saying. But he does not like what he hears (or fails to hear). Jaspers says: "This is billiards. Each ball belongs in its own hole." Owen wants to hear a philosophy that explains why this is the case. Why does one ball belong in a certain hole, and not another. What is the nature of ballness; or holeness? And why are we playing billiards anyway?

I thank my commentators for their real, but gentle, criticisms. This analogy hopefully clarifies [End Page 79] concretely what I take to be valid in their comments as well as some of my reactions.

It is possible to take excerpts of Jaspers (as Dr MacFarlane does) to suggest that vague eclecticism which, indeed, I oppose; yet, nonetheless, the entire bent of Jaspers' work goes in another direction. I call it "pluralism," using a term Jaspers' himself did not use (despite his familiarity with the writings of the person—William James—who coined it [James 1977]). "Eclecticism" is what I call the ideas of Meyer and the proponents of the biopsychosocial model (a term many use proudly, and which I seek to make suspect, if not odious; Meyer 1948). The two—pluralism and eclecticism—are easily confused though, so let me seek to clarify.

For eclecticism, any theory is potentially correct but no theory definitely so; pluralism maintains that only one theory is correct, but it is not the same one for all parts of psychiatry. Eclecticism claims that all methods should be used together; more is better. Pluralism uses methods purely and, if needed, they are to be combined sequentially, rather than simultaneously; less is more. Eclecticism contends that...


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