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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 7.2 (2000) 137-138

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Verbal Games: The Redundancy of "Self" in Psychiatric Talk

Rom Harré

There are some very odd uses of "self" in Heinimaa's catalogue of the lexicon in the article that provides him with his example (Davidson and Strauss 1992). One is struck by the possibility of simply deleting most of them, as they seem to serve no useful purpose semantically. For example, instance A4. The target text runs as follows: "Betty came to believe that there was a self capable of being active and efficacious." The existential phrase is redundant. The whole statement can be rendered as, "Betty came to believe that she was capable of being active and efficacious." There is no being other than Betty, the person, in this scene. Similarly the idea of "Betty possessing a self capable of responsible, self-directed action . . ." sounds as if the poor thing has suffered some kind of "demonic" possession. What is this "self" that she possesses except "herself"? The statement in question simply means "Betty is able to gather confirming evidence that she is capable of responsible, self-directed action. . . ." Thus the concept of "self" (A4) can be written out of the text without loss of sense.

In the analytical part of the paper, the author explores the meaning of the messy "self" terminology of the target article by substituting "person" wherever possible. That works well in general, but his case could be made even stronger. By taking up the redundancy demonstrated in the above examples by the presence of the proper name "Betty" in the texts, any lingering Cartesianism could be neatly excised. For example, ". . . the possibility of possessing a more active sense of self . . ." could be rendered simply as "the possibility of becoming more active. . . ." This paraphrase captures the original sense without any obvious loss of meaning.

In his commentary, Heinimaa suggests that the use of the word self does have a role, suggesting a multiplicity of selves, perhaps. Though he does not make the point, it seems obvious that the picture of one such self working on another is a part of contemporary culture, especially among the young. More subtly he suggests that in concert with the phrase "the sense of self," we are led to the conception or picture of a conflict between a person's true self and his false self. This in turn sets up the case as psychiatric, hinting at the original Bleuler conception of schizophrenia. Thus, Heinimaa concludes that the uses of the word self create "the objects of psychiatry."

While his deconstruction is on the right lines, there is surely more to be said. Eschewing ordinary ways of describing the very same situations [End Page 137] as they have been described by these strange uses of self would delete some of the sense of psychiatry as an esoteric specialty, a technical realm open only to experts. The use of this strange terminology in the target article, and especially the telling remark that the "sense of self" is to be a key theoretical concept of this "science," suggests we are being led down the garden path.

Unfortunately Heinimaa's touch is less certain when he moves to a discussion of person and the first and third persons. There is a considerable literature on comparative studies of pronoun grammars, from which it is clear that I and you are indexicals. They do not serve to "identify each other reciprocally." They serve to index the content and force of an utterance with the spatio-temporal and moral attributes of the person who is speaking. I do not agree that the word person reflects an objectification of the third-person perspective, as if that did not require a sense of the Other as a manager of meanings. Wittgenstein is good on this--the contrast between the wriggling fly and the stone too smooth for the concept of person to take.

In the final section, Heinimaa seems to be right on target again, pointing out that the article by Davidson and Strauss involves two perspectives. In one, a...


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