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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 7.4 (2000) 317-322

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Ecstasy and Abnormal Happiness:

The Two Main Syndromes Defined by Mayer-Gross

Sir Martin Roth


Before I commence my commentary, I should like to pay tribute to Dr. Sula Wolff's lucid, flowing and vigorous translation of Dr. Willy Mayer-Gross's doctoral thesis (Mayer 1914).

In his thesis, Dr. Mayer-Gross describes, classifies, and analyzes a number of self descriptions set down by several persons of episodes in which they experienced an elation of mood. He compares and contrasts states that he describes as ecstasy and others that he describes as abnormal happiness.

In his analysis of these phenomena, Mayer-Gross draws upon concepts that he formed under the influence of Professor Karl Jaspers under whom he had received his training in psychiatry at Heidelberg University. Karl Jaspers, one of the founders of modern clinical psychiatry, was a man of immense erudition whose contributions to psychiatry and philosophy have become widely known. His approach to psychiatry agreed in many respects with the concepts developed of the human sciences, including psychiatry, by the group of sociologists and philosophers whose teaching was subsumed under the heading of phenomenology.

Explanation or Understanding: The Emergence of Phenomenology

The fundamental concept from which the body of theories advanced by phenomenologists emanates was that understanding (verstehen) was the only valid means of evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of observations in the human sciences. This applied to individuals as well as social groups and populations (Jaspers 1963).

To understand the emergence of phenomenology in psychiatry and its wider diffusion, it has to be set within the context of its historical and scientific origins in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Role of Charles Darwin's Discoveries

After the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) and his identification of natural selection and the survival of the fittest as the main agents that had shaped human evolution, there were revolutionary effects not only in the [End Page 317] world of the biological sciences but also in the natural sciences, the world of religion, and general intellectual life, at the leading centers of civilization.

Controversies were generated regarding the beliefs and practices of all the main religious denominations, and the history of their purported divine origins of their faiths and sacred texts was thrown into doubt. Darwinian concepts invaded the human and social sciences and initiated evolutionary sociology, evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary history, and evolutionary psychology; evolutionary psychiatry was to emerge later.

The Emergence of Phenomenology

An influential group of thinkers and investigators in the human sciences rejected these developments as informed by a conceptual model for the acquisition of knowledge about human thought and behavior that drew upon explanation to account for findings for which they were wholly irrelevant. The encroachment into the human sciences had generated reductionist and deterministic explanations of humans and human societies. They had fostered mechanistic views of human conduct and society that were conceived by their teaching as pre-programmed beyond hope of modification.

Understanding with the aid of empathy was the only valid approach to the acquisition of knowledge of human conduct. The early phenomenologists set out to provide a precise and unbiased description of human thought, perception, emotion, and action.

Explanation (Erklärung) was possibly valid in their view as a mode of interpretation of findings in the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc.) alone. It was not relevant for the evaluation of findings in the human sciences.

The Phenomenology of Karl Jaspers

The leading phenomenologists in the second half of the nineteenth century included Franz Brentano (the teacher of Hüsserl), Max Weber, and also Wilhelm Dilthey, who was one of the teachers of Jaspers. He had a theological background. But Jaspers's own views were highly original and distinctive. His system provided scope for both explanation and understanding in psychiatry. Each provided appropriate methods of investigation and inference in distinct and definable territories of the mental disorders.

In the neuroses and personality disorders, the conditions subsumed had evolved in a continuous manner through the...


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