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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.4 (2001) 299-301

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Reading Minkowski with Husserl

Bernard Pachoud

Eugene Minkowski is generally regarded as one of the main figures of the phenomenological strand of psychiatry in France. However, it is striking that, as a phenomenologist, he very rarely mentions Husserl or Heidegger in his texts. Nor, for that matter, does he use their concepts or rely on their descriptions (except in a few texts entirely devoted to the presentation of the philosophical roots of phenomenology). Actually, the philosopher he most often refers to, and whose concepts he borrows, is Bergson, who is not a phenomenologist. But although Minkowski's framework is not phenomenological in the philosophical sense of the term, his clinical descriptions are certainly based on a genuinely phenomenological approach—in the sense that they deal with the subjective experience of patients and the way in which their experience determines their behavior. It is all the more striking to notice just how much his descriptions of abnormal experiences echo certain Husserlian studies that he seems to ignore. I will focus on some common points between Minkowski's clinical descriptions and Husserlian studies that Minkowski could not, in fact, have known at the time of writing this article (at least in their complete form, since they were developed after 1923).

The present text, "A Contribution to the Study of Autism: The Interrogative Attitude," is a typical example of Minkowski's clinical descriptions and theoretical interests. The interrogative attitude of the patient Paul C. is considered by Minkowski to be one of the "schizophrenic attitudes," expressing what he calls "loss of contact with reality," a phenomenon held to be characteristic of schizophrenia. These attitudes are quite simply the modalities of schizophrenic "autism" in Bleuler's sense of the latter term. Minkowski (1925) distinguishes the attitudes of withdrawal that have an affective coloring (morbid daydreaming, sulking, and regrets) from those that are purely intellectual (morbid rationalism, the interrogative attitude, the morbid hypertrophy of geometric and static factors). What gives a pathological cast to Paul C.'s systematically interrogative attitude is that it expresses (following Minkowski's clinical description) the patient's inability to engage in action or to establish any practical relationship with reality. This interrogative attitude can be considered a way to take some initiative and thereby avoid complete passivity, but it is a deficient mode of "position taking" since there is no engagement in real action.

This emphasis on disorder of action has a modern sound, for it echoes theoretical hypotheses regarding schizophrenia developed by contemporary neuroscientists (Frith 1992). It also echoes the Husserlian studies of perception, in which the feeling of reality largely depends on the strong connection between perception and voluntary movement (action), kinesthetic sensations playing here a key role (Husserl 1989). There are also some remarkable convergences [End Page 299] with Husserl's studies of the active and passive dimensions of consciousness, to be considered next.

Husserl's Studies of the Activity and Passivity of Consciousness

The main claim of transcendental phenomenology is that our experience completely depends on what Husserl calls the synthetic activity of consciousness. Everything that we become aware of is constituted by the activity of the mind. In texts written between 1918 and 1926 and gathered together under the title, "Analysis of Passive Synthesis," Husserl (1966) distinguishes different degrees of the activity of consciousness, depending on whether or not the ego has the initiative. Mainly, two kinds of activity are described, one depending on the subject (the ego) and requiring his initiative, the other occurring, so to say, in an anonymous, automatic way, elicited by the object, and labeled for this reason "passive synthesis." In other words, when experience relies on synthetic activity, Husserl distinguishes synthetic acts initiated by the ego (the genuine acts) from those that occur in consciousness in an automatic, passive way. Accordingly, the activity of consciousness turns out never to be a pure activity; it always occurs against a background of passivity. Most often, the act is a response to prior stimulation given passively, and it is through this act that the "I" discovers itself as a...


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