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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.4 (2001) 295-298

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A Dialectical Conception of Autism

Giovanni Stanghellini

Some Reasons for the Philosophical Turn in the Psychopathology of Schizophrenia

There are many ways to become a schizphrenic. Each individual has her own schizophrenia, coherent with her life history, her problems and alternatives deriving from them (Binswanger 1960). What clinical psychiatry calls "schizophrenia" is not a unitary illness but a common final state—a "syndrome" in the etymological sense, that is, a condition to which different psychopathological pathways may lead. Schizophrenic symptoms, like Schneiderian first-rank symptoms (delusions, hallucinations, experiences of passivity), are nothing but a rather uniform type of reaction. First-rank Schneiderian symptoms may be interpreted as attempts to explain disturbing basic experiences of change in self, body, and world perception (Klosterkoetter 1988) or as the epiphenomena of complex interactions between sensory disorders (aberrations in the perception of self, body, and world), conceptualisation disorders (impairments in the constitution of meanings and intentions), and attitudinal disorders (eccentric structure of values and beliefs) (Stanghellini 2000a). Since the schizophrenic syndrome, as defined by current diagnostic manuals, lacks any authentic core phenomena, and so-called schizophrenic symptoms are not specific (Berner and Kufferle 1982), the clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia finally becomes a diagnosis by exclusion (Maj 1998). This conceptual weakness is obviously unacceptable (not only for old dissenters from operational diagnostic criteria) and is kindling a velvet revolution in nosological studies and a renaissance of philosophically oriented psychopathological research (Parnas and Zahavi 2000).

The Loss of Vital Contact with Reality

Eugène Minkowski was a forerunner in the field of philosophical psychopathology: "The psychiatrist and the metaphysician become one in their common research concerning what is human and human experience" (Minkowski 1947). Indeed, his doctoral thesis on autism (Minkowski 1926) was dedicated to his teachers, the psychiatrist E. Bleuler and the philosopher H. Bergson, and his conceptualisation of autism is an ideal example of the link between philosophical perspectives and psychopathological research. The term "autism" was introduced by Bleuler (1911) to describe detachment from outer reality and immersion in inner life. Bleuler's concept of autism relied on Freud's (1905) notion of autoerotism and on associationistic psychology. According to Bleuler, autism was a consequence of the [End Page 295] splitting of psychic functions: a defense mechanism serving to avoid conflicts between desires and reality testing, promoting the shift to inner fantasy life and entailing social withdrawal, emotional indifference, inappropriate behaviors, and idiosyncratic values and beliefs.

Minkowski, who was influenced by Bergson and phenomenology, departed from Bleuler's conceptualisation and defined autism as "loss of vital contact with reality" (Minkowski 1926, 1927). For Minkowski, autism is not a symptom, but a global phenomenon investing the whole person. Autism is a way of being whose essential feature is a pragmatic deficit: Autistic activity consists in the reduced capacity to interact with the external world. Autistic thought is characterized by its lack of communicative action. The pragmatic deviance of autistic language is a good example: The autistic person is not interested in communicating her inner world to the others; language is not a means of communication which serves mutual understanding, a cooperative process whose aim is interlacing one's own world with that of others. The autistic person's use of language is much like a soliloquy, the monologue of the solitary thinker more focused on ex-pression—the outward portrayal of immanent contents of consciousness—than on dialogue—the exchange of meanings between speaker and listener. Moreover, each meaning is presented in its manifold profiles or adumbrations and the task of selecting the context-relevant meaning is left to the listener.

The pragmatic weakening of the autistic person, according to Minkowski, is not simply a social or occupational dysfunction (APA 1994), that is, a renunciation or refusal to act according to social expectations and standards. It involves the loss of vital contact with reality. The meaning Minkowski attributes to the term "vital" is essential for understanding his philosophical approach to defining the schizophrenic condition. Minkowski assumes that contact with reality is vital when it is established through action (and language...


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