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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 11.1 (2004) 71-80

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Some Reflections on the (Analytic) Philosophical Approach to Delusion

Louis A. Sass

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

The peculiar, often problematic phenome na of psychopathology have been attract ing the attention of analytic philosophers in recent years. The topic of delusion has been a particular draw, with a number of analytic philosophers attempting to use their conceptual tools, usually combined with ideas from cognitive neuroscience, to criticize the traditional understanding and to clarify the nature of this central psychiatric topic. It is useful to have this kind of interdisciplinary dialogue. Indeed, there is good reason to hope that concepts honed in the philosophy of mind and other philosophical subfields will help to sort out our understanding of a phenomenon (or set of phenomena) for which contemporary psychiatric definitions and conceptualizations are clearly inadequate and, in some respects, downright misleading (see Parnas and Sass 2001; Spitzer 1990).1

Here, however, I would like to call attention to some weaknesses that, it seems to me, are rather common (I do not say universal) in many analytic philosophical approaches to psychopathology. In my opinion, there is a tendency to formulate issues and arguments in overly polarized, even dichotomous terms, and then to rely too uncritically on these essentialistic formulations in exploring the domain of inquiry. Although this polarizing tendency sometimes has the salutary effect of clarifying conceptual domains, it can, when taken too far, actually hamper our understanding of phenomena that are often fraught with ambiguities and complexities that defy many standard conceptualizations.

The relationship between philosophy and psychopathology is obviously a two-way street—we are familiar, for example, with disorders that challenge deep philosophical assumptions about self and mind (e.g., blindsight, split-brain phenomena, perhaps also Dissociative Identity Disorder, and the first rank symptoms of schizophrenia). I am suggesting that, in their work on delusions, philosophers may need to put more emphasis on moving from the natural phenomena [End Page 71] of psychopathology and to the domain of philosophical analysis.

I believe that a greater sensitivity to the modes of knowing associated with the phenomenological tradition, and to the forms of conceptual self-critique fostered by Ludwig Wittgenstein, are crucial ingredients for any adequate approach to delusion as well as many other topics in psychopathology. In my opinion, the work of many analytic philosophers interested in psychopathology would be enriched if they spent more time trying to discover and imagine what it might be like to experience certain kinds of abnormal psychiatric conditions, and also speculating about what implications such experiential modalities might have for action and verbal expression. I believe they would also be wise to spend more time questioning, and attempting to transcend, the philosophically derived conceptual distinctions and dichotomies that appear to organize their conceptual universes. Phenomenological imagination and Wittgensteinian critique can show how to move outside the conceptual capsule and into the rich and strange realms of actual experience, both normal and abnormal.

So far I have offered only slogans. Let me use the articles by Tim Bayne and Elisabeth Pacherie (2004) and Robert Klee (2004) to flesh out the criticisms I have offered. There is much that is intelligent and much that is worthwhile in both their articles. (For example, I was largely convinced by the criticisms of John Campbell and of Donald Davidson that are central to the articles by Bayne and Pacherie and by Klee, respectively.) Here, however, I will focus only on issues that illustrate the above-mentioned tendencies—tendencies that, in my view, tend to infect even the best writings on the (analytic) philosophy of psychiatry. I will also make some remarks about the works of Campbell and Davidson, the two philosophers criticized in the articles by Bayne and Pacherie and by Klee. Because the article by Eugenie Georgaca (2004) is in a different tradition, I will say only a few words about it at the end.

Bayne and Pacherie on the Preservation-Of-meaning...


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