Philosophy of Madness

There are many questions that can be asked in the philosophy of mental illness. For example, is mental illness a disease/ illness or is it a culturally determined label?

Thomas Szasz (1961) famously argued that mental illness is simply a deviation from societal norms. According to Szasz, mental illness is a metaphor and not a genuine disease. It is a way of dealing with problematic people in society.

Further, R. P. Bentall (2003) argued that madness is indeed culturally determined. In the case of people who hear voices, for example, we can perceive the phenomenon as pathological, or we can perceive it as a normal human variation. If we perceive the phenomenon as pathological, then people who hear voices are mad or they are diagnosed as schizophrenic. But if we perceive the phenomenon as a normal human variation, then there is no mental illness or disease involved.

In the movie Changeling (2008), Christine Collins was sent to the asylum for challenging the police’s authority. She denied that a particular person was her missing son. It turned out that she was right and that she had been wrongly sent to the asylum on grounds of being mad.

Changeling is based on a true story, which makes us question the use of asylums and mental institutions as a means to handle deviance in society. The story behind Changeling shows that deviance or challenge to authority is not always wrong or mad- we need to be more careful in how we judge others.

So, is mental illness a myth, in the sense that it isn’t a genuine disease? And if so, what does it mean for people who are arrested and brought to the mental institution? Unlike those who willingly admit themselves into the hospital, these people do not consent to being treated as mental patients.

This relates the topic of whether or not it a person who does not accept that he is mad counts as being mad (he is labelled as mad by others, does that make him mad?).

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1 Comment

  1. i suppose a disorder or disease can be characterized by how much distress they cause the person or the people around them, or how much it affects their ability to function normally in society. And i believe this is usually a part of the criteria for diagnosing a mental disorder, or at least a personality disorder. Just as a serious physical disorder or disease might impair one’s ability to take part in many activities that others can participate in, a mental disorder or disease might similarly affect them. Of course, the measure of functioning ‘normally’ is definitely societally/culturally defined, but I don’t think this necessarily makes the disorder or disease a myth. It does, however, show that disorders and diseases cannot really be measured in black and white and are very often defined by an arbitrary marker on a continuum. I would say this is the same for many physical diseases as well where a certain level of something in the blood shows you have this disease, but below that measure, you don’t. Does it really mean that you are completely free of the cancer or virus or whatever disease you might have? No, but there is too little in the blood to measure and little to no effect on your ability to function ‘normally’ in society.

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