Szasz On The Myth Of Mental Illness

This semester, in my Landmarks in Philosophy class, I used Thomas Szasz‘s The Myth of Mental Illness as one of the three texts on the reading list (The other two were Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William James’ Pragmatism.) Szasz’s argument that mental illness does not exist, that psychiatry is a pseudo-science was, as might be expected, fairly controversial; critics accused him of overstating his case and of drawing too sharp a boundary between the physical and the mental. Be that as it may, there are many, many acute insights in Szasz’s work; these continue to make reading his work a useful experience for any philosophy student.

Among these insights, in no particular order, are the following:

1. Reducing the mental to the physical comes at a cost of explanatory power. Especially when such reduction is merely offered in the form of a promissory note; many existing behavioral disorders still lack physical correlates in neurophysiology. The languages of the mental and the ethical often offer us richer and more useful explanations for understanding our fellow human beings than the language of the physical; many phenomena of social and ethical interest ‘vanish’ when subjected to the lens of the physical.

2. The so-called ‘mentally ill’ are engaged in a species of communication with us; it behooves us to try to translate their ‘speech.’ This leads to a consideration of a hierarchy of languages and a study of the metalanguage and object language distinction.

3. The category ‘mentally ill’ functions, all too often, as a catch-all category used to lump in socially undesirable behavior; what counts as desirable and undesirable is clearly a function of existing social prejudices.  The infamous DSM criteria often encapsulate such prejudices; unsurprisingly these need to be revised over time to accommodate such inclinations. (Remember that Dostoyevsky’s ‘Underground Man‘ was a ‘sick man.’)

4. A game-playing and rule-following model of human behavior offers us interesting and useful interpretations of social situations and interactions within them. (Wittgenstein’s notion of language as a kind of social game immediately comes to mind here and allows for a fruitful investigation of this claim.)

5. Medicine functions within a social, economic, political, and ethical context; the rights of patients and healers emerge within this context.  We should expect medicine to be practiced differently–with different medical outcomes–in different contexts. From this, a larger point about the social construction of science, scientific practice, and scientific knowledge can be seen to follow; the boundaries of science are very often informed by social and legal considerations. Consider, for instance, the testing of cosmetic products or new drugs on laboratory animals, experimental procedures which stand and fall depending on whether they have received legal sanction from the surrounding legal regime.

6. The autonomy and personality of the patient is a moral good worthy of respect; the practice of medicine and the relationship between the doctor and patient should be cognizant of this. (The notion of ‘informed consent’ in modern bioethics can be seen to be powerfully informed by such a consideration.)

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

The Pleasures of Running, Part Deux

The good folks at WordPress have been nice enough to put one of my recent posts ‘The Oft-Missed Pleasures of Running‘ into their Freshly Pressed selection. This has resulted in an overwhelming number of new readers and some very nice comments. I’d like to able to respond to each one individually, but it is looking extremely unlikely. In lieu of that, let me just offer a collective ‘Thanks very much – your words mean a great deal to me’ and some more thoughts on my running experiences.

One of the reasons I developed what might be described as a ‘deep connection’ with running was that it provided aid and comfort through some difficult times. The summer that I referred to in my post, when I became extremely lean, was one such time. I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek.

For a few weeks, what kept me from going absolutely stark raving bonkers was running. I made sure to run as often as possible, even if, given my generally gloomy disposition, stepping out for a run felt very difficult. I lived on 95th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan, and starting my six-mile loop in Central Park meant running first past Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues till I got to Central Park West. As I would run, I would second-guess myself: Did I really want to do this? It seemed so tedious; my body felt stiff and lethargic; six miles seemed very long and the park very far away. At every light, I would consider turning back.

Then, magically, I was at Central Park West. I would cross the street, run across the lawn, and find myself on the paved road of the loop. At that point, everything faded away. All I had to do was keep running till I came back to this starting point. The simplicity of it all was refreshing; my actions acquired definition. Some fifty minutes or so later, I was done. Reinvigorated, renewed.

My favorite running story from that summer, unsurprisingly, mentions my grim financial state. Finding my waiter wages insufficient, I went looking for work as a bartender. I wrote up my name, address, and phone number on fifty index cards and starting from Soho one afternoon, slowly walked up Broadway (and later, Columbus and Amsterdam), stopping in at bars, inquiring about employment possibilities and handing out my ‘business card’ as I did so. Finally, after walking some one hundred and ten street blocks, I arrived at home, tired, sweaty, my feet just a little sore from all that pavement-pounding. Evening had set in, and the night lay ahead of me. My roommates were not at home, and I had no engagements to occupy me. No dates, no cold-beer-based encounters at bars awaited me. What was I to do, in this bustling city full of strangers?

I laced up my shoes and ran six miles.