Response to Order/Disorder, Kai Syng Tan’s UCL Institute of Advanced Studies Talking Points Seminar

5th December 2017

Title of seminar:

Order/Disorder – The artist-researcher as connector-disrupter-running messenger? 

by Dr Kai Syng Tan

My response:

Thank you very much for inviting me today.

I was pleased when I received this invitation, not only because it meant I can return to the IAS where I spent a year a couple of years ago, but because Kai’s work is hugely important, as well as being relevant to my work in philosophy and psychiatry.

For too long there has been a gap between, on one hand, social and professional understandings of mental health conditions and, on the other, individuals’ own understanding of their experiences and situation. There wasn’t much of a conversation going on, or if there was, it was framed in terms that emphasise disorder and deficit.

For some time, activism in mental health has been trying to change this, by demanding that people are heard on their own terms.

But then how do we bridge this gap, how do we create the possibility for generating shared understandings of the various mental health conditions? Just what do we to do? Well, we do what Kai is doing: inventive projects that bring people together, engage them in creative activities that unsettle some of their assumptions and broaden their  understanding, perhaps even their sense of empathy. For this kind of progress, it is not sufficient to give people information; they need to have an experience, and as I see it, Kai’s work provides both. 


There is a point I would like to make and to have your opinion on: it has to do with the distinction between order and disorder.

I came to this distinction first as a doctor and then as a researcher in philosophy and psychiatry. In philosophy, the concept of mental disorder has been the subject of many search and destroy as well as rescue missions over the past twenty-five years.

The key point of contention was whether or not we can define disorder (or more precisely, dysfunction) in purely factual terms, for instance as the breakdown of the natural functions of psychological mechanisms. The goal in such attempts was to define dysfunction in terms that do not involve value-judgements.

These attempts were not successful: at some point in the process of describing the relevant mechanisms and their functions, value-judgements sneak in.

Now demonstrating the value-ladenness of the concept of disorder does not mean that it suddenly disappears; and it does not mean that the boundary between order and disorder vanishes into thin air. It just means that it has become a much more controversial boundary than previously thought, and the distinctions it involves are difficult ones to make.

My point is that making qualitative distinctions among behaviours and experiences – whether our own or other people’s – is not optional: it is part of how we understand ourselves and understand others as psychological and social beings. 

That being said: even if the distinction between order and disorder – or between whatever terms you wish to use – even if that distinction is inevitable, it is one that we continually ought to attempt to transcend.

 Why should we attempt to overcome it? Because there might be order in what appears to be disorder, and disorder in what appears to be order; because in attempting to transcend this distinction we can grasp what it is that we share with others and not just what sets us apart; and because there’s no telling on which side of that distinction any of us is going to fall one day.

 It is precisely this paradox that we need to be conscious off and work with: the paradox of accepting the inevitability of a distinction while at the very same time seeking to transcend it. And I wonder what you think of this?


The other point I want to make has to do with the relation between our research and the activism that is connected to it. I must admit that in my own work I’ve frequently thought about this but I have not yet arrived at a satisfactory view. The question of course is broader than our area of research and applies to the humanities in general: to what extent should a researcher commit to the social cause they are researching, and what does this mean for the objectivity of what they are producing. What kind of balance do we need to strike here? And have you thought about this in your work?