The Identity of Psychiatry and the Challenge of Mad Activism: Rethinking the Clinical Encounter

[Introduction to an essay currently in press with the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy]

Psychiatry has an identity in the sense that it is constituted by certain understandings of what it is and what it is for. The key element in this identity is that psychiatry is a medical speciality. During the early years of their training, medical doctors make a choice about the speciality they want to pursue. Psychiatry is one of them, and so is ophthalmology, cardiology, gynaecology, and paediatrics. Modern medical specialities share some fundamental features: they treat conditions, disorders, or diseases; they aspire to be evidence-based in the care and treatments they offer; they are grounded in basic sciences such as physiology, anatomy, histology, and biochemistry; and they employ technology in investigations, research, and development of treatments. These features characterize modern medical specialities even as physicians are increasingly framing their work in ways that take account of the whole person, recognising conflicting values and their implications for diagnosis and treatment, and acknowledging the role of the arts and humanities in medical education and practice (see, for example, Cox, Campbell, and Fulford 2007; Fulford, van Staden, and Crisp 2013; Cook 2010; and McManus 1995).

Psychiatry differentiates itself from other medical specialties by the conditions that it treats: mental health conditions or disorders, to be contrasted with physical health conditions or disorders. The nature of its subject matter, which are disturbances of the mind and their implications, raises certain complexities for psychiatry that, in extreme, are sometimes taken to suggest that psychiatry’s positioning as a medical speciality is suspect; these include the normative nature of psychiatric judgements, the explanatory limitations of psychiatric theories, and the classificatory inaccuracies that beset the discipline.

There are significant, ongoing debates in these three areas that do not, at present, appear to be nearing resolution. But these debates are themselves superseded by a foundational challenge to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality, a challenge that emanates from particular approaches in mental health activism. These approaches, which I will be referring to as Mad activism, reject the language of ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental disorder’, and with it the assumption that people have a condition that requires treatment. The idea that medicine treats conditions, disorders, or diseases is at the heart of medical practice and theory, and this includes psychiatry in so far as it wishes to understand itself as a branch of medicine. In rejecting the premise that people ‘have’ a ‘condition’, Mad activism is issuing a challenge to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.
In this paper I examine how psychiatry might accommodate the challenge of Mad activism in the context of the clinical encounter.

CONTINUE READING HERE

On Irrational Identities

(Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Madness and the Demand for Recognition. OUP, 2018)

In Chapter 7 I raised and examined the distinction between failed and controversial identities. I began by pointing out that every demand for recognition – all gaps in social validation – involves the perception by each side that the other is committing a mistake. Given this, I formulated the question we had to address as follows: how do we sort out those mistakes that can be addressed within the scope of recognition (controversial identities) from those that cannot (failed identities)? The implication was that a failed identity involves a mistake that cannot be corrected by revising the category with which a person identifies, while a controversial identity involves a mistake that can, in principle, be corrected in that way. The issue I am concerned with here is no longer the identity-claim as such but the validity of the collective category itself; the question is no longer ‘what kind of mistake is the person identifying as x implicated in?’ but ‘is x a valid category?’. This question features as an element of adjudication for the reason that some social identities can be irrational in such a way that they cannot be regarded as meriting a positive social or a political response. As Appiah (2005, p. 181) writes:

Insofar as identities can be characterised as having both normative and factual aspects, both can offend against reason: an identity’s basic norms might be in conflict with one another; its constitutive factual claims might be in conflict with the truth.

For example, consider members of the Flat Earth Society if they were to identify as Flat-Earthers and demand recognition of the validity of their identity. They may successfully demonstrate that society’s refusal to recognise them as successful agents incurs on them a range of social harms such as disqualification. Yet it is clear that their identity does not merit further consideration and this for the reason that it is false: Earth is not flat. A similar predicament befalls some Creationists; Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that Earth is about ten thousand years old and was created over a period of six days, a belief that stands against all scientific evidence. It is not unreasonable to suggest that neither the Flat-Earthers nor the Young-Earth Creationists ought to have their identity-claims taken seriously, as the facts that constitute their identities do not measure up to what we know to be true, given the best evidence we now possess. To put it bluntly, whatever else might be at stake between us and the Flat-Earthers or Young-Earth Creationists, the shape of the Earth, its age, and the emergence and development of life on it are not.

Who does ‘us’ refer to in this context? To those who regard scientific rationality as an important value to uphold in society. By scientific rationality I mean an epistemological and methodological framework that prioritises procedural principles of knowledge acquisition (such as empirical observation, atomisation of evidence, and non-metaphysical, non-dogmatic reasoning), and eschews substantive convictions about the world derived from a sacred, divine, or otherwise infallible, authority (see Gellner 1992, p. 80-84). In rejecting the demands of Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists, we are prioritising the value of scientific rationality over the value of an individual’s attachment to a particular identity. We are saying: we know that it matters to you that your view of the world is accepted by us, but to accept it is to undermine what we consider, in this instance, to be a more important value. Note that such a response preserves the value of free-speech – Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are free to espouse their views. Note also that refusing to accord these identities a positive response is a separate issue from taking an active stand against them (an example of the latter would be government intervention to ban the teaching of creationism in schools).[1] What we are trying to determine here is not who should receive a negative response but who is a legitimate candidate for a positive one. Owing to the irrationality of their constituting claims, Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are not.

At this point in the argument someone could object to the premise of assessing the rationality of identities. They could object on two grounds: they could say there is no stance from where we can make such assessments; or they could say that even if such a stance exists and it is possible to determine the rationality of an identity, such a determination is always trumped by the demand for recognition and by individuals’ attachment to their identities. Both positions could further argue that as long as an identity is neither trivial nor morally objectionable, it ought to be considered for a positive response. We can recognise in the first position a commitment to cognitive relativism; in the second position we can recognise an extreme form of liberal tolerance. Both positions are problematic…

[1] For an example of what an active stance would look like in such cases and the problems it raises, see Appiah (2005, pp. 182-189) for an ingenious thought experiment based in the mythical Republic of Cartesia. The regime in Cartesia encourages the creed of hard rationalism and actively seeks to transform any deviations from rationality among its citizens.

Madness & the Demand for Recognition

mandess cover

After four years of (almost) continuous work, I have finally completed my book:

Madness and the Demand for Recognition: A Philosophical Inquiry into Identity and Mental Health Activism.

You can find the book at the Oxford University Press website and at Amazon.com. A preview with the table of contents, foreword, preface, and introduction is here.

Madness is a complex and contested term. Through time and across cultures it has acquired many formulations: for some, madness is synonymous with unreason and violence, for others with creativity and subversion, elsewhere it is associated with spirits and spirituality. Among the different formulations, there is one in particular that has taken hold so deeply and systematically that it has become the default view in many communities around the world: the idea that madness is a disorder of the mind.

Contemporary developments in mental health activism pose a radical challenge to psychiatric and societal understandings of madness. Mad Pride and mad-positive activism reject the language of mental ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’, reclaim the term ‘mad’, and reverse its negative connotations. Activists seek cultural change in the way madness is viewed, and demand recognition of madness as grounds for identity. But can madness constitute such grounds? Is it possible to reconcile delusions, passivity phenomena, and the discontinuity of self often seen in mental health conditions with the requirements for identity formation presupposed by the theory of recognition? How should society respond?

Guided by these questions, this book is the first comprehensive philosophical examination of the claims and demands of Mad activism. Locating itself in the philosophy of psychiatry, Mad studies, and activist literatures, the book develops a rich theoretical framework for understanding, justifying, and responding to Mad activism’s demand for recognition.