Spirit Possession, Personhood, & Intentionality: Perspectives for the Philosophy of Mental Health

Summary of an essay I completed recently.

Spirit possession is a common phenomenon around the world in which a non-corporeal agent is involved with a human host. This manifests in a range of maladies or in displacement of the host’s agency and identity. Prompted by engagement with the phenomenon in Africa, this paper draws some connections between spirit possession, and the concepts of personhood and intentionality. It employs these concepts to articulate spirit possession, while also developing the intentional stance as formulated by Daniel Dennett. It argues for an understanding of spirit possession as the spirit stance: an intentional strategy that aims at predicting and explaining behaviour by ascribing to an agent (the spirit) beliefs and desires, but is only deployed once the mental states and activity of the subject (the person) fail specific normative distinctions. Applied to behaviours which are generally taken to signal ‘madness’ or ‘mental illness’, the spirit stance preserves a peculiar form of intentionality where otherwise behaviour would be explained as consequence of a broken physical mechanism. Centuries before the modern disciplines of psychoanalysis and phenomenological-psychopathology endeavoured to restore meaning to ‘madness’, the social institution of spirit possession had been preserving the intentionality of socially deviant behaviour.

Culture, salience, and psychiatric diagnosis: exploring the concept of cultural congruence & its practical application

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Culture, salience, and psychiatric diagnosis: exploring the concept of cultural congruence & its practical application. Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine (Journal)

This article is part of the series: Towards a new psychiatry: Philosophical and ethical issues in classification, diagnosis and care


Cultural congruence is the idea that to the extent a belief or experience is culturally shared it is not to feature in a diagnostic judgement, irrespective of its resemblance to psychiatric pathology. This rests on the argument that since deviation from norms is central to diagnosis, and since what counts as deviation is relative to context, assessing the degree of fit between mental states and cultural norms is crucial. Various problems beset the cultural congruence construct including impoverished definitions of culture as religious, national or ethnic group and of congruence as validation by that group. This article attempts to address these shortcomings to arrive at a cogent construct.

The article distinguishes symbolic from phenomenological conceptions of culture, the latter expanded upon through two sources: Husserl’s phenomenological analysis of background intentionality and neuropsychological literature on salience. It is argued that culture is not limited to symbolic presuppositions and shapes subjects’ experiential dispositions. This conception is deployed to re-examine the meaning of (in)congruence. The main argument is that a significant, since foundational, deviation from culture is not from a value or belief but from culturally-instilled experiential dispositions, in what is salient to an individual in a particular context.

Applying the concept of cultural congruence must not be limited to assessing violations of the symbolic order and must consider alignment with or deviations from culturally-instilled experiential dispositions. By virtue of being foundational to a shared experience of the world, such dispositions are more accurate indicators of potential vulnerability. Notwithstanding problems of access and expertise, clinical practice should aim to accommodate this richer meaning of cultural congruence.