Even though psychiatry is a medical speciality, it is a special medical speciality. This arises from its subject matter, ordinarily conceived of as mental health conditions or disorders, to be contrasted with physical health conditions or disorders. Psychiatry deals with the mind not working as it should while ophthalmology, for example, deals with the ophthalmic system not working as it should. The nature of its subject matter 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. In this post, I examine these complexities, asking whether or not they are fatal to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.

Normative Complexity

When doctors refer to an organ or system not working as it should they do not intend this judgement in a moralistic sense; what they mean is that the organ or system is not functioning in the way they expect it to given the purpose for which it was designed, or that it is not functioning as it does for the majority of people in an appropriately defined population, or that its anatomy or histology is grossly distorted. These three naturalistic takes on dysfunction (which are not the only possible ones) correspond, respectively, to evolutionary theory, bio-statistical theory, and lesion theory. There is now a huge literature both in the philosophy of medicine and the philosophy of psychiatry on the concept of dysfunction and on the possibility of defining it in value-free terms (e.g. Boorse 2011; Bolton 2008, 2013a; Varga 2015; Kingma 2013). A key intuition driving this debate seems to be that if we cannot define dysfunction in value-free terms then it becomes harder to distinguish proper clinical judgement from the moralistic interjections of zealous clinicians. The debate continues and I will not venture into it, partly because it is not directly the subject of this post, and partly for the reason that in many cases that distinction does not really matter: clinical judgement and moralistic judgement collapse into each other when all parties are (broadly) in agreement that something is not working as it should, and that that thing is an appropriate target for medical intervention; i.e. there are known treatments and a known prognosis; it is a condition that doctors treat as opposed to, say, a spiritual malady. When disagreements arise, clinical and moralistic judgements come apart and clinical intervention is problematised. Note that from the perspective of the patient, the doctor’s alleged moralistic judgement can go both ways: the doctor can judge that you have an organ or a system that is not functioning as it should, whereas you think that it is; conversely, the doctor can judge that the organ or system is functioning as it should, whereas you think that it is not. In the former case you reject medical diagnosis and intervention, and in the latter case you seek them but they are denied. In addition, there is a variant of the first possibility where someone else – perhaps a relative – deems that something about you is not working as it should, a judgement with which the doctor agrees but which you reject.

As doctors and patients know, these possibilities for disagreement are not uncommon in medical practice. For example, you experience pain in your acromio-clavicular joints when you exercise; you visit an orthopaedic doctor who tells you that this is consistent with age: “there’s nothing wrong with you”, the doctor says, an explanation that you refuse to accept. Conversely, the doctor examines you and prescribes anti-hypertensive medication which you refuse to take as you feel well and do not believe that you have problems with your blood pressure. In psychiatry, discrepancies in judgements of this sort are more intractable, more common, and, given the power that psychiatrists have to detain individuals, more serious in their implications. This intractability arises from the fact that psychiatry deals with the mind not working as it should. The normative judgements involved in such a determination are more complex than those involved in determining, say, whether or not the ophthalmic system is working as it should. This complexity, in turn, creates considerable possibilities for disagreement. This is to be expected: belief, reasoning, emotion, and perception – to name a few faculties of mind – permit a wide range of evaluations and demonstrate a high degree of “observer-relativity” (Bolton and Hill 2004, p. 99; see also Bolton and Banner 2012, p. 83). To agree on what it is to have true belief, valid reasoning, appropriate emotion, and veridical perception is more complicated than it is to agree on what it is to have good visual acuity, even after we account for the fact that for a fighter pilot a 0.1 drop in vision is life-changing, whereas for a drummer it is not.

Negotiating the intractable disagreements that arise in psychiatric practice means that psychiatry, like – but more than – other medical specialities, has to be aware of differences in values among the various stakeholders, and of the cultural beliefs that constitute the profession itself as well as those that persons bring to the consultation. Given the magnitude of these challenges, it is not surprising that theoretical and now also practical endeavours have taken psychiatry as the paradigm case of the complexity of the clinical encounter and therefore also as the target for developing and testing solutions that can benefit clinical practice irrespective of specialty.[1] Far from undermining the identity of psychiatry as a medical speciality, the normative complexity inherent in psychiatry demonstrates that it shares the same problems other specialities have to deal with, only in psychiatry these problems are more common and challenging.

Explanatory Complexity

The subject matter of psychiatry is the ‘mind not working as it should’. As a medical speciality, psychiatry aims to relate the various failures of mind to underpinning biological substrates in the brain. One position in this respect is to reduce those failures to specific brain dysfunctions. Mental disorders, on this view, are nothing but brain disorders; as some authors have put it, “there are only brain disorders that psychiatrists prefer to treat and other brain disorders that neurologists (and neurosurgeons) prefer to treat” (Baker and Menken 2001). Biological reductionism goes back a long way; historians of medicine identify a shift to purely somatic explanations of ‘madness’ towards the end of the 19th century in Europe (e.g. Scull 1975), a shift that persists among some practitioners and researchers. Yet it is fair to say that biological reductionism is not a popular view today, with many practitioners and researchers adopting a multifactorial, non-reductionist view of causation of mental disorders, the well-known biopsychosocial model.

Non-reductionist views are held even by those who wish to end the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders in favour of the latter. White and colleagues, for example, make a number of arguments in this regard, one of which is the empirical point that psychosocial factors “interact strongly” with neurological disorders, while “disorders of the mind are rooted in dysfunction of the brain” (White et al. 2012: 1). Their point is that psychological, social, and biological causal and risk factors run across all medical conditions, whether mental or physical. If so, then there might not be much sense insisting on the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders, especially, they argue, in light of recent advances pertaining to the neurological and genetic bases of mental disorders. Part of the authors’ motivation in advancing this proposal is to foreground psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality. This, they point out, can improve recruitment into the profession, for if psychiatry is more explicitly aligned with neurology it may become more attractive to medical students. On the other hand, a more medicalised psychiatry would be able to define more clearly its distinctive contribution to mental health care relative to allied professions such as clinical psychology and mental health social work. Standing in contrast to White and colleagues’ proposal is a position paper by Bracken and colleagues that advances a similarly non-reductionist position but rejects the suggested equivalence between psychiatry and neurology: “psychiatry is not neurology; it is not a medicine of the brain. Although mental health problems undoubtedly have a biological dimension, in their very nature they reach beyond the brain to involve social, cultural  and psychological dimensions” (Bracken et al. 2012: 432).

There is no doubt that both mental and physical health conditions demonstrate “multifactorial pathways”, nevertheless psychosocial factors appear to be more prominent in mental disorders across a range of dimensions (Bolton 2013b: 25). To the extent that this is the case, psychiatry differs from many other medical specialties in that it “has particular expertise in the management of psychosocial factors as well as internal biological factors” (ibid.). One could take this observation to support the view that we should not collapse the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders. Or one could decide that the terms of the debate are out of keeping with developments in the new mental health sciences. These “new sciences do not work with ideological battles between the biological, the psychological, and the social … rather they work with all of these factors and the diversity of interplay between them” (ibid.). There is much work to be done, both empirical and conceptual, to understand how the different social, psychological, and biological factors interact in specific conditions. However – and this is key – that work applies to physical health as well as mental health conditions (see, for example, Hernandez and Blazer 2006, and Bolton in press). Even though psychiatry, relative to other medical specialities, is more heavily involved in the psychosocial dimensions of the conditions of interest, the model of causation, risk, prevention, and treatment that applies in psychiatry, as it does across all of medicine, is biopsychosocial.

Classificatory Complexity

In the foregoing, the notion of the mind not working as it should was explicated in terms of the various faculties of mind. The issue, therefore, is that a particular faculty – belief, emotion, perception, reasoning, will – is not working as it should. These faculties are interrelated, and from its inception psychiatry sought to recognise patterns of symptoms and signs and to construct diagnostic categories on that basis. So a particular condition, say schizophrenia, comprises dysfunctions in multiple faculties of mind; e.g. paranoid delusions (belief), blunted affect (emotion), ambivalence (will), and auditory hallucinations (perception). It is now accepted that psychiatry’s classifications of its subject matter into discrete conditions is much more controversial than, say, ophthalmology’s classifications. Often this is expressed by saying that psychiatric categories lack validity, which in turn is often taken to mean that they do not “map onto any entity discernible in the real world” (Kinderman et al. 2013: 2). We can refer to this position as medical realism, the view that the validity of disease categories rests on the extent to which they “represent features of the underlying structure of the world” (Simon 2011: 66). In order to do so, the categories in question, typically, need to satisfy two conditions: (1) the category has to be separated from related categories by a “zone of rarity”; (2) the category has to be “associated with explanatory variables of deeper structural significance” such as “causal factors [and] pathogenetic mechanisms” (Jablensky 2016: 27; see also Kendell and Jablensky 2003). Accordingly, in light of a medical realist view, a valid disease entity is a ‘natural kind’.[2]

With a few notable exceptions such as the dementias and conditions such as Huntington’s Chorea, it is questionable whether current psychiatric categories can satisfy the two aforementioned requirements. Consider, first, the requirement for a zone of rarity surrounding the condition. In clinical medicine, a zone of rarity can be established on two grounds: clinical state and biomarkers. Clinical state refers to the symptoms and signs established during a clinical examination and by which the patient is determined to have a condition that is discontinuous with the ordinary functioning of the organ or system in question. For example, myocardial infarction is separated by a zone of rarity on the basis of clinical state: the experience of chest pain is qualitatively different from a healthy heart. On the other hand, a biomarker refers to a biological “characteristic that is objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or pharmacologic responses to a therapeutic intervention”.[3] In accordance with this definition, myocardial infarction is associated with a host of biomarkers such as Troponin and Creatine Kinase that, together with clinical state and other investigations, establish a zone of rarity surrounding the condition. Biomarkers can play  a key role in diagnosis, prognosis, and classification.

Moving on to psychiatry, there is now ample literature that casts doubt on the ability of current psychiatric classifications to establish a zone of rarity surrounding their putative conditions. In the philosophy of psychiatry literature, the assumption that psychiatric categories are natural kinds has long been questioned (e.g. Zachar 2015, 2000; Haslam 2002; cf. Cooper 2013). On the basis of clinical state, it has proven difficult to draw categorical distinctions between one disorder and another, and between disorder and its absence. Symptoms of schizophrenia and symptoms of bipolar disorder overlap, necessitating awkward constructions such as schizoaffective disorder or mania with psychotic symptoms. And the boundary between clinical depression and intense grief has been critiqued as indeterminate, with the distinction between the two made on the seemingly arbitrary specification of the number of weeks during which a person can feel low before a diagnosis is made (see Horwitz and Wakefield 2007).[4] And things are not better on the biomarker front; despite vigorous research, limited progress has been made in identifying biomarkers of clinical relevance, whether diagnostic, prognostic, or predictive (see Venkatasubramanian and Keshavan 2016; Kobeissy et al. 2013; Rose and Singh 2009). All of this indicates that there are difficulties in establishing a zone of rarity around key psychiatric categories.

Moving on to the second requirement identified earlier for a condition to constitute a natural kind – the requirement that the category is associated with distinctive aetiological and pathogenetic mechanisms – we find similar problems. Even though some progress has been made towards understanding the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, our understanding of the aetiology of these conditions remains at best provisional, with a multitude of non-specific factors interacting in complex ways over a long period of time. For example, research on molecular genetics – which has seen significant advancement in recent years with the use of whole-genome studies and large samples – has only been able to identify genetic commonalities that stretch across multiple psychiatric categories (see Jablensky 2016).

In summary, the majority of psychiatric conditions cannot properly meet the requirements for a medical realist view. Some critics of psychiatry take this conclusion to imply that psychiatric categories lack validity (e.g. Kinderman et al. 2013, Timimi 2014, all the way back to Szasz 1960). But all the critics can really assert is that current psychiatric categories do not meet the requirements for medical realism about disorder: they are not natural kinds. And that is not a problem for the identity of psychiatry as a medical speciality for three reasons: (1) Defenders of a medical realist view of psychiatric categories can simply point out that more work needs to be done to refine the existing categories and to improve the science and the research on biomarkers, aetiology, and pathogenesis.[5] (2) Alternatively, one could respond to the aforementioned critics by pointing out that there are many medical conditions that do not fully meet the requirements for medical realism yet are regarded as valid conditions that merit clinical attention and treatment. For example, the condition known as essential hypertension is not separated from normotension by a zone of rarity but is continuous with it, and neither is its causation entirely understood, hence its classification as ‘essential’ (or primary or idiopathic). Rheumatoid arthritis, while satisfying the zone of rarity requirement, is an autoimmune disorder whose aetiology is not understood. And some types of anaemia, while satisfying the aetiology requirement, are continuous with normal red blood cell size and number. (3) Finally, one could point out to the critics that medical realism is not the only option in medical ontology, another option being medical anti-realism.

Medical anti-realists reject the view that the diseases “we identify are either part of, or given to us by, the underlying structure of the world” (Simon 2011: 84). In contrast to medical realists, anti-realists do not accept the assumption of a mind-independent world that gives us our disease categories, rather such categories are pragmatic constructions driven by a range of criteria and stakeholders (see Simon 2011: 89-92).[6] Among the criteria that enter into recognising a set of symptoms and signs as a disease category are the ability of the category to give useful information on prognosis, to enable doctors to affect the course of the patient’s condition, to explain the patient’s prior condition, and to be therapeutically modifiable. Other criteria can be of a utilitarian and economic nature whereby disease categories are recognised if doing so would benefit society as a whole, or would be economically productive or viable. For example, the cut-off point for treating essential hypertension has to achieve a balance between expected treatment benefit (by reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease) and the economic considerations of offering this treatment in a national health system.

The aforementioned criteria are emphasised differently by the different stakeholders. Doctors, researchers, governments, pharmaceutical companies, and patient groups each have their own interests and varying abilities to influence the construction of disease categories. This creates the possibility for disagreement over the legitimacy of certain conditions, something we can see playing out in the ongoing debates surrounding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a condition that “receives much more attention from its sufferers and their supporters than from the medical community” (Simon 2011: 91). And, in psychiatry, it has long been noted that some major pharmaceutical companies influence the construction of disorder in order to create a market for the psychotropic drugs they manufacture. From the perspective of medical anti-realism (in the constructivist form presented here), these influences are no longer seen as a hindrance to the supposedly objective, ‘natural kind’ status of disease categories, but as key factors involved in their construction. Thus, the lobbying power of the American Psychiatric Association, the vested interests of pharmaceutical companies, and the desire of psychiatrists as a group to maintain their prestige do not undermine the identity of psychiatry as a medical specialty; what they do is highlight the importance of emphasising the interests of patient groups as well as utilitarian and economic criteria to counteract and respond to the other interests. Medical constructivism is not a uniquely psychiatric ontology, it is a medicine-wide ontology; it applies to schizophrenia as it does to hypertension, appendicitis, and heart disease. Owing to the normative complexity of psychiatry (outlined earlier) and to the fact that loss of freedom is often involved in psychiatric practice, the vested interests involved in psychiatry are more complex and harder to resolve than in many other medical specialties. But that in itself is not a hindrance to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.


We can see that on the normative, explanatory, and classificatory fronts, there is much that psychiatry can concede to its critics and still be able to able to maintain its identity as a medical speciality. It can concede the normative complexity of the psychiatric encounter while pointing out that this is a more challenging instance of the normative complexity of the general clinical encounter: values-based practice (alongside evidence-based practice) applies to all medical specialities. It can concede that it is more heavily invested in the psychosocial dimensions of the conditions of interest but that, like all medical specialities, it works within a biopsychosocial framework: the causality of all disorders is complex, across multiple levels. It can concede that a range of vested interests influences the construction of its disease categories, while pointing out that this is merely a more involved example of what occurs in all medical specialities.


Baker, M., and Menken, M. 2001. Time to Abandon the Term Mental Illness. BMJ 322: 937.

Biomarkers Definition Working Group. 2001. Biomarkers and Surrogate Endpoints: Preferred Definition and Conceptual Framework. Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics 69(3): 89-95.

Boorse, C. 2011. Concepts of Health and Disease. In Philosophy of Medicine (pp. ­13-64), F. Gifford (ed). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Bolton, D. 2008. What is Mental Disorder? An Essay in Philosophy, Science and Values. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolton, D. 2013a. What is Mental Illness. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 434-450), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolton, D. 2013b. Should Mental Disorder be Regarded as Brain Disorders? 21st Century Mental Health Sciences and Implications for Research and Training. World Psychiatry 12(1): 24-25.

Bolton, D. FORTHCOMING. The Biopsychosocial Model. Palgrave.

Bolton, D., and J. Hill. 2004. Mind, Meaning and Mental Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolton, D., and N. Banner. 2012. Does Mental Disorder Involve Loss of Personal Autonomy? In Autonomy and Mental Disorder (pp. 77-99), L. Radoilska (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bracken, P., Thomas, P., Timimi, S., Asen, E., Behr, G., Beuster, C., Bhunnoo, S., Browne, I., Chhina, N., Double, D., Downer, S., Evans, C., Fernando, S., Garland, M., Hopkins, W., Huw, R., Johnson, B., Martindale, B., Middleton, H., Moldavsky, D., Moncrieff, J., Mullins, S., Nelki, J., Pizzo, M., Rodger, J., Smyth, M., Summerfield, D., Wallace, J., and Yeomans, D. 2012. Psychiatry Beyond the Current Paradigm. British Journal of Psychiatry 201: 430-434.

Cooper, R. 2013. Natural Kinds. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 950-965), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fulford, K., van Staden, C. W., and Crisp, R. 2013. Values-based practice: Topsy-turvy take-home messages from ordinary language philosophy (and a few next steps). In The Oxford handbook of philosophy and psychiatry (pp. 385-412), K. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ghaemi, N. 2016. Utility without Validity is Useless. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 15(1): 35-37.

Haslam, N. 2002. Kinds of Kinds: A Conceptual Taxonomy of Psychiatric Categories. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 9, 203-217

Hernandez, L., and Blazer, D. 2006. Genes, Behaviour, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate. Washington, D.C.: The National Academics Press.

Horwitz, A., and Wakefield, J. 2007. The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jablensky, A. 2016. Psychiatric Classifications: Validity and Utility. World Psychiatry 15(1): 26-31.

Kendell, R., and Jablensky, A. 2003. Distinguishing Between the Validity and Utility of Psychiatric Diagnoses. American Journal of Psychiatry 160(1): 4-12. ­

Keil, G., Keuck, L., and Hauswald, R. 2017. Vagueness in Psychiatry: An Overview. In Vagueness in Psychiatry. G. Keil, L. Keuck, and R. Hauswald (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kinderman, P., Read, J., Moncrieff, J., and Bentall, R. 2013. Drop the Language of Disorder. Evidence Based Mental Health 16: 2-3.

Kingma, E. 2013. Naturalist Accounts of Mental Disorder. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 363-384), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kobeissy, F., Alawieh, A., Mondello, S., Boustany, R., and Gold, M. 2013. Biomarkers in Psychiatry: How Close Are We? Frontiers in Psychiatry 3(114): 1-2.

Rose, N., and Singh, I. 2009. Biomarkers in Psychiatry. Nature 460: 202-207.

Scull, A. 1975. From Madness to Mental Illness: Medical Men as Moral Entrepreneurs. European Journal of Sociology 16: 219-261.

Simon, J. 2011. Medical Ontology. In Philosophy of Medicine (pp. ­65-114), F. Gifford (ed). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Szasz, T. 1960. The Myth of Mental Illness. American Psychologist 15: 113-118.

Timimi, S. 2014. No More Psychiatric Labels: Why Formal Psychiatric Diagnostic Systems Should be Abolished. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology 14: 208-215.

Varga, S. 2015. Naturalism, Interpretation, and Mental Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Venkatasubramanian, G., and Keshavan, M. 2016. Biomarkers in Psychiatry – A Critique. Annals of Neurosciences 23(1): 3-5.

White, P. D., Rickards, H., and Zeman, A. 2012. Time to End the Distinction Between Mental and Neurological Illnesses. BMJ 344: e3454.

Zachar, P. 2000. Psychiatric Disorders Are Not Natural Kinds. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 7: 167-182.

Zachar, P. 2015. Psychiatric Disorders: Natural Kinds Made by the World or Practical Kinds Made by Us? World Psychiatry 14(3), 288-290.


[1] Values-based practice is one such solution (see Fulford and Van Staden 2013).

[2] A ‘natural kind’ is a philosophical concept which refers to entities that exist in nature and are categorically distinct from each other. The observable features of a natural kind arise from its internal structure which is also the condition for membership of the kind. For example, any compound that has two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen is water, irrespective of its observable features (which in the case of H2O can be ice, liquid, or gas).

[3] Biomarkers Definition Working Group (2001: 91).

[4] Indeterminacies of this kind have been discussed recently under the concept of ‘vagueness’; the notion that psychiatric classifications are imprecise with no sharp distinctions possible between those phenomena to which they apply and those to which they do not (Keil, Keuck, and Hauswald 2017). One possible implication of vagueness is a gradualist approach to mental health. For example, Sullivan-Bissett and colleagues (2017) argue that delusional and non-delusional beliefs differ in degree, not kind, a point that can also apply to the distinction between clinical depression and intense grief.

[5] An example of such attempts at refinement is the framework of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). See also Ghaemi (2016) and Bingham and Rashed (2014).

[6] As can be seen, the realist/anti-realist debate taps into fundamental issues in epistemology concerning our conception of truth. In the text I am not so much concerned with the status of that debate but simply with pointing out that there are alternatives to medical realism.


More Things in Heaven and Earth


For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).

The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:

The Dakhla Diaries (1) : Fast to Charing-X, Slow to Hell

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Old Mut, Dakhla

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (I)

And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot


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?

Beyond Dysfunction: Distress & the Distinction Between Social Deviance & Mental Disorder

Over the course of last year I have been working on a small project with Rachel Bingham examining the possibility of distinguishing ‘social deviance’ from ‘mental disorder’ in light of recent work on concepts of health. The result was an essay published recently in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology (21:3-September 2014).

Johanna Moncrieff and Dan Stein wrote commentaries on our essay to which we responded in a short piece published in the same issue with the original essay.

In our response to Moncrieff and Stein we found it necessary to point out that in the writings of some critical psychiatrists and psychologists there is a problematic conflation of empirical with conceptual issues in relation to ‘mental disorder’. That section is reproduced below. Note that Criterion E is the final clause in the DSM definition of mental disorder. It states that a mental disorder must not solely be a result of social deviance or conflicts with society.

Mental Disorder: Separating Empirical From Conceptual Considerations

Let us begin by revisiting the conceptual basis of attributions of mental disorder. Criterion E is not, as we argued with Stein et al. (2010, 1765), conceptually necessary, but is of ethical and political importance given the historical context. Thus, notwithstanding the other criteria, a condition can only be considered for candidacy for mental disorder if “dysfunction” is present. What is a dysfunction? As Moncrieff puts it, there is a tautology in the definition of mental disorder where it is stated that a mental disorder reflects an “underlying psychobiological dysfunction” (Moncreiff 2014). Moncrieff argues that this is flawed because underlying processes have not been established, which renders the definition tantamount to saying that a dysfunction is a reflection of a dysfunction: a definition that adds nothing to our knowledge.

Here Moncrieff follows Thomas Szasz in finding a lack of resemblance to physical disorder to be the primary problem with the concept of mental disorder (see Fulford et al. 2013).1 In pursuing this, the critical psychiatrist not only fails to see the complexity of the concept of physical disorder, but also commits the same error as the biological psychiatrist. The latter implies that an ever longer awaited complete neurochemistry of mental health conditions would solve the conceptual problems. The former—the critical psychiatrist—implies the converse; that the absence of proof for the “existence of separate and distinct foundational processes,” as Moncrieff (2014) puts it, proves that mental health conditions are not disorders. As we have argued elsewhere, identifying the biological basis for a set of behaviors or symptoms does not in itself pick out what is pathological or disordered: for example, a complete description of the neurochemical states governing sexuality would not permit the inference that homosexuality is a disorder, any more than discovery of the neural correlates of falling in love or criminality would make these mental illnesses (Bingham and Banner 2012). Neurobiological changes—their presence or their absence—tells us about conditions when we find them by other means, but it does not tell us what is or is not a disorder. The same arguments could be run for underlying psychological processes. Consequently, emphasis on scientific progress or failure to progress in understanding the neurobiological correlates of mental health conditions does little to advance the conceptual debates, a point that may help to explain the impasse in the ongoing exchange between critical and biological psychiatrists.

Thus, although Moncrieff is right in pointing out that the term ‘dysfunction’ is redundant in the definition of mental disorder, she is wrong about the reason why this is so. It is not, as she claims, due to the point that no “separate and distinct foundational processes” (2014) that can ground dysfunction have been discovered empirically. After all, this leaves her open to the simple response that they actually have been, a response many biological psychiatrists do offer. The redundancy of the term ‘dysfunction’ in the definition of mental disorder is a result of conceptual analysis (and not empirical evidence), whereby it has not proven possible to define dysfunction in a way that excludes values. Here, we follow Derek Bolton in the view that once we “give up trying to conceptually locate a natural fact of the matter [dysfunction] that underlies illness attribution… then we are left trying to make the whole story run on the basis of something like ‘distress and impairment of functioning’” (2010, 332). We are left then with those things that matter in real life, the reasons that lead to healthcare being sought: usually the presence of significant distress and disability.

This is what the terms ‘dysfunction’ and ‘mental disorder’ pick out once we achieve some clarity on their referents. Stein is clearly aware of the problems inherent in defining dysfunction. However, somewhat surprisingly, the assumption that we can talk of ‘dysfunction’ over and above experienced factors (distress and disability in particular) arises through Stein’s commentary. In other words, although Stein has acknowledged the conceptual problem, in places he still writes as if there were a clear definition of dysfunction, without telling us what this would be. For example, he describes “situations when there is evidence of dysfunction, but an absence of distress and/or impairment” and gives the example of tic disorders which have no “clinical criterion (emphasizing distress and/or impairment)” (Stein 2014). We would argue that, despite the lack of explicit acknowledgement in DSM, tic disorders enter the manual because of their association with clinically significant distress and disability. It is important to avoid confusing the empirical questions (e.g., Why do people have tics? Can people have tics and not be distressed?) with the conceptual questions (e.g., When is a tic a disorder? Can tics be disorders if they do not cause distress or impairment?).

A further potential pitfall is to conflate the technical use of ‘dysfunction’ with the ordinary use of that term. This might occur where, on the one hand, we perceive a ‘dysfunction’ but on the other hand we are unable to say what the dysfunction consists of. When Moncrieff writes that dysfunction and distress are not co-extant, because, “people may neglect themselves and act in other ways that compromise their safety and survival without necessarily being distressed,” she is offering a description of behavior many would consider ‘dysfunctional’ in the lay sense (2014). Considered as a basis for conceptual analysis, however, this does not illuminate any “underlying psychobiological dysfunction”, which previous definitions aspired to do. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that Moncrieff provides this counterexample rather than sticking to her argument that dysfunction in fact does not exist. In citing safety and survival, Moncrieff’s phrase does resemble the evolutionary theoretic approach (notably described in Wakefield’s Harmful Dysfunction Analysis), which as has been discussed widely elsewhere and noted in our paper, has fallen out of favor owing to problems with evolutionary theory specifically and naturalistic definitions in general. What of importance is left in Moncrieff’s putative definition if not underlying psychobiological and evolutionary dysfunction? We would argue: only the harm or threat of harm experienced by the individual, whether that harm is cashed out as distress and disability or as some other similar negatively evaluated experienced factor.

Islamic Perspectives on Psychiatric Ethics

My chapter published online at Oxford Handbooks.

Will appear in print in the Oxford Handbook for Psychiatric Ethics Volume 1 next year.


Islamic Perspectives on Psychiatric Ethics explores the implications for psychiatric practice of key metaphysical, psychological, and ethical facets of the Islamic tradition. It examines: (1) the nature of suffering and the ways in which psychological maladies and mental disorder are bound up with the individual’s moral and spiritual trajectory. (2) The emphasis placed on social harmony and the formation of a moral community over personal autonomy. (3) The sources of normative judgements in Islam and the principles whereby ethical/legal rulings are derived from the Qur’an and the Prophetic Traditions. Finally, the perspective of the chapter as a whole is employed to present an Islamic view on a number of conditions, practices, and interventions of interest to psychiatric ethics.

Click HERE for Pre-Production version

Can Psychiatry Distinguish Social Deviance from Mental Disorder?

[NOTE: (May 2015) Essay and commentaries are now out in print: Click HERE]

Essay accepted for publication in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology

Written with Dr Rachel Bingham

Abstract and excerpt.

Abstract: Can psychiatry distinguish social deviance from mental disorder? Historical and recent abuses of psychiatry indicate that this is an important question to address. Typically, the deviance/disorder distinction has been made, conceptually, on the basis of dysfunction. Challenges to naturalistic accounts of dysfunction suggest that it is time to adopt an alternative strategy to draw the deviance/disorder distinction. This article adopts and follows through such a strategy, which is to draw the distinction in terms of the origins of distress with the relevant conditions. It is argued that psychiatry’s ability to distinguish deviance from disorder rests on the ability to define, identify and exclude socially constituted forms of distress. These should lie outside the purview of candidacy for mental disorder. In pursuing this argument, the article provides an analysis of the social origins of a form of distress with the personality and sexual disorders, and indicates in what ways it is socially constituted.

Keywords: Distress; Dysfunction; DSM-5; Cognitive Dissonance; Sexual Disorders; Personality Disorders


INTRODUCTION A number of leading figures in psychiatric nosology and the philosophy of mental health proposed various changes to the definition of mental disorder (Stein et al. 2010). These changes were intended to guide the development of the definition in the now published fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5. The authors proposed the following criteria which develop those in the DSM-IV (APA 1994); a mental disorder is:

  1. A behavioural or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual
  2. the consequences of which are clinically significant distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning).
  3. must not be merely an expectable response to common stressors and losses (for example, the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (for example, trance states in religious rituals)
  4. that reflects an underlying psychobiological dysfunction
  5. that is not solely a result of social deviance or conflicts with society

In this article we consider criterion E, an exclusionary criterion intended to safeguard against pathologising social deviance and imparting diagnoses on the basis of discrimination. The importance of this safeguard cannot be overstated. The distant as well as recent history of psychiatry is replete with instances of the abuse of diagnosis and treatment for political purposes (van Voren 2010). And psychiatry tends to be susceptible to the claim that it functions as a tool for social control, disposing of ‘problematic’ individuals under the justification of a medical diagnosis (Szasz 1998).  It has been argued for some time that abuses of psychiatry do not require mal-intent on the part of clinicians, but happen despite psychiatrists involved believing their diagnoses to be valid (van Voren 2002). Fulford, Smirnov and Snow (1993, 801) suggest that corruption, political pressures, poor clinical standards and a lack of safeguards “explain the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’ of abuse”. The authors argue that conceptual issues – in particular failure to recognise the value-laden nature of psychiatric diagnoses – explains the “why”, and leaves psychiatry particularly vulnerable to abuse. Elsewhere, the need to address past abuses of psychiatry was argued to require a satisfactory definition of ‘mental disorder’ (Wakefield 1992). Antipsychiatrists did not agree with this diagnosis. Following Thomas Szasz’s seminal argument that mental illness is a ‘myth’, the conceptual foundation of psychiatry has been strenuously disputed. Conceptual issues were not, for Szasz, the root of abuses, but rather legitimised them:

[W]hile de jure, the mental hospital system functions as an arm of the medical profession, de facto, it functions as an arm of the state’s law-enforcement system. The practices thus authorized do not represent the abuses of psychiatry; on the contrary, they represent the proper uses of psychiatry, sanctioned by tradition, science, medicine, law, custom, and common sense. (Szasz 2000, 11-12)

This is an articulation of the concern, or allegation, to which Criterion E responds. In the past, the scholarly defence has been to argue, in various ways, that psychiatry is in fact able to recognise and define its proper domain, thus the question of what is a mental disorder is central to the debate. Criterion E offers both an official recognition of the dangers of pathologisation and an apparent conceptual safeguard. This paper does not further rehearse the debate about the need for such a safeguard, but explores whether Criterion E is able to fulfil this role. Thus our contribution is to update the debate in the light of recent work on concepts of health and illness, to try to make the distinction between social deviance and mental disorder using DSM-5, and to provide an original analysis of the social origins of some forms of distress in the light of these considerations.[i]

In order to explore what criterion E entails we revert to the full definition provided in the now published DSM-5: “Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual” (emphasis added). [ii] This is almost identical to the definition provided in the DSM-IV. Thus formulated, as Stein and colleagues (2010, 1765) note in relation to the DSM-IV, criterion E is not “strictly necessary” as the prior specification (criterion ‘D’) that the condition or syndrome must be due to a dysfunction in the individual suffices. However, given the aforementioned importance of guarding against misuse of psychiatry for political or other discriminatory purposes and the difficulty in indicating appropriate use of the term ‘dysfunction’, Stein and colleagues chose to retain criterion E in simplified form. Conceptually, then, if a dysfunction can be identified then a mental disorder can be said to be present if the other criteria are also fulfilled. The safeguard against pathologising social deviance is accordingly the identification of dysfunction in the individual. Thus although presented as a criterion required by the conceptual and empirical difficulties inherent in defining and identifying dysfunction, to do any work criterion E in fact depends on the ability to define and identify dysfunction.

This article proceeds as follows: First, we identify some relevant meanings of ‘dysfunction’ with a particular focus on dysfunction understood in terms of the consequences of a syndrome: distress and disability. Second, we examine the implications for criterion E of understanding dysfunction in those terms. We argue that distinguishing social deviance from mental disorder now requires that a distinction is drawn between phenomena in which distress is an outcome of social conflict and discrimination and phenomena in which distress is intrinsic to the condition. Third, we explore different meanings of ‘intrinsic’ distress. We point out the difficulty in providing a positive definition and focus thus on what ‘intrinsic’ is not rather than on what it is. We propose that an alternative to distress being intrinsic to a condition is for such states to be constituted by social factors. What does it mean for distress to be constituted by social factors? To answer this question we explore the difference between factors that may cause a distressing state and factors that constitute that state.  We argue that psychological states that are socially constituted – that is, are created and sustained by social factors – are excluded by criterion E from candidacy for mental disorder. Fourth, we provide an account of distress with the conditions of most relevance to the distinction between social deviance and mental disorder, pointing out in what ways distress may be understood as socially constituted. Fifth, and finally, we present some clarifications and outline some implications of this view. This article considers only Criterion E, and not the other criteria for a mental disorder as listed above. Thus, a condition that is argued to meet Criterion E may yet fail the other criteria and therefore not be considered a mental disorder under the DSM definition, despite meeting the final criterion.


As indicated in the introduction, to do any work criterion E depends on defining and identifying dysfunction. A reasonable starting point, then, would be to attempt to specify the meaning of the term ‘dysfunction’.  One prominent strategy has been to seek a definition of dysfunction in naturalistic terms. The most widely debated and influential has been Jerome Wakefield’s evolutionary theoretic approach (1999, 1997). According to Wakefield, a dysfunction is a result of some mechanism failing to perform its natural function as designed (selected) by evolution (i.e. the function that can explain why the mechanism or organ exists and why it is designed the way it is). Wakefield’s account has been criticised as highly speculative and lacking in clinical utility. Further, it appears to rely on the questionable assumption “that there is a clear (enough) division between psychological functioning that is natural (evolved and innate), as opposed to social (cultivated)” (Bolton 2008, 124). In the absence of a clear division, Wakefield’s dysfunction cannot tag exclusively onto a fact of nature, precisely because psychological function is the product of “several interweaving” natural, social, and individual factors which are not separable through the science we currently possess (Bolton 2010, 329-331).

Problems with Wakefield’s account and with naturalism more generally have prompted alternative strategies to understand dysfunction.[iii] Thus, Bolton argues, if we abandon naturalism about illness, “if we give up trying to conceptually locate a natural fact of the matter that underlies illness attribution – then we are left trying to make the whole story run on the basis of something like ‘distress and impairment of functioning’” (2010, 332). Stein and colleagues note that an alternative to naturalism is to understand ‘dysfunction’ in terms of the “consequences of the syndrome, specifically that it leads to or is associated with distress and disability” (2010, 1763, emphasis added).  The move from ‘naturalism about illness’ to ‘distress and disability as the mark of illness’ is a reversal of the priority of dysfunction from being antecedent to the syndrome to being a manifestation, or consequence, of it. For example, what marks out a syndrome like depression as illness is not some underlying and invariant psychological or biological mechanism(s) but the subjective experience of distress and the extent of impairment of the person’s day to day functioning. This is consistent with the syndrome being caused or constituted by biological factors: this reversal does not entail the denial of biology. What it indicates is that illness attributions, conceptually, cannot be made on the basis of an antecedent natural fact, but on the basis of the consequences of the syndrome as they manifest for the subject. This raises a further complexity in terms of which kinds of distress are to be conceived as illness as opposed to a normal response to the vicissitudes of life. We leave this complexity aside and stay with the original point: to do any work criterion E depends on defining and identifying dysfunction. Now that ‘dysfunction’ is understood in terms of the consequences of the syndrome, viz. distress and disability, could it be claimed that the identification of distress and disability is sufficient ground to diagnose mental disorder irrespective of social deviance or conflict? The answer to this question clearly is no. The reason is that distress and disability may be an outcome of social deviance and conflict, while they also may not. If we wish to ensure that diagnosis is not inappropriately applied to individuals whose suffering can, in some relevant and significant sense, be understood as a consequence or expression of conflict with society, then it becomes necessary to draw this distinction.

[i] A reviewer for this paper had made the important point that the distinction between mental disorder and social deviance is itself a cultural construction with a long history. This suggests that there is scope to deconstruct the distinction. While clearly an interesting project in its own right, our concerns here are more limited to exploring whether – through criterion E – the distinction can be made. We thus assume that there is something called mental disorder or mental health problem (definitions of which are subject to much debate), and something called social deviance (which has nothing directly to do with mental disorder). We further assume that this is an important distinction to make. [ii] DSM-5. The definition of Criterion E in the DSM-IV: “neither deviant behaviour (e.g. political, religious or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual” (APA 2000, p. xxxi). [iii] See Bolton (2008, 2013) and Kingma (2013) for review and critical assessment of the various attempts to define dysfunction in naturalistic terms.

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.