The Meaning of Madness

mandess cover

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book “Madness and the Demand for Recognition”. Forthcoming with Oxford University Press, 2018

Mad with a capital m refers to one way in which an individual can identify, and in this respect it stands similar to other social identities such as Maori, African-Caribbean, or Deaf. If someone asks why a person identifies as Mad or as Maori, the simplest answer that can be offered is to state that he identifies so because he is mad or Maori. And if this answer is to be anything more than a tautology – he identifies as Mad because he identifies as Mad – the is must refer to something over and above that person’s identification; i.e. to that person’s ‘madness’ or ‘Maoriness’. Such an answer has the implication that if one is considered to be Maori yet identifies as Anglo-Saxon – or white and identifies as Black – they would be wrong in a fundamental way about their own nature. And this final word – nature – is precisely the difficulty with this way of talking, and underpins the criticism that such a take on identity is ‘essentialist’.

Essentialism, in philosophy, is the idea that some objects may have essential properties, which are properties without which the object would not be what it is; for example, it is an essential property of a planet that it orbits around a star. In social and political discussions, essentialism means something somewhat wider: it is invoked as a criticism of the claim that one’s identity falls back on immutable, given, ‘natural’ features that incline one – and the group with which one shares those features – to behave in certain ways, and to have certain predispositions. The critique of certain discourses as essentialist has been made in several domains including race and queer studies, and in feminist theory; as Heyes (2000, p. 21) points out, contemporary North American feminist theory now takes it as a given that to refer to “women’s experience” is merely to engage in an essentialist generalisation from what is actually the experience of “middle-class white feminists”. The problem seems to be the construction of a category – ‘women’ or ‘black’ or ‘mad’ – all members of which supposedly share something deep that is part of their nature: being female, being a certain race, being mad. In terms of the categories, there appears to be no basis for supposing either gender essentialism (the claim that women, in virtue of being women, have a shared and distinctive experience of the world: see Stone (2004) for an overview), or the existence of discrete races (e.g. Appiah 1994a, pp. 98-101), or a discrete category of experience and behaviour that we can refer to as ‘madness’ (or ‘schizophrenia’ or any other psychiatric condition for this purpose). Evidence for the latter claim is growing rapidly as the following overview indicates.

There is a body of literature in philosophy and psychiatry that critiques essentialist thinking about ‘mental disorder’, usually by rebutting the claim that psychiatric categories can be natural kinds (see Zachar 2015, 2000; Haslam 2002; Cooper 2013 is more optimistic). 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 also is 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). Natural kind thinking informs typical scientific and medical approaches to mental disorder, evident in the following assumptions (see Haslam 2000, pp. 1033-1034): (1) different disorders are categorically distinct from each other (schizophrenia is one thing, bipolar disorder another); (2) you either have a disorder or not – a disorder is a discrete category; (3) the observable features of a disorder (symptoms and signs) are causally produced by its internal structure (underlying abnormalities); (4) diagnosis is a determination of the kind (the disorder) which the individual instantiates.

If this picture of strong essentialism appears as a straw-man it is because thinking about mental disorder has moved on or is in the process of doing so. All of the assumptions listed here have been challenged (see Zachar 2015): in many cases it’s not possible to draw categorical distinctions between one disorder and another, and between disorder and its absence; fuzzy boundaries predominate. Symptoms of schizophrenia and of bipolar disorder overlap, necessitating awkward constructions such as schizoaffective disorder or mania with psychotic symptoms. Similarly, the boundary between clinical depression and intense grief has been critiqued as indeterminate. In addition, the reductive causal picture implied by the natural kind view seems naive in the case of mental disorder: it is now a truism that what we call psychiatric symptoms are the product of multiple interacting factors (biological, social, cultural, psychological). And diagnosis is not a process of matching the patient’s report with an existing category, but a complicated interaction between two parties in which one side – the clinician – constantly reinterprets what the patient is saying in the language of psychiatry, a process which the activist literature has repeatedly pointed out permits the exercise of power over the patient.

The difficulties in demarcating health from disorder and disorders from each other have been debated recently under the concept of ‘vagueness’; the idea that psychiatric concepts and 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). Vagueness in psychiatry does not automatically eliminate the quest for more precision – it may be the case, for example, that we need to improve our science – but it does strongly suggest a formulation of states of health and forms of experience in terms of degrees rather than categorically, i.e. a gradualist approach to mental health. Gradualism is one possible implication of vagueness, and there is good evidence to support it as a thesis. For example, Sullivan-Bissett and colleagues (2017) have convincingly argued that delusional and non-delusional beliefs differ in degree, not kind: non-delusional beliefs exhibit the same epistemic short-comings attributed to delusions: resistance to counterevidence, resistance to abandoning the belief, and the influence of biases and motivational factors on belief formation. Similarly, as pointed out earlier, the distinction between normal sadness and clinical depression is difficult to make on principled grounds, and relies on an arbitrary specification of the number of weeks during which a person can feel low in mood before a diagnosis can be given (see Horwitz and Wakefield 2007). Another related problem is the non-specificity of symptoms: auditory hallucinations, thought insertion, and other passivity phenomena which are considered pathognomonic of schizophrenia, can be found in the non-patient population as well as other conditions (e.g. Jackson 2007).

Vagueness in mental health concepts and gradualism with regards to psychological phenomena undermine the idea that there are discrete categories underpinned by an underlying essence and that go with labels such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or madness. But people continue to identify as Women, African-American, Maori, Gay, and Mad. Are they wrong to do so? To say they are wrong is to mistake the nature of social identities. To prefigure a discussion that will occupy a major part of Chapters 4 and 5, identity is a person’s understanding of who he or she is, and that understanding always appeals to existing collective categories: to identify is to place oneself in some sort of relation to those categories. To identify as Mad is to place oneself in some sort of relation to madness; to identify as Maori is to place oneself in some sort of relation to Maori culture. Now those categories may not be essential in the sense of falling back on some immutable principle, but they are nevertheless out there in the social world and their meaning and continued existence does not depend on one person rejecting them (nor can one person alone maintain a social category even if he or she can play a major role in conceiving it). Being social in nature they are open to redefinition, hence collective activism to reclaim certain categories and redefine them in positive ways. In fact, the argument that a particular category has fuzzy boundaries and is not underpinned by an essence may enter into its redefinition. But demonstrating this cannot be expected to eliminate people’s identification with that category: the inessentiality of race, to give an example, is not going to be sufficient by itself to end people’s identification as White or Black.

In the context of activism, to identify as Mad is to have a stake in how madness is defined, and the key issue becomes the meaning of madness. To illustrate the range of ways in which madness has been defined, I appeal to some key views that have been voiced in a recent, important anthology: Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies (2013). A key point to begin with is that Mad identity tends to be anchored in experiences of mistreatment and labelling by others. By Mad, Poole and Ward (2013, p. 96) write, “we are referring to a term reclaimed by those who have been pathologised/ psychiatrised as ‘mentally ill,'”. Similarly, Fabris (2013, p. 139) proposes Mad “to mean the group of us considered crazy or deemed ill by sanists … and are politically conscious of this”. These definitions remind us that a group frequently comes into being when certain individuals experience discrimination or oppression that is then attributed by them as arising from some features that they share, no matter how loosely. Those features have come to define the social category of madness. Menzies, LeFrancois, and Reaume (2013, p. 10) write:

Once a reviled term that signalled the worst kinds of bigotry and abuse, madness has come to represent a critical alternative to ‘mental illness’ or ‘disorder’ as a way of naming and responding to emotional, spiritual, and neuro-diversity. … Following other social movements including queer, black, and fat activism, madness talk and text invert the language of oppression, reclaiming disparaged identities and restoring dignity and pride to difference.

In a similar fashion, Liegghio (2013, p. 122) writes:

madness refers to a range of experiences – thoughts, moods, behaviours – that are different from and challenge, resist, or do not conform to dominant, psychiatric constructions of ‘normal’ versus ‘disordered’ or ‘ill’ mental health. Rather than adopting dominant psy constructions of mental health as a negative condition to alter, control, or repair, I view madness as a social category among other categories like race, class, gender, sexuality, age, or ability that define our identities and experiences.

Mad activism may start with shared experiences of oppression, stigma and mistreatment, it continues with the rejection of biomedical language and reclamation of the term mad, and then proceeds by developing positive content to madness and hence to Mad identity. As Burstow (2013, p. 84) comments:

 What the community is doing is essentially turning these words around, using them to connote, alternately, cultural difference, alternate ways of thinking and processing, wisdom that speaks a truth not recognised …, the creative subterranean that figures in all of our minds. In reclaiming them, the community is affirming psychic diversity and repositioning ‘madness’ as a quality to embrace; hence the frequency with which the word ‘Mad’ and ‘pride’ are associated.