Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Mental Illness Myth

As British newspapers struggle to turn themselves into one gigantic iPod, it is consoling to note that, at the high end, the Americans are keeping the faith by continung to do the best journals and serious magazines in the business. I've just been sent another - The New Atlantis - which,as usual, grips and informs more effectively than anything similar over here. Read this , for example. It is about Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who came to believe there was no such thing as mental illness. He was crushed by the profession, of course, but, if doctors can find no material basis for mental disorders, would we have to call them something other than diseases? I am inclined to think we would. In the same issue there is a related article about definitions of disease. I have thought for some time that this matter of disease and its parameters is one of the most fundamental issues of our time. The New Atlantis - long may it not be an iPod - seems to agree.


  1. This type of problem occurs when people fail to make a clear distinction between descriptive, and evaluative (i.e., value judgement) statements.

    There's an entry on mental illness at the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, and the first section covers the arguments of Szasz:

    The comparison between UK and US newspaper and magazine output is an interesting one. In my own line of interest, Scientific American and American Scientist are superior to New Scientist, and the American periodicals Sky and Telescope and Astronomy are superior to the UK magazine Astronomy Now. In both cases, the UK magazine is just a little superficial. In the case of New Scientist, the situation is not quite comparable because New Scientist is a weekly, rather than a monthly periodical. Nevertheless, I find the credulous and sensationalistic 'Scientists unravel the ultimate secrets of cosmology/medicine/new energy sources/etc.' tone of the magazine really irritating. I guess it's part of the instant gratification society; science which progresses via slow increments and occasional blind alleys is less of a story.

  2. Great article. I can't now put my finger on it, but there's a record of a conversation between Wittgenstein and Drury, where Wittgenstein confesses to great fear at being diagnosed as 'insane' and not being able to convince Drury of his health. Drury, of course, then wrote 'The Danger of Words' on this theme, which is well worth reading.

  3. Thanks, Rev Sam. Nice blog you have. I'll get round to Drury at some point. It's an interesting issue - most 'ordinary' people would surely have regarded Wittgenstein as insane.

  4. Yes, extremely interesting piece. Anyone who thinks there's no such thing as mental illness must be mad.


    Prof Quincy Adams Wagstaff