Knowledge of Mental States and Behaviour: Insights From Heidegger and Others


The third in a series of blogs presenting a philosophical analysis of the modern mental health system.

Wittgenstein illustrates that mental states are not private, universally identical brain processes or mental events. They are socially meaningful, recognisable patterns of behaviour characteristic of human beings. We can never understand or know such states by looking in the brain or constructing models or theories of what particular mental states consist of and how they relate to each other. Mental states are properties of living people within human ‘forms of life,’ expressed in activity that is purposive, interactive and whose meaning is inextricable from its social context. They are not abstract, context-independent entities like mathematical functions or chemical elements.

Many thinkers have argued that these properties mean that mental states and human activity are not amenable to the methods of natural science. The scientific method, as it has developed in physics, chemistry and biology, is premised on the predictability of the material world, which allows us to look back from a given situation and determine its ‘causes,’ and to look forward from a set of circumstances and predict what will occur.

Human behaviour is inherently unpredictable, however, and for this reason it is argued that understanding it is logically different from our understanding of the material world.1 Human behaviour is not caused in the sense that natural events can be said to be caused. People make choices, and do things for reasons. These choices are influenced and constrained, but not determined, by the circumstances of a person’s life, which include the whole history of human society that has over the centuries established the ways in which we understand and respond to the phenomena of the world, including each other.2 But history — both personal and social — is not an external event or entity. Our history is part of who we are and who we become. It is part of our individuality. We cannot distinguish our history from our actions in the way that we can isolate causes from consequences in physical or mechanical systems.

The idea that the methods of natural science can be transferred to the study of human activity is sometimes referred to as ‘positivism’ and philosophers have been challenging this assumption since the 19th century. German thinkers like Wilhelm Dilthey, following up Hegel’s insights into the cultural and social evolution of human thought, argued that the distinctive features of human activity require a different sort of approach. He contrasted the sort of knowledge that was produced by natural science; Erklaren (causal explanation), from the meaningful interpretation or understanding that is appropriate to the study of the human world; Verstehen.3

Heidegger - Being and TimeThe early work of Martin Heidegger, an intellectual successor to Dilthey, is particularly useful here. In Being and Time,4 Heidegger describes how our ordinary, everyday activity always already involves a certain sort of ‘knowledge,’ which consists of a familiarity with the environment that is ‘available’ for human purposes. It consists of being able to identify and use objects that are relevant and useful to us, such as tools and clothes. It also involves knowing how to behave in social situations, which in turn involves understanding the rules or conventions that govern behaviour in a particular society. Heidegger referred to this sort of knowledge as ‘knowing how’ (knowing how to use or do something) and contrasted it with the sort of knowledge we gain from an objective, scientific analysis of the world, referred to as ‘knowing that’ (knowing the truth of propositions or ‘facts’; sometimes referred to as ‘propositional knowledge’).

For Heidegger, the scientific approach is a particular and unusual attitude to the world; one that is designed to study the ‘occurrent’ world as it exists in isolation from human activity.5 It involves stepping out of, or aside from, our intimate engagement with the ‘available’ world in order to study objects in isolation from the usual, humanly meaningful context in which they are embedded. Only when we have stripped an object of its human meaning, can we investigate its universal properties. Only when we see a nail as a piece of iron, for example, can we learn how iron, in general, functions. Scientific analysis involves looking for universal properties that are independent of the particular situations in which an object might be encountered.

Heidegger emphasised the priority of our familiar, ‘knowing how’ engagement with the world, which forms the foundation on which other sorts of knowledge are built. He did not deny the utility and validity of natural science for gaining knowledge of, and mastery over, the world around us. However, for Heidegger, the scientific method cannot meaningfully be applied to the study of the human world. Knowledge of human beings and their activities is always a form of ‘knowing how.’ Human behaviour cannot be extracted from the familiar world with its human imbued meaning and all its implicit conventions. If we want to study teaching techniques, for example, we are dependent on conventional understandings of what teaching consists of and what terms like learning, testing and achievement mean in a particular culture and setting. Unlike in natural science, we cannot identify or develop principles that are independent of the historically specific activities we want to study.

Think also of ‘depression’ or sadness described in my previous blog! Depression is not an abstract thing that can be measured and studied independently of the real, individual people who experience it and the social world they inhabit. You simply cannot separate ‘depression’ off from other elements of human life in the way that is necessary to identify universal principles and obtain objective, scientific-type knowledge about it. We might make a judgement that someone who has not left their bed or spoken for weeks requires more help than someone who cries a lot but continues to go about their daily lives, but this is not the same sort of comparison as when we compare the strength of different materials, or blood pressure readings.

Having said all this, I think there are some circumstances in which we need to measure aspects of human behaviour in a ‘positivist’ manner. When we modify the way the body works through the use of drugs or other means, we had better assess whether we get the intended result.

If we recommend ‘antipsychotic’ drugs for example, as well as understanding the subjective and behavioural alterations they produce, we might want to know whether they reduce the manifestations of psychosis, whether they ameliorate disturbed or aggressive behaviour, and what sort of impact they have on people’s quality of life, experience and functioning. Similarly, if we reduce or take people off such chemicals (as the Radar trial is aiming to do) we need to know how these areas will be affected. In order to do this, we need to measure these things in some way, imperfect as this process will inevitably be.

We must not forget, however, that the purpose of any intervention that is given to modify behaviour, like other social interventions (teaching methods, road safety measures) is political, not scientific. Figuring out the best way to live together is the business of politics. Science can help to work out how to achieve what we want to achieve if there are different options with equal moral or political worth, but it cannot determine the value we place on something.

Applying the methods of natural science to human activity is sometimes necessary, therefore, but it cannot enlighten us about the nature of that activity or the reasons that motivate and sustain it. Instead, insights must come from our own and others’ experiences and from examples we encounter in the media, literature and other places. Wittgenstein’s pupil, Maurice O’Connor Drury (who became a psychiatrist), suggested that psychological knowledge comes not from psychological experiments, but from literature, art and music. It is the arts that illuminate the dilemmas and challenges of human life.6 In a similar vein, Thomas Szasz once recommended the short story Ward 6, by Chekhov, as one of the most illuminating accounts of the nature of madness and the circumstances that can generate it.7

Show 7 footnotes

  1. An idea expressed most clearly by Peter Winch, who applied Wittgenstein’s ideas to the study of social science. Winch, P. 2008. The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy, Routledge Classics edition ed. London, Routledge.
  2. As Marx famously said: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’ Marx, K. 1852. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon New York, Die Revolution.
  3. Dilthey, W. 2010. Dilthey: Selected Writings Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  4.  Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time New York, Harper & Row.
  5. American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus has written one of the most accessible commentaries on Being and TimeDreyfus, H.L. 1991. Being-in-the-World. A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press. Heidegger devises a whole new vocabulary to convey his ideas, which is translated in varying ways. Dreyfus translates Heidegger’s terms Zuhandenheit as ‘availableness’ and Vorhandenheit as ‘occurrentness’. Most translators use the more literal translations of being ‘ready at hand’ and ‘present at hand’.
  6.  Drury, M.O. 1973. The Danger of Words London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  7.  Chekhov, A. 1999. The Essential Tales of Chekhov London, Granta Books.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


    • Dr. Moncrieff–what is causing all the elation (a symptom of mania) we are seeing? Excuse me, and don’t take my question seriously. Too much happiness, despite the rarity, has got to be a joke.

      Irving Kirsch in The Emperors New Drugs (2009), about SSRI antidepressants and the placebo effect, suggests that depression is, in large measure, nocebo effect. Depression then would tend to be mostly a matter of negative wish fulfillment. This makes sense, too, if antidepressants work little better than enhanced placebos.

      Not even science has to be so dreary and seriously drab as to get people down. One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s books was titled, provocatively enough, and before any allusions to sexual deviance might have been made of it, The Gay Science (German: Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) or The Joyful Wisdom (1882).

      • Yes but seriously drab and dreary things help sell pills! Especially dreary, drab pseudo-sciences.

        Get help from psychiatry. Then you can know what REAL DEPRESSION is.

        I have read my share of conventional psychiatry books, though few were actually addressed to folks called SMI like me. (They think we’re all dumb. Wishful thinking?) One of the psychiatrists said it’s easier to use drugs to keep us slightly down (depressed) than up (manic.) I can’t remember if she said it, but we certainly are easier to control when down.

  1. I agree that mental states are properties of living people whose meaning is inextricable from its social context. You also mention the ‘scientific method’ is useful for predictability and to determine causes, etc. of the material world but is not suitable for the study of our mental world.

    However, the scientific method can be used to systematically understand (in terms of predictability, causes, etc.) our ‘mental worlds.’ Don’t forget that we only have one thought moment at a time (think in terms of the past, present and the future) and this fast flowing thought stream happens in each and everyone of us all the time.

    As I mentioned earlier, the Buddha’s philosophical teachings that were presented 2600 years ago have extensively analyzed this mind-stream (which can be systematically understood by anyone who takes the time to do so). These analyses explain that we all have an innate disposition to constantly engage in eight worldly preoccupations (i.e., to seek gain, honour, happiness and praise, while escaping loss, dishonour, sadness and blame). The analyses also divide mental states to different categories and provide interrelationships between them. Further explanations are provided on how our past conditioning plays a significant role in the manifestation of the mind-stream, and how various attachments we have also influence the mind-stream, etc. It is also explained that biological factors are ONE of the five causal factors that influence the manifestation of this mind-stream.

    By the way, all the analyses you have provided are from a third-person perspective. When talking about the mind, we need to consider the first-person perspective (i.e., the moment by moment manifestation of the mind-stream). Additionally, all the analyses I mentioned take into account that the inquirer is interlocked with the item under inquiry (consciousness). As explained in these teachings, the ultimate release from suffering comes from “seeing things as they are.” (i.e., gradual cultivation of wisdom).
    [Reference to what I have presented above: Karunamuni, N., and Weerasekera, R. (2017). Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom. Current Psychology. [free link (legal) from the MindRxiv research repository: ]

  2. The human sciences are very soft (inexact) sciences, if they are science at all.

    “We must not forget, however, that the purpose of any intervention that is given to modify behaviour, like other social interventions (teaching methods, road safety measures) is political, not scientific.”

    Ditto political science. Very soft.

    Anatomy is one thing, psychology another.

    • Frank: There are a couple of things we need to remember here. First – there is a widely prevalent assumption that people are consciously and systematically processing incoming information in order to construe and interpret their world and to plan and engage in courses of action. This is a totally INCORRECT assumption because all our human experiences are automatic [for example, check out the following article: Bargh, JA., and Chartrand, TL (1999). ‘The unbearable automaticity of being.’ American psychologist, 54.7: 462.]. So, although we think something like studying anatomy is accurate, what happens here is a visual observation automatically followed by perception. In the article I posted in my earlier comment, it is described how this automatic processes happens in terms of our moment-by-moment experiences relating to the five senses and thoughts. To me, studying this is the ‘ULTIMATE science.’ Do you call that soft (inexact)?

          • Art and ethics are “inexact”or not hard quantifiable sciences. I am an artist and more concerned with ethics than most “normal” people. Why does everything have to be “Scientific” for goodness sake?

            One great thing about realizing psychiatry was a hoax. I had long been going through an existential crisis over whether I had a soul or not. For some reason no one in my church realized that relying on pills in lieu of a conscience had caused me to view myself as something soulless. And being emotionally numb made this angst worse.

            If I need “meds” to prevent me from suicide or murder I must be a soulless monster since a conscience and even the Holy Spirit is inadequate to keep me doing what is right. 🙁

            Eventually I realized that I too had a soul. My self esteem came out of a coma since I was human after all!

  3. When delusional rationalizations for psychiatric abuse begin to assume the mantle of philosophical authority, we know that we are in trouble. Let’s not forget which regime Heidegger supported. Is that really a path that we want to travel? In many ways, psychiatry and psychiatric abuse are the legacy of Nazi Germany and the philosophers whose ideas undergirded the work of Hitler.

    “Having said all this, I think there are some circumstances in which we need to measure aspects of human behaviour in a ‘positivist’ manner. When we modify the way the body works through the use of drugs or other means, we had better assess whether we get the intended result.”

    This is all very clever and subtle, but as soon as we start “measuring aspects of human behaviour in a ‘positivist’ manner” or as soon as we try to “modify the way the body works through the use of drugs or other means,” we fall right back into the modernist conundrum of mastery over nature. C.S. Lewis saw this clearly and articulated the problem in “That Hideous Strength” as well as in “The Abolition of Man.” In sum, man’s mastery over nature ends up in man’s mastery over man, or in the abolition of man. The legacy of modern political philosophy, from Machiavelli and Hobbes, to Rousseau (think French Revolution), to Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger (think Nazi Germany), is precisely the conquest of nature that results in the conquest of man. Psychiatry is the pseudo-scientific rationalization for man’s conquest over man, or the abolition of man. Let’s not try to lend philosophical authority to these pseudo-scientific rationalizations for man’s conquest over man.

    To be clear, we do NOT need to measure aspects of human behaviour in a ‘positivist’ manner. If we are being honest with ourselves and with others, drugs do not ‘modify’ the way that the body works. Drugs inflict damage on the human brain, and those who wield these weapons most often do so in order to control their subjects (mastery over nature and man) or to sedate them (think of Huxley’s “Brave New World” – and Soma). Psychiatric rationalizations for the modernist mastery over nature that results in mastery over human beings may be rooted in the projects of modern philosophers, but this no more grants psychiatry the authority to do so than the philosophy of Nietzsche or Heidegger authorized the Nazi’s to exterminate Jews or others with unwanted behaviours or backgrounds. Just because Robespierre found justification for terror in Rousseau does not mean that psychiatrists can justify psychotropic drugging, involuntary incarceration, stigmatization, torture, and even murder in the name of Heidegger or any other supposed philosophical authority.

    Thomas Szasz understood the problem more clearly than anyone in our time, and he fought relentlessly against psychiatric slavery. He fought valiantly to preserve both liberty and responsibility. Enough of this madness. Slay the Dragon of Psychiatry.

  4. Mental states as pendulum and behavior as swinging to and fro. Pendulum works on premise of balance.

    Although human psyche undergoes awful sorrow and bliss that makes studying it an abstract concept.

    It’s posturized that the suffering leads to feeling stronger inward and better psyche.

    Because the mind or psyche is abstract it requires supporters to use different interventions…(peer support, family, therapy, medication, service to others, mindfilness, spirituality, changing negative thoughts to positive, pet therapy, massage, osteopathy, companion therapy)

    • It’s a dead end road studying the conventional psychiatric writings that most all psychiatric mainstream “professionals” get their “knowledge” from . Just look at what kind of a trap the vast majority of these “professionals” have got themselves and us into . Voltaire said, ” Those that believe in absurdities will commit atrocities .” Clearly they have done that ,they do that , and they will continue to do that for I don’t know how long .They are connected to a ,government controlled by oligarchs ,controlling mainstream media,population surveillance ,policing, ,educational systems, food adulteration , Quality of air , and water , eugenic population weakening and culling “every which way but loose”, through administration of chemical and biological concoctions advertised as “health giving medicines”, food & water “additives “, pest control agents, and through sweeping away most all human protective regulations that limit the outrages the oligarch owned industries commit . Psychiatrists are the dealers of some of these poisons , can inject them into the bloodstream, force poison pills down people’s throats , Electrify their brains etc .Psychiatrists 100 percent pseudo science . Medical doctors at least 66 2/3 % pseudo science . MAYBE not as much forcefully applied pseudo science by AMA medical people and ADA dentists . But certainly more than most people realize or allow themselves to believe.
      It is much more productive to deeply study Traditional Naturopathy , Homeopathy ,Yuen Method ( an , advanced energy healing system). Read and study what survivors say here at MIA . Learn and ask them questions . Find someone that’s survived something like your going through, by using first do no harm means .Try to learn something from them . You probably don’t have to totally reinvent the wheel. But if you study this stuff you’ll be able to if necessary .
      Inspire yourself listen to the song 4 Non Blondes-What’s Up-YouTube

    • Attention Joanna Moncrieff MD,
      People in America with diagnosis are on the cusp of being locked up or forcibly injected in their homes for attempting to shave their meds to avoid sleeping all day and/or feeling zombified.Many of the drugs are time release and coated so the can’t be shaved safely . You really believe psychiatrists have a right to do this to people making them feel more dead than alive forcefully and then saying nonsense about underlying “mental illness “is to blame . Do you realize the actual role of 53% mercury dental amalgams cause a wide spectrum of mental phenomena that gets diagnosed in 1 in 15 people who have them in there mouths. Look up Dr. Chris Shade founder of He himself had 17 amalgams in his own mouth and was mercury poisons . Please investigate this deeply for the sake of millions of lives I beg you . I my self had 15 of them installed in my mouth . After their removal and other dental care according to Hal Huggins DDS protocols I experienced immediately the most powerful positive transformation of my life. See also Dr. RAU of the Paracelsus Klinic his own website Please investigate I have and experienced . This is for real . Too many have ignored this piece of the puzzle . I haven’t.
      Thank you , Fred Abbe
      Help save the people don’t perpetuate pseudo scientific diagnosis.

  5. mental states….it is really hard to understand what that is all about…
    but to throw out biology and psychiatry seems to….
    throw out the baby with the bath water….
    what we need to throw out is everything that isn’t true…
    throw out what doesn’t work…
    throw out the corrupt$$$$$$$$$$$$$$…
    throw out the corrupt people……….
    and keep what is true and right…

    • A lot of us here believe that although conventional psychiatry only makes things worse and disables people needlessly we are in favor of psych drugs in this scenario:

      Mrs. Infantine goes to her GP. Mrs. Infantine has been unhappy. Her husband has been emotionally abusive and unfaithful. Her teenage son will dis her in public. She wants to find a job, but after years as a homemaker it seems impossible. Mrs. Infantine never exercises. She crash diets to fit into formal gowns quite often, but generally she overeats and doesn’t worry about nutrition. She refuses to do anything proactive to make herself feel better–journaling, taking an art class at the Y, swimming, volunteering, or learning a new language.

      Instead she vegetates in front of the tube 12 hours a day. From the endless drug commercials she watches, Mrs. Infantine becomes convinced she is one sick woman. Why else isn’t she laughing and smiling all the time? Thanks to the commercials she knows Happiness is just a pill away.

      Mrs. Infantine visits her family GP, Dr. Ethics. She tells him she is sure she is desperately ill with the disease Depression caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain, because the commercials told her so. She demands he immediately put her on Zoloft.

      Dr. Ethics is a dying breed because he doesn’t accept “token” gifts from Big Pharma and tells patients the truth. He tries to explain to Mrs. Infantine that SSRI’s usually are no better than bits of colored gelatin in helping sadness, but unfortunately the negative effects are very real. And does she really want a diagnosis of being “mentally ill”?

      When he starts to explain this, Mrs. Infantine gets upset and starts to throw a temper tantrum. She screams and rants about how stupid and corrupt Dr. Ethics is withholding life-saving treatments from a desperately sick woman like her. She threatens a law suit; when he still hesitates she lies on the floor and holds her breath!

      After she comes to Dr. Ethics reluctantly gives her a referral to Dr. Pillshill the psychiatrist. He is more than happy to slap a diagnosis on her. Only instead of a nice “Depression” label Mrs. Infantine winds up with “Bipolar 1” and takes a bunch of drugs instead of just Zoloft.

      Although she got more than she bargained for, it’s hard to sympathize with Mrs. Infantine.

  6. Psychiatry, it is one of the oligarchs business models for controlling people . Maybe “duh” we should also have an anti- oligarch movement .Without compassion for victims of psychiatry we are lost. With it is the start of a revolution against promoters of heartlessness and the absurdities which grow out of it.