In a paper given to the University of Quebec Montreal Philosophy of Psychiatry Webinar series in January, Professor Nev Jones explains the political aspects of traditional philosophical approaches to madness and calls for an ethical reckoning with the dominant approach. For Jones, psychosis is more than an object of abstract theorizing: it is a matter of meaningful lived experience.
She argues that psychosis “could never be divorced from the structural vectors of poverty, incarceration and various neoliberal welfare schemes, but has always been intimately bound up with them.”
Yet recent forays into the study of psychopathology or phenomenological psychiatry continue to depict the mad as affected by an “impaired morality” or even “moral idiocy.” While perhaps surprising in the 21st century, this approach to madness is certainly not a historical anomaly.
As Jones observes, such “claims regarding the different, alternative or impaired morality and existential orientation of persons with disabilities” have been, for at least two centuries, central to colonial constructions of race and “natives,” which were in turn used to justify such European innovations as colonial genocide and the transatlantic slave trade (and, later, American eugenics, which significantly influenced the Nazis).
Is there something in the relationship between madness and philosophy that explains this history of the present? Drawing on the work of French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, Jones argues that “when it comes to psychosis most especially, the position of madness as not just an other, both the constitutive other of reasons or logos.”
Relatedly, we see in the history of philosophy and phenomenological psychopathology a fetishization of psychosis. The enabling conditions of this exotifying and exclusionary approach to madness (as other and as a fetish) surely have something to do with Western academic philosophy’s demographics problem, its totalizing approach to truth and knowledge, and its animating drive for mastery of the unknown.
Indeed, Jones writes, in an attempt to master the unknown, the practice of phenomenological psychiatry often results in the “exclusion and subjugation of the very individuals with the experiences in question, except, of course, as informants stripped of an epistemic agency which can only truly belong to the trained phenomenologist, with his distance from the subject, with his particular claims to … truth.”
All of this results in a tradition of studying madness and the mad “without ever thinking about [us] as people.” And, as we have seen throughout the history of psychiatry – in, for example, brutal conditions of institutionalization, medical experimentation, and sterilization – fetishizing psychosis becomes “a further enabling condition and form of dehumanization.”
As Jones concludes:
“When it comes to historically subjugated others, the moral stakes are, needless to say, always high. But, in the context of psychiatry, I’d take this one step further and, as the idiom goes, call it high time not just for a heightened awareness of the stakes but a deeper moral reckoning. And that won’t happen without real – structural and institutional, as well as individual – change.”
Jones, N. (2022). “To do justice to madness: orienting to the politics of phenomenological psychopathology.” Unpublished paper presented at the UQAM Philosophy of Psychiatry Webinar Series. (Link)