Szasz, Kripkenstein and mental illness.

Imagine that you found a complex and utterly alien object, of unknown and mysterious origin, washed up on a beach. Sometimes it does lots of confusing and incomprehensible things – sometimes it does nothing. You suspect it might be broken. But you cannot definitely know this without any frame of reference regarding what it is actually supposed to do – or if in fact, it has any purpose at all.

Saul Kripke, in writing about the ‘machine objection’ defence of dispositional accounts of meaning, makes a similar point (it’s probably where I got the idea from).  You can only say that an adding machine is functioning correctly if there is some fact in virtue of which it’s outputs are correct or not.

Reflecting on what Thomas Szasz wrote about psychiatry (and by extension, psychology), it strikes me that this is the position he would say that these disciplines are in – that they are trying to ‘fix’ minds, when they don’t know what the criteria for ‘correct’ functions consist of – or if such criteria even exist. To fix minds in this position is to impose one’s own (or one’s society’s) criteria on what they should be doing.

It would be like modifying the alien object to do what you want, but claiming that what you are doing constitutes repair.

I’m not sure that Szazs is 100% right. But I’ll try to remember this analogy next time I have to explain his views to 1st-year psychology students.


One thought on “Szasz, Kripkenstein and mental illness.”

  1. Please excuse my off the cuff and un-pondered comments below:
    (i haven’t changed much in this regard)

    I guess the above analogy would get even more confusing if the functioning of the alien object was such that it wasn’t ‘designed’ to produce outputs that could be judged as correct or incorrect at all in the first place?

    If the alien object ‘grew’, and simply either survived or reproduced successfully, then the criteria surrounding what it needs to do could be ill defined and might have even changed over time? (Though it remains likely that their could be a general criteria it needs to fill, rather then a specific correct/incorrect output?).

    An attempt to judge (probably based on one’s own view, or societies) the ‘correct’ function of what *alien objects (or minds) do might be completely off the mark when it comes to understanding how *minds evolved and survived… From this perspective whether the function makes ‘sense’ to an external observer could very well be irrelevant for so long that its behavior/functions (seen as logical, illogical or otherwise) allowed it to flourish and survive then the criteria of making sense to a judge might be besides the point.
    So… if it ain’t broken don’t fix it, as they say?

    Yet, Of course… the function of speculating about what is the correct function might itself be a useful behavior for a critter to have ey!?


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