The concept of madness

The following is an extract from Matthew Blakeway’s book, The Logic of Madness:

Madness, melancholy, insanity, lunacy, craziness, unsound mind, mental disorder, unreason, loco, mental illness – a dizzying array of words has been used to describe a condition that we have never truly understood. In each age, there has been an accepted way of discussing this subject depending upon how the condition was perceived. The term ‘lunacy’, for example, stems from the ancient belief that madness was caused by the moon. The classical term was ‘melancholy’, even though it was recognised this could include unreasonable ecstasy. In times when madness was seen as benign, people with this condition were known as ‘holy fools’ or ‘idiots’. In times when madness was feared or subject to prejudice, the terms used sounded derogatory, such as ‘insanity’ or ‘unreason’. When philanthropists, such as Daniel Tuke, took over responsibility for the management of the mad in the eighteenth century, we changed the terms to reflect a more humane approach. He adopted the French term ‘mental alienation’. This, he said ‘conveys a more just idea of this disorder, than those expressed which imply, in any degree, the “abolition of the thinking capacity”’. Then, in the nineteenth century, physicians became involved in the study of madness, and we started to call it ‘mental illness’. General concept words started to sound technical, medical, or were simply spoken in Latin.

Sigmund Freud completely changed how we talked about and understood ourselves, where everything was discussed in terms of madness. For half a century after his death, everybody thought that he or she was a psychiatrist, and it was normal to diagnose your own neuroses and complexes, as well as those of your friends. Everybody was a ‘crazy mixed-up kid’. These ideas were applied to society as a whole, ultimately leading to the ‘psychiatrisation’ of everything. Even sociology became a branch of psychiatry with widespread talk of juvenile delinquency and the degenerate society.

Psychiatry today tends to avoid the term ‘mental illness’, since an illness implies something wrong with the functioning of the physical body. Instead, the term ‘mental disorder’ is considered more appropriate. This change of nomenclature does not disguise the fact that the field of psychiatry is still not certain whether mental disorders are caused by a malfunction with the physical brain, such as a neurological or chemical cause, or something ‘psychological’.

To date, there has been no agreed causal theory of madness. We do not even have an explanation of what madness is. We just think we know what it looks like. This is little different from the situation that existed in the seventeenth century. Changing the terms we use disguises the fact that psychiatry is still not even a young science. It cannot become a science until it has consensus regarding a structural theory.

The general aim of my work is to put psychology on the same shelf as alchemy. I do not understand what psychology is or what it is trying to prove. This book will not give madness a new name, but it will explain a theory on how it works and create some new technical terms for different structures. These structures are logical in nature, and once we realise this, perhaps we will need to change the way we talk about madness yet again.

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