Mixed Bag #11: Sofia Jeppsson on Philosophy of Madness
“Mixed Bag” is a series where I ask an expert to select 5 items to explore a particular topic: a book, a concept, a person, an article, and a surprise item (at the expert’s discretion). For each item, they have to explain why they selected it and what it signifies. — Awais Aftab
Sofia Jeppsson, PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Umeå University / Ubjeme Universitiähta in northern Sweden. She is the author of numerous papers on philosophy and madness that draw on her own lived experiences, including Psychosis and Intelligibility (2021), My strategies for dealing with radical psychotic doubt – a schizo-something philosopher’s tale (2022), Radical psychotic doubt and epistemology (2022), and Exemption, self-exemption and compassionate self-excuse (2022). She teaches ethics to medical students and nurses, as well as a summer course on the philosophy of psychiatry and mental health. Her interview with Shelley Tremain for Biopolitical Philosophy offers more details about her background and philosophical career. You can access her personal website here.
Book—Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (1996)
Jeppsson: I thought long and hard about this one. The obvious book choice for a section on madness and philosophy is Wouter Kusters’ A Philosophy of Madness. But I’m gonna go a really non-obvious route instead, and say Christine Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity. I first read it as a master’s student and wrote my master’s thesis on it, and it further led me to read Kant’s critiques.
I started my philosophy career writing more abstract, neo-Kantian texts about free will and moral responsibility (much inspired by Korsgaard’s short discussions on the topic in Sources and other books). It took years (and job security) before I began analyzing and publishing about my own madness. However, looking back, I think there’s a thread running from Kant and Korsgaard to my present work.
Kantianism isn’t relativist—Kant and modern Kantians like Korsgaard try to base both moral philosophy and epistemology on truly universal facts about the human condition, on the way in which all of us are wired to perceive the world and reason about it. But there’s still this recognition that we can’t step outside of ourselves and perceive, think, and learn about the world from some perfectly objective “view of the universe.” Once the foundations are in place, we can use science, rational argument, and so on to separate what’s true from what’s false, but we must ultimately rely on a foundation of “just the way we’re wired.”
Kant and modern Kantians like Korsgaard try to base both moral philosophy and epistemology on truly universal facts about the human condition, on the way in which all of us are wired to perceive the world and reason about it. But there’s still this recognition that we can’t step outside of ourselves and perceive, think, and learn about the world from some perfectly objective “view of the universe.”
I think many philosophers find these ideas disturbing—including Kant and many Kantians, who struggle madly (pun intended) to make whatever foundation they still have for epistemology and morality seem as secure as possible. It gets even more disturbing when you consider how chasms might open up between the worlds of people who are differently wired, between the mad and the sane. But we shouldn’t shy away from these insights.
Concept—Bedrock or hinges
Jeppsson: Wittgenstein wrote of how our knowledge of the world ultimately goes back to some very basic common sense, things we just know or just accept but can’t argue for—rather, any rational argument presupposes that this foundation is in place already. (There are parallels one may draw to the Kantian tradition mentioned above, but Wittgenstein and the “hinge epistemologists” he inspired seem so much more complacent about the situation.) Psychologists John Rhodes and Richard Gipps then wrote a couple of papers on how loss of bedrock/hinges (or going “unhinged”, to use the pun that Gipps and I independently came up with) can explain why madpeople sometimes hold beliefs that seem utterly bizarre to the sane.
I don’t think there’s only one explanation for why madpeople sometimes stick to strange delusions. Just going by my own case (I discuss this in my Psychosis and Intelligibility article from 2021) I’m certain that several different factors play a part. But bedrock loss is certainly very important. Regardless of what other issues a madperson currently struggles with (strong and persistent illusions/hallucinations, altered logic, or any of the other things I discuss in my paper), bedrock loss is sufficient on its own to undermine any attempt to prove to them that their delusions are false.
Jeppsson: I think Justin Garson’s work and his fairly new distinction between “madness as dysfunction” and “madness as strategy” will continue to grow and grow in influence and importance in the future.
“Madness as dysfunction” and “madness as strategy” refer to two different views on madness which Garson traces through history in his recent book Madness: A philosophical exploration, and which cuts across more familiar distinctions like biological vs social explanations.
“Madness as dysfunction” and “madness as strategy” refer to two different views on madness which Garson traces through history in his recent book Madness: A philosophical exploration, and which cuts across more familiar distinctions like biological vs social explanations. Most doctors, philosophers, and other scholars have held a somewhat mixed view, but they often lean heavily to one side. Roughly, on the dysfunction view, going mad is analogous to having an asthma attack—when your windpipe closes up and you start to suffocate, that’s a dysfunction in the breathing apparatus. It serves no function, we just want to prevent and fix this. On the strategy view, madness is rather analogous to fever when you have the flu. The fever is a sign that something has gone wrong in your body—it’s been invaded by harmful viruses. The fever might also cause problems in and of itself if it gets too high. Still, it fills a useful function, in that it slows down viral reproduction and helps your body fight the infection. Similarly, madness might help you, e.g., work through and process trauma, even if it also causes problems of its own.
Article—Radical psychotic doubt and epistemology (2022)
Jeppsson: I’m gonna engage in shameless self-promotion here and select my own recent paper, “Radical Psychotic Doubt and Epistemology” published open access and online ahead of print in Philosophical Psychology. I think this paper truly shows how much potential there is for mad phenomena to inform philosophy and its arguments, and for philosophy to help people deal with their madness.
“Radical Psychotic Doubt” is a term I invented for the state of doubting very basic matters—you might have lost your bedrock (see above), or at least feel it wobble beneath your feet. Many epistemologists who build on Wittgenstein and his common-sense ideas claim that so-called hinge commitments are impossible to doubt, or at least impossible to doubt in any coherent way that preserves rational thinking. By drawing both on my own experiences and various fictional cases (I think it’s often useful to compare my mad experiences to the experiences of fictional characters in works of fantasy, science fiction, and horror), I show that they’re wrong, and, subsequently, that common arguments against skepticism are quite weak and unsatisfying. In short, I hope to use madness to shake up complacent epistemologists a bit!
But I also discuss how embracing a kind of philosophical skepticism has helped me deal with my madness. My likewise mad colleague Paul Lodge at Oxford has used similar strategies—perhaps this and other philosophical strategies have the potential to help lots of people. (Our upcoming workshop in Oxford in September might shed some light on this issue!)
Surprise item—Useful dissociation
Jeppsson: I’ve never been precisely diagnosed, but have been placed somewhere in the schizo- ballpark by doctors. Like many schizos, I’ve got a somewhat odd relationship with my body. I’ve also suffered badly from insomnia since I was a young child, and have been on sleeping pills for much of my adult life. When the pills didn’t work anymore, I had to find some way to sleep without them. Eventually I figured out that it’s mostly my body that keeps me awake—the heart goes too fast for sleep, the muscles are too tense—and also, to some extent, thoughts that go round and round in the brain. So the trick is to pull back from them. First, I make myself so small that I fit in the head, leave the rest of the body behind, so I don’t feel my heartbeat or muscle tension anymore. Then I make myself even smaller, roughly pea-sized, leaving most of the brain and all the thoughts that spin around in there behind, so I can’t feel them anymore. And then I finally feel relaxed and fall asleep.
Fellow mad philosopher Zsuzsanna Chappell said, when I described this process to her, that it sounded like a kind of voluntary and controlled dissociation, which I guess might be an apt description. And of course it’s no surprise to readers of this blog that people sometimes dissociate—but it might come as a surprise that it can be both voluntary and very useful. Insomnia is terrible, having a trick to alleviate it is incredibly beneficial. I think it’s particularly interesting that this trick, as useful as it is, is so contrary to popular mindfulness exercises and the idea that feeling connected to your body is crucial for mental health.
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