Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Sane in the Membrane

This morning our seminar discussion in Phil 301 touched upon the relationship between philosophy and madness. We talked about the idea that philosophers all seem to be mad or at the very least depressive. I thought it would be interesting to flip this around and think about the question of philosophy and sanity. This is a question which has, for better or worse, been omitted from recent philosophy. In contrast, it has been very fashionable to discuss the insane, as we see in Foucault’s History of Madness and Deleuze’s Schizo-Analysis, and indeed it is quite commonplace and even fashionable to suggest that everyone has a bit of madness in them. Why is this? Why is philosophy bereft of descriptions of sanity? What does a human have to be to be sane? It is very tempting to answer this question by resorting to clinical or negative definitions i.e. a subject is sane if they do not exhibit the symptoms of madness. If madness - which can be the result of many things, both internal and external - is not present, then the subject is sane. This would correlatively entail that when certain neurological patterns are present a subject is sane. While this may be true in a clinical sense, it remains unsatisfying for explaining why sanity does not have a rich conceptual heritage in our everyday existence and our philosophical heritage, and it does not explain why it is absent from our bank of cultural tropes and memes. I mean we could easily imagine an evolutionary account of insanity but not sanity. We just don’t see movies and great poetry made about sane people. Drama and excitement is probably always more interesting, which is why what the swashbuckler and adventurer does, would be considered mad in the ordinary sense. I’m not saying sanity is absent from culture, it just always seems more tacit. I can’t think of any great philosopher who has dealt with this issue in depth off the top of my head, at least in a positive sense. Erich Fromm did write the on the sane society but that was a critique of the illusion of sanity. Again, what does it mean to go sane?

Therefore, the question of sanity would make for a very interesting philosophical research proposal (second years? Dissertations? Any takers?). What does it mean to be sane? Adopting a provisional ordinary language approach we might mention the following positive features to get us started: stability, regularity, mental harmony, reasonableness, sobriety, coolness, judgemental, soundness. These would I suppose be some basic touchstones albeit internal human qualities; this would have to be compounded by external factors such as a flourishing society, an ability to keep friends, social stability and opportunity, and a low crime rate. All of these remain provisional of course, since one can easily show that the mask of the psychopath and sociopath is their ability to adopt the ‘reality’ of the sane; this would be where they would function best. The juridical definition of compos mentis (mental know-how or ability), although more attractive and useful, would seem to fall short in light of this also.

I think it is worth considering sanity outside of a hard rational approach. One of the first things that I think I would suggest would be a phenomenological principle. Sanity would, as Husserl suggest be intentional. It would always already be world-oriented. Sane existence would require the backdrop of a world to always accompany whatever conscious content we experience. This would entail that the world and not solipsism is always at stake for us. Once this is in place any other deviation from it can be accounted for, or have a base origin from which different content can be derived from. On top of this I think it would be wise to consider sanity in terms of moderation. [Kind of like leaving the radio on for the dog when you leave the house!] This would be compounded by an Aristotelian principle. Moderation requires a practical and measured orientation towards the world, one which is both habituated and open to new possibilities. In this sense, the human subject will have a degree of freedom and necessity, balance as well as the ability to cope with unpredictability. I do think that we can learn from Derrida’s deconstructive logic here also. The binary between sane/insane is both basic and overly reductive. If we looked at sanity from a deconstructive perspective we can see why sanity requires a smidge of, if not insanity, at least the very least some minimal deviance. If our lives always have some degree of undecidability and disjointedness, then this is absolutely necessary for a sane existence. This is because sanity requires an ability to engage in struggle and overcoming. The ability to cope with conflict signifies a distinct and world-oriented maturity; in a sense learning to live with the struggle that we are. In addition, we can thus we can say that sanity requires self-development. There is also a moment here where the deconstructive logic would trump Hegel and Freud. If consciousness is a demand for self-recognition, and a desire to possess the others self recognition, then this can lead to all types of mental deferrals and insurmountable neurosis. If human existence is disjointed, then the deconstructive approach would allow us to see the incessant demand for self-recognition [think of the myriad places this is evident in contemporary culture and market hyper-narcissism] overcome, since those who are sane are in less need of being recognized; again an example of maturity, unlike the child who always demands constant attention. To put in simple terms, people who are aware of their lack of control, and exist in relation to and are comfortable with this unpredictability, aware of the limitations that face us all, and who do not think the world owes them a favour, are the sanest of all. Sanity requires understanding how abilities and limitations are intertwined and that this is our normal condition. It is just absurd to suggest that we are essentially success or essentially failure. Sanity requires an attention for out amor fati. Humans are more ambiguous than that, we have the ability to cope with the fact that it is alright to be both good and bad at the same time. Politically, and this is another big question, this has to be matched and cultivated in a just society.

The question of sanity is an intriguing question? Can anyone think of representations in literature of sane people? Has there ever been a celebration of sanity? Brief Encounter is a movie that springs to mind. But that would not hold a candle in the canon compared to Hamlet’s teetering on the brink.


  1. Yes, more Wittgenstein of course!

    Wittgenstein castigated philosophy for its insanities and believed that his philosophy was a therapeutic cure for philosophy's 'metaphysical excessess'.

    For him, by returning to the safe routines of everyday practices we achieve a kind of 'sanity'. There is of course something to this.

    However, this of course begs an important question - posed by Laing in the 1960s. Is it really possible to be 'sane in an insane world'?

    Might accommdtion to this world be the ultimate insanity, to the extent that all calls for sanity are an apologia for a collective madness that has to be contested; critqued?

    Can we only achieve sanity in a 'sane society'? And what would such a society look like?

    Neil Turnbull

  2. I think that the reason why writers in any genre have little interest in sanity per se (and I am talking about fiction here) is because sanity is perceived as "the norm" and therefore not considered to be worthy of representation. The idea being that audience/readers themselves are ordinary, and therefore "normal" sane people, and thus seek the extraordinary (ie different degrees of madness, or at least lesser sanity/normality) in their escapist material. One finds it difficult to escape from everyday reality into a reality which too closely resembles our own.
    So, for example, a protagonist requires some minimal points of identification for the audience ie is seldom totally "insane", or at least not till the cathartic moment in the narrative is reached. The audience may then relax, once the tension generated by the blurred borderlines between the sane/insane dichotomy is resolved, and normality ie sanity, resumes...

  3. We need to aware that there has been a massive increase in people with mental health problems in recent years.

    Official figures show that about 1 in 3 people will experience a ‘mental health problem’ at some point in their lifetime. Depression is by far the most common ‘mental health problem’ in terms of people presenting themselves with problems to official health practitioners – but increasingly people are presenting themselves to therapists of various kinds with unspecified symptoms – vague feelings of dissatisfaction, a 'Mick Jagger syndrome' - that are hard to fit into conventional diagnostic categories. Many people feel a sense that they cannot manage their identities well; they feel lost and don’t really know who they are.

    How are philosophers to respond to these problems? By advocating more therapy and more money spent on mental health provision in the NHS? This kind of response only individualises the problem.

    Moreover, often there is a social cause underlying these feelings of personal distress.Perhaps people are legitimately depressed - in fact, certain social psychologists, such as Alloy and Abramson, suggest that depressives are depressed because they have a more accurate view of the world than non-depressives! Where war, economic insecurity, and global poverty prevail – who wouldn’t get depressed at times? In a way, it is non-depressives who 'view the world through rose-coloured spectacles'.
    So – as the old Tears for Fear song goes – its not us who are mad, 'it’s a mad world'.

    Neil Turnbull

  4. I guess that there tends to be ambiguity attached to any set of statistics, which we must be wary of. Rather than a literal rise in people with mental illness, there may instead have have been increasing numbers of people who are judged-or who view themselves to have-mental health "issues". If what Foucault says has any purchase whatsoever, then the medicalisation and classificatory mechanisms of mental health (here's a pill, it will make you better) is responsible for a rise in people who seek help, who think that they have a "problem". Perhaps prior to this historical phase, people still got symptoms of depression but they weren't classified-and therefore officially recognised, or statistically counted-as such. Certainly the pills rather than talking cure approach seems to be on the increase in certain quarters, treat the symptoms, not the cause.

  5. The Foucauldain take on all this is interesting.

    It tends to assume that we can no longer see selves as fixed and static things. For Foucauldians selves are not fixed but historically fluid; not trapped in the skin but dispersed across social space; not simply a matter of consciousness but a matter of language. Selves in this sense are narrated and through narrating them we develop a sense of our own identity. And of course official psychological discourses of mental health are key narratives in just this respect.

    Suffice to say that this philosophy goes against the grain of common-sense in some quite significant ways.

    Humanists, however, would like to view selves as uniquely contained within the individual and in possession of some unique qualities – autonomy, rationality, and responsibility.

    I think humanism is important because philosophy is essentially a humanistic discipline.

    Focuault is an anti-philosopher I think (like Lacan).

    Neil Turnbull

  6. Interesting--so post/structuralists can't be classed as philosophers? I would like to think that there a space within the broad church that is Philosophy to question its humanist premises (if we assume that Philosophy is essentially humanist, of course!)

  7. This is an important question for me...

    Yes, 'anti-philosophy' is part of the discourse of philosophy. But the question is the extent to which we can differentiate anti-philosophy from the social sciences.

    Many social scientsts believe that they are the heirs to discipline 'the used to be called philosophy'. Is Foucault a social scientist or a philosopher? Is he part of the post-68 movement that became known in lieterary circles as 'Theory', or do his ideas relate to 'classically philosophical' themes and debates?

    I am not sure, but Foucault's influence has certainly been much greater in the social sciences that in philosophy.

    Neil Turnbull