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Thursday, January 28, 2016

PSYCHIATRY AGAINST ITSELF Radicals, Rebels, Reformers & Revolutionaries - A Philosophical Archaeology

Journal of the International Association of Transdisciplinary Psychology

Radicals, Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries

A Philosophical Archaeology[1]

Vincenzo Di Nicola[2]


This essay inverts the logic of anti-psychiatry to describe various movements critical of the profession as psychiatry against itself. Like Alain Badiou’s contrast of philosophers with anti-philosophers, anti-psychiatrists compel the established tradition of psychiatry to confront fresh problems with new perspectives to renew psychiatric thought. The dual themes that emerge from this study are: tradition vs. innovation and negation vs. affirmation.

This thesis is threefold: (1) What is intriguing about the psychiatrists associated with the anti-psychiatry movement and what unites them is negation. In each case, their work proceeds by a key critical negation, to the point that the defining characteristic of anti-psychiatric psychiatrists is precisely negation. (2) Each negation and how it was practised made each anti-psychiatrist, depending on his temperament and circumstances, into a rebel, a radical, a reformer or a revolutionary anti-psychiatrist. (3) Each anti-psychiatrist wielded an instrument for change that I have coined Badiou’s sickle. Based on a key critical negation, each anti-psychiatrist resisted the suturing of psychiatry to a given subdiscipline, regional practice, or dominant ideology by separating it gently or more forcefully with Badiou’s scalpel, scissors, shears, scythe or sickle to liberate psychiatry as a general theory and practice and return it to its originary task. 

Four key 20th century Western psychiatrists who were critical of their field are examined through their basic attitudes and contributions to the redefinition of psychiatry. Scotsman Ronald David Laing (1927-1989) was a radical psychiatrist-psychoanalyst, returning psychiatry to its clinical roots, with his trenchant critiques of Ludwig Binswanger’s existential analysis and psychiatric practice generally, calling for social phenomenology, negating the mystification of mental illness by placing the suffering of the self in social, family, and political context. The French Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was both a subversive psychoanalyst and a psychiatric rebel, affirming the centrality of Freud in his construction of psychoanalysis while rebelling against both the psychoanalytic and psychiatric establishment, negating the institutionalization of psychoanalytic practice, whether in the academy or in psychoanalytic institutes. Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia (1924-1980) was a reformer who instigated psychiatric deinstitutionalization around the world with his key text, L’Istituzione negata, “The Institution Negated” (1968) and by joining the Radical Party in the Italian Parliament that reformed Italy’s mental health legislation. As a psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary, Martinican Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) negated nothing less than the claim of European psychiatry to universalism in his radical critiques of the psychology of colonization and identity formation, offering a more humane psychology on which to found psychiatry in a revolutionary program for a new society. Fanon’s critiques were far more trenchant than other anti-psychiatrists, with far-reaching impacts on critical theory, post-colonial studies and Marxist political theory, yet his project remained unfulfilled when he died all-too-young, bequeathing us psychiatry’s unfinished revolution.

       Two other critical thinkers are examined to complete this study. One is Hungarian-American Thomas Szasz (1920–2012) whom I characterize as a reactionary psychiatrist in the guise of a progressive who negated the reality of psychiatric disorders. Szasz trivialized mental and relational suffering as mere “problems in living,” arguing against the majority of psychiatric disorders having biomedical origins, thus promoting the medical model in its most reductive form. In contrast with the other anti-psychiatrists, Szasz’s negation was destructive, leading the way to greater stigmatization of mental illness and diminished resources and services. Finally, the work of French psychologist and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) overshadows the entire discourse of anti-psychiatry, just as he informs and impels us to reorder medical perceptions and psychiatric thought, upending the very “order of things.” Foucault’s negation was the most disturbing to psychiatric thought because he questioned the very basis for imagining madness and reason/unreason.

[1] Prepared for a seminar on “Psychiatry and the Humanities” at the University of Montreal Department of Psychiatry that is also offered as a course in the Faculty of Medicine. The ideas were elaborated as part of my philosophical investigations for a doctorate in philosophy at the European Graduate School, Trauma and Event: A Philosophical Archaeology (Di Nicola, 2012b). This essay sets out some of the key ideas I will explore in a forthcoming book with the working title, Deconstructing Crazy: Letters to Young Psychiatrists.

[2] Vincenzo Di Nicola, M.Phil., M.D., Ph.D., F.R.C.P.C, F.A.P.A., is a psychologist, psychiatrist and philosopher. Di Nicola is a tenured Full Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal where he is Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and founder of a seminar and course on Psychiatry and the Humanities.


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