[Robert Spillane, Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management, vol. 3, no. 2 (July 1997), pp. 53-55. PDF.]
SZASZ, THOMAS (1996)
The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality and Neuroscience
Westport, Connecticut: Praeger
Given the alarming rate of increase in stress claims (reported by Comcare and others) and given Australians’ propensity to engage in litigation following the RSI era, there are good reasons for managers to be kept informed of developments in the fields of clinical psychology and psychiatry. However, these fields are dominated by diverse and contradictory views about the logical status of the mind and of mind (mental) illness. A new book by Thomas Szasz is therefore timely and important for the discipline of management.
In 1961 Thomas Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness, which contained a disarmingly simple thesis. Since illness can affect only the body, and since the mind is not a bodily organ, there can be no mental illness. So mental illness is a metaphor: minds can be ‘sick’ only in the sense that economies can be ‘sick’. It follows that ‘mental illness’ is not something a person has, but is something (s)he does or says. Szasz used hysteria as an example of how a metaphor was literalised, how lying became illness. The same transformation occurred, he argues, with schizophrenia, the sacred symbol of psychiatry, and the title of his 1976 book.
In his 24th book, Szasz’s target is those neuroscientists — or neuromythologists — who believe that the mind is the brain. Szasz argues that only as a verb does the word ‘mind’ name something — attending or heeding. Modern neuroscience, he argues, is a misdirected effort to explain ‘mind’ in terms of brain functions, and psychiatry is a misdirected effort to explain mental illness as brain disease. A consequence of these efforts is the undermining of the notions of moral agency and personal responsibility. The view that the mind is the brain is not an empirical finding — indeed how could it be? — but a rhetorical ruse concealing humanity’s struggle to control individuals by controlling their language.
The central thesis — influenced by George Herbert Mead — is that the ‘mind’ is mediated through language which enables us to engage in self-conversation. The ‘mind’ is identified with the dialogue within. Chapter 1 analyses the relationship between ‘mind’ and language and the phenomenon of ‘hearing voices’. For Szasz abnormal rumination (say auditory hallucinations) is self-conversation. ‘So-called hallucinations, hypochondriacal preoccupations, obsessional thoughts, and so forth are all instances of self-conversations’ (p 15). Critics will object that such self-conversations are beyond the control of the individual. Not so, says Szasz, who believes it is an error to frame these phenomena in terms of the individual’s alleged inability to control his thoughts. Thinking, talking to others and talking to oneself are voluntary acts. Self-conversation is normal and hearing voices a universal phenomenon. Read More