Therapy and Theory




Therapy and Theory



In section 255 of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein remarks: “The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.” In section 593 he says: “A main cause of philosophical disease—a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.” In section 133 we find: “There is not a philosophical method, though there are different methods, like different therapies.” On this slender basis some interpreters have taken Wittgenstein to maintain two things: (a) philosophical perplexity is a kind of illness or disease and (b) philosophy is a therapeutic not a theoretical enterprise. I don’t think the passages cited support such an interpretation, but I am not concerned with Wittgenstein exegesis here. I want to ask whether there is any merit in theses (a) and (b) regardless of whether Wittgenstein advanced them. On the face of it the two theses are implausible: there is no recognized illness, medical or psychiatric, that consists in asking philosophical questions; and it is not true that philosophy consists in applying any recognized kind of therapy—psychotherapy, physiotherapy, or chemotherapy. No one feels ill, physically or mentally, when doing philosophy—if they did, we would be wrong to impose philosophy on people. We are not making people sick by having them study philosophy. Nor are we trying to cure people of any malady when conducting philosophical discussions with them, unless all intellectual discussion is deemed therapeutic just by being persuasion. It is thus hard to take such doctrines literally; and perhaps it is wrong to do so—Wittgenstein must be speaking metaphorically. It is as if philosophy is a disease and as if the correct philosophical method is therapy. But in what way is the metaphor meant to be illuminating—what similarities does it capture?

            The obvious way to proceed with this question is to ask whether any recognized illness has a counterpart in the case of a philosophical opinion or doctrine. Presumably we are speaking of mental not physical illness, so the question is whether any of the usual mental illnesses have a philosophical counterpart: bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, etc. I will suggest that there is at least one philosophical issue that fits such a description in relation to schizophrenia: there is a similarity between the symptoms of schizophrenia and the way philosophers have reacted to this issue. I mean, perhaps surprisingly, the issue of the semantics of definite descriptions: certain semantic theories of descriptions involve something like a main symptom of schizophrenia, namely ontological delusions. The schizophrenic characteristically believes in the existence of unreal things—he or she has a faulty sense of reality. Often these unreal things feed into paranoid fantasies, but they may also be merely fanciful. The patient confuses imagination with reality: merely imaginary objects are taken to be real objects. Most of us can distinguish what we imagine from what is real, but the deluded patient has lost this ability. The distinction between the real and the imaginary may become blurred or obliterated: there is no robust sense of reality, but a tendency to conflate fantasy and reality. The therapeutic task is to restore a sense of reality, whether by drugs or conversation or psychological exercises. Something is wrong with the patient’s mind, since there are no such objects in reality, and the doctor’s task is to cure the patient of the problem. Essentially the task is one of ontological rehabilitation.

            The relevance of all this to the semantics of descriptions should now be obvious: Meinong’s ontology is the counterpart to the schizophrenic’s delusions. I don’t mean to suggest that I myself find Meinong’s theory as preposterous as a madman’s delusions; I just mean that I can see a point in the comparison. When early Russell accepted Meinong’s theory he felt compelled to believe it through lack of any alternative theory; he didn’t believe it because of the evidence of his senses or because it was plain commonsense. There was something funny about the belief. We can imagine golden mountains, to be sure, but to count them among the real things of the universe strikes most people as pushing it. Russell was disturbed by this belief; it felt wrong to him. Maybe it even felt slightly mad. He would like to be cured of it—but how? The theory of descriptions came to the rescue: it enabled him to dispense with those spooky entities, and hence regain his intellectual sanity. The theory came as a relief, a release. Similarly, a schizophrenic experiencing a sudden cure might feel a sense of relief that those imagined objects are not real after all. They are just figments of the imagination, recognized as such. The ex-schizophrenic reevaluates his ontological commitments, experiencing relief; similarly, the ex-Meinongian sees his old ontology as misguided in the light of Russell’s theory, also experiencing relief. In both cases the disease was ontological excess, aided by an overactive imagination, though the treatment is different in the two cases—drugs in one case, logical analysis in the other (the therapy is a theory in the case of descriptions). But in both cases it is fair to speak of ontological delusion, disorders of thought, a sense that something is amiss, and a welcome release from error. There is thus a point to applying the notion of mental illness to philosophy, given that some mental illness is characterized by ontological misfiring—a distorted sense of reality. A schizophrenic who presented with symptoms of belief in golden mountains, unicorns, witches, and ghosts would be true to type.

            Ramsay described Russell’s theory of descriptions as “a paradigm of philosophy”: the suggestion would appear to be that his method generalizes. And it is true that philosophy is marked by ontological theories that seem extravagant, fanciful, and not quite sane. In addition to Meinong we have Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, Frege, early Wittgenstein, Godel, Lewis, and many others. Philosophers are forever positing stuff at which common sense recoils. That “incredulous stare” that Lewis spoke of is common because of all the incredible ontology bruited about by philosophers. Now again, it is not that I myself think all such ontology can be dismissed out of hand; my point is just that describing belief in it as analogous to a mental disorder is not misguided given that you reject it as crackers. The suggestion is that there is an analogy between this kind of ontology and the delusions of a schizophrenic. In both cases the human imagination has led to the belief in monsters (again, according to those who reject the entities in question). Philosophical error has a special character, shared by the delusions of the insane: it consists of ontological derangement. For a nominalist or a materialist or a positivist, philosophy is replete with ontological excess, just like schizophrenia. Those in the grip of such an inflated ontology don’t see it; they take themselves to be perfectly sane reasonable people. But to an outsider they seem prone to ontological pathology: they seem to have lost their ontological bearings. Thus one philosopher might exclaim to another, “That’s bonkers!” meaning that the ontology espoused goes beyond the bounds of sanity. And indeed a philosopher who accepts the ontology may feel proud of his courage in being so willing to abandon common sense. Part of the joy of philosophical madness is the feeling that you have seen what others have not seen—platonic universals, subsistent objects, Cartesian selves, possible worlds, Kantian noumena, the World Spirit. There is something intoxicating about all this—exciting, exhilarating, blood pumping. This is not everyday ontology but philosophical ontology—the kind that promises grand new vistas. Again, I am not saying that all such theories are signs of madness—just that it is natural to describe them that way if you don’t feel their charms. These are the kinds of things that madmen believe in—as opposed to tables and chairs, dogs and cats, atoms and galaxies.

            This does not apply to all of philosophy, obviously. It would not be appropriate to talk about political philosophy this way, or philosophy of biology, or normative ethics. This is metaphysics. So the thesis should really be that (some) metaphysics can be seen as analogous to mental illness, and hence in need of cure and therapy. When we think about metaphysical questions we are tempted by crazy ontological theories: that is, our mental state is analogous to the state of a madman in the grip of wild imaginings. We start to believe in what is merely imaginary. It is as if we have gone mad. The cure is not drugs or other non-discursive treatments; it is argument, theory. But argument and theory are often ineffective once the metaphysical madness has taken hold—as they are with ordinary madness. Someone who persists in subscribing to Meinong’s ontology in the face of Russell’s theory might well be accused of irrationally hanging on to crazy ideas when it has been demonstrated that there is no need to do so. Such intransigence might well be castigated as symptomatic of metaphysical derangement.

            Is there any other area of intellectual inquiry that merits, or might merit, the language of disease and treatment–or is it just philosophy? Do we find mad mythology masquerading as literal fact anywhere else? Are misguided practitioners regarded as suffering from mental illness in other disciplines? Certainly I have never read a text in another field in which the author says: “The so-and-so’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of a disease”. Not history, not geography, not physics, not biology, not psychology. No one else seems to think that his subject’s questions arise from mental illness. It is true that physics and psychology can lead to outbreaks of ontological extravagance, but that is surely because they have philosophical content. It is not madness to believe in electrons or the unconscious, as it might be thought madness to believe in golden mountains or immaterial substances. So philosophy (metaphysics) does seem unique in attracting such descriptions, and hence approximates to mental illness in a way that other disciplines do not.

Whether this is a bad thing depends on your view of mental illness: it is assumed to be a bad thing by the orthodox, but there have been others who have found in mental illness a higher form of sanity. Maybe Plato was mentally ill to believe in his Forms, but his views might still be truer than saner people’s. Better to be mad and right than sane and wrong, it may be said. We might do well to encourage metaphysical madness in the young, knowing that it does little or no real harm (unlike actual madness): it expands the mind. A bit of madness in philosophy (and elsewhere) might be a healthy thing.


Colin McGinn       

4 replies
  1. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    In your 2022 conversation ( is philosophy useful) you said:
    so I offered this argument that nobody’s offered before
    as far as I know: the color exists in the object (which is a material substance that has shape, and shape is not a mental thing); the perceiver isn’t the human mind
    or the mind of God but instead the object itself; and so the object has a mind because the object is red and red is mental and a mental thing needs a perceiver. So every object is a perceiver.
    Isnt this a metaphysical schizophrenia ?


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