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Thomas Szasz


Dr Thomas Stephen Szasz photographed by during his 90th birthday seminar in London.

Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) was a Hungarian psychiatrist and author of many books, including his best known work, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961).

Almost a decade before collaborating with The Church of Scientology, Szasz argued that the science behind psychiatry is essentially scientism. For Szasz, the term mental illness points to a social myth rather than an absolute fact. To borrow from the lingo of postmodernism, he believes that the idea of mental illness is a historically relative discourse, located in networks of power/knowledge.¹

Written before Henri Ellenberger’s landmark publication, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970), and around the same time as Michel Foucault‘s poststructural work, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961), Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness is often required reading for undergraduate courses in the Humanities at liberal-democratic universities.

Critics of Szasz’s perspective question his knowledge of genetics and neuroscience. And they point out that psychiatry, like any other science, is in a constant state of development. Depending on factors like the patient’s condition, the competency of the psychiatrist and the socio-political climate in which assessments are made, psychiatry may be used for good or ill. So it makes little sense to demonize it as a whole.

However, Szasz was prolific right up to his death. His later publications contain some sociological and philosophical insights but arguably reveal the unrealistically polarized views of a somewhat isolated but well-meaning humanitarian (e.g Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry, 1988; Psychiatry: The Science of Lies, 2008).

Again, most recognized psychiatric associations have rejected his ideas, a situation not entirely unlike an orthodox Church marginalizing so-called heresies. This polarization of anti-psychiatry vs. psychiatry is unfortunate because it probably makes all involved parties more intransigent, lessening their ability to see other perspectives.

Anti-Psychiatry Demonstration in Washington, D.C. “It’s not just Scientologists that don’t like Psychiatry and the big-pharma connection. Thousands joined my wife and I and people from all up and down the east coast for a big anti-psychiatry demonstration in D.C.” – Image and text by Jettero Heller via Flickr

When someone or a tight group is convinced they’re absolutely right and outsiders are entirely wrong, constructive dialogue usually disappears. And when dialog disappears among the whole spectrum of human inquiry, not only psychiatry suffers, but also its clients.

Taking a more moderate approach than Szasz, I would agree that psychiatry may fall short in the interpretation of behavioral and physiological differences. At some point, difference is often construed as a disorder, and the “appropriate” diagnostic labels are applied to patients.² Many patients believe in this perspective and see themselves as medically “ill.”

However, in some cases we may be witnessing variation instead of disorder. And in some instances differences could be preliminary trials, as it were, for key evolutionary changes to our species.³

Unfortunately, the evolutionary idea is hard to prove because we might have to wait a thousand years before finding out if there’s anything to it. But if true or even partially true, I think this expanded perspective could dramatically change how some psychiatric patients see themselves, possibly making them happier.

So to return to Szasz, I don’t see him as totally wrong. He has been roundly critiqued on a point-by-point basis by psychiatrists. But his overall objection deserves some attention. Otherwise, psychiatry becomes a new religion, which isn’t science at all, but as Szasz and many others put it, scientism.

¹ See Michel Foucault, discourse and counter-discourse for more.

² To continue in a postmodern vein, the word “appropriate” is often uncritically used to reinforce current attitudes, beliefs and practices.

³ Along these lines, spiritual and parapsychological factors are often dismissed. We rarely hear about the possibilities of healing grace, demonic influence, the transfer of sin or bona fide mind-reading in psychiatry.

Related Posts » DSM-IV-TR, Madness, Postmodernism, Unconscious



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3 thoughts on “Thomas Szasz

  1. “This polarization of anti-psychiatry vs. psychiatry is unfortunate because it probably makes all involved parties more intransigent, lessening their ability to see other perspectives.”

    I think this is what has happened over the centuries between science and the spiritual realm. The mutual prejudiced creates huge blind spots that diminish our species odds of survival.

    Very insightful post. Thank you.



  2. I agree with idea that difference is of evolutionary importance, because it takes different kinds of intelligences and forms of self expression to motivate collective creativity. We all have our unique contribution to make. Variety strenthens the whole and I believe that this is as true genetically as it is sociologically. There is a formidable amount of evidence to support this. Any great example of evolutionary success is enevitably accompanied by the cultivation of adaptation and resiliance through diversity.


  3. Hey guys, thanks both for your comments. The way I look at it is something like this: Imagine a society of highly intuitive people who don’t need to talk too much because they’re busy reading each others’ minds. Those who don’t have this ability might be the abnormals. Today, we have the reverse. But in the distant future, who knows. The balance might shift.


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