Expanded descriptions of Fall 2017 courses


Perry Mason: Philosophy and Psychiatry – Some Questions

The course will consider some philosophical questions about psychiatry and mental illness in general, though without presuming to offer an exhaustive coverage of relevant questions.

The most basic question concerns how mental illness or disease or disorder is to be defined. This question has two main aspects. First, what makes such a disorder mental? As opposed to what? To physical? biological? neural? Does the very idea rest on a crude mind-body dualism? Second, in what sense is what we call a mental disorder a form of sickness, something that calls for a medical approach? More to the point, we will ask whether the states of affairs designated as mental disorders are in fact best conceived on “the medical model” as illnesses for which we should seek cures or at least amelioration, rather than as non-medical “problems in living” for which we should seek practical solutions or improvements.

A second basic question can be put broadly this way: What are the various mental disorders? If there are different kinds of disorder, how do they differ and how are they similar? And how, then, are they to be categorized or classified? Is there a scientifically acceptable classification scheme for mental disorders? If there isn’t, so what? What aspects of the disorders are relevant to their classification? Their symptoms? Their causes? At what stage(s) of life do they tend to appear?

A third question arises already in the second one above, the question of how diagnoses are to be made. In this regard, much hangs on whether a given disorder is characterized “categorically” as definitely having (rather than definitely lacking) a specific set of symptoms or “dimensionally” as representing an unfortunate degree of some characteristics present to lesser degrees in perfectly healthy persons.

Finally, we will deal a bit with the question of to what extent a mental disorder can undermine one’s responsibility for his or her actions. The question of culpability is treated in various ways in the legal context, and we will look at several of them to suggest possibilities for settling the matter in the context of morality.

The literature in this area is vast, growing, and often forbidding in its reliance on arcane jargon of philosophy or of psychiatry or of both. We will definitely look at some key portions of the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Matters (from WHO) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (from the APA). And helpful writings from disputants in the area will be provided in electronic and/or duplicated form.