Dr Lorna Finlayson (University of Essex): "Madness, present and pervasive: Laingian social pathology and the spectre of organicism"
Talk of a ‘mad world’ is common in everyday discourse – and its aptness is arguably growing by the day – but it has rarely been taken seriously by philosophers. In beginning to remedy this, I take my inspiration from outside of the discipline: the work of ‘radical psychiatrist’ R. D. Laing. A cult figure in the 1960s but since consigned to relative obscurity, Laing’s key contribution was to make madness, including the process of going mad, comprehensible. Operating with a version of a thought familiar to many philosophers, namely that to make something truly comprehensible is to show it to be rational, Laing also took himself to be showing us the paradoxical sense in which being or going mad is not mad at all, but rational, even sane. The flipside of this, clearly present but far less developed in Laing’s writings, is that ‘sane’ society itself is mad (‘our present pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom’) - and that what we call ‘madness’ is both its product and a source of insight into this broader social condition.
The radical inversion of categories (‘mad’ / ‘sane’) that this involves, the location of the source of critical leverage within the existing social world (in the form of clinical ‘madness’), as well as the treatment of society as a totality (a ‘mad’ whole in which the individual, family, politics, and the institutions and disciplines concerned with the ‘treatment’ of mental illness are inextricably interconnected), hold clear promise from the point of view of critical theory. Yet the Laingian diagnosis of a mad (and maddening)
world is liable to be found at least as problematic as it is alluring. Belonging as it does to the wider project of social pathology – in which a society or social formation is diagnosed as pathological or ‘sick’ – this diagnosis faces ubiquitous worries over ‘organicism’ (the tendency to treat social objects on the model of individual organisms). For those who worry that organicism entails an unacceptable metaphysical extravagance or ‘queerness’, the worry presses all the more strongly in the case where the diagnosis is one of ‘madness’, or mental illness – for such a diagnosis appears to entail the problematic conclusion that societies possess minds analogous to the minds of human individuals. In this paper, I explore the problem of organicism and argue that it should neither lead us to abandon the project of social pathology in general, nor to dismiss the more particular Laingian diagnosis of a mad world.