A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking

A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking


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The philosophy of psychosis and the psychosis of philosophy: a philosopher draws on his experience of madness.

In this book, philosopher and linguist Wouter Kusters examines the philosophy of psychosis—and the psychosis of philosophy. By analyzing the experience of psychosis in philosophical terms, Kusters not only emancipates the experience of the psychotic from medical classification, he also emancipates the philosopher from the narrowness of textbooks and academia, allowing philosophers to engage in real-life praxis, philosophy in vivo. Philosophy and madness—Kusters's preferred, non-medicalized term—coexist, one mirroring the other.

Kusters draws on his own experience of madness—two episodes of psychosis, twenty years apart—as well as other first-person narratives of psychosis. Speculating about the maddening effect of certain words and thought, he argues, and demonstrates, that the steady flow of philosophical deliberation may sweep one into a full-blown acute psychotic episode. Indeed, a certain kind of philosophizing may result in confusion, paradoxes, unworldly insights, and circular frozenness reminiscent of madness. Psychosis presents itself to the psychotic as an inescapable truth and reality.

Kusters evokes the mad person's philosophical or existential amazement at reality, thinking, time, and space, drawing on classic autobiographical accounts of psychoses by Antonin Artaud, Daniel Schreber, and others, as well as the work of phenomenological psychiatrists and psychologists and such phenomenologists as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He considers the philosophical mystic and the mystical philosopher, tracing the mad undercurrent in the Husserlian philosophy of time; visits the cloud castles of mystical madness, encountering LSD devotees, philosophers, theologians, and nihilists; and, falling to earth, finds anxiety, emptiness, delusions, and hallucinations. Madness and philosophy proceed and converge toward a single vanishing point.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262044288
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 12/01/2020
Pages: 800
Sales rank: 1,193,632
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Wouter Kusters is a Dutch philosopher and linguist. He is the author of Pure Madness. A Philosophy of Madness was awarded the Dutch Socrates Award in 2015 for best philosophy book in the Dutch language.

Read an Excerpt

How can we describe madness and distinguish it from nonmadness, or “normality”? How can we extract something from the stream of life, the ocean of experience, that we might call madness? Psychiatry uses the term “psychosis” for madness, which is described as follows by Johan Lezy in his detailed survey Psychose: verschijning, beleving, structuur (Psychosis: Appearance, Experience, Structure, 2007, 11): “Roughly speaking, ‘psychosis’ is what is popularly known as ‘insanity’: a condition in which the person loses himself in delusions, hallucinations, and incoherent thoughts.” To define exactly what these terms mean—loss of self, delusions, hallucinations, and incoherent thoughts—is what this book is all about. But Lezy’s description will suffice as a jumping-off point.
Anyone who has ever had an experience of “paranormal” reality will not always regard it as a “psychosis” but may look back on it as a time of confusion, a revelation, a spiritual journey, an illness, or a crazy period. What madness is, or what it might be, will be dealt with in the rest of this book. At this point I would like to show, by way of a few examples, that madness is different from normal, everyday existence—at least on the surface. To speak from my own experience, I have twice undergone uninterrupted periods, approximately two months each, in which I was “mad” and was diagnosed as “psychotic” by psychiatrists. Both periods are sharply etched in my memory; they differ from all the other periods in my life and, for this reason, are remarkably similar to each other, but they are separated by two decades.
I can easily point to a large number of occurrences, thoughts, perceptions, interpretations, and “lifestyles” that I experienced, which were decidedly different from those that happen in normal life. For example, I noticed that everyone over forty immediately understood all the languages of the world, which meant there were no real linguistic differences. I experienced and was convinced that there was no gulf between thinking and being. I feared that it was my turn to be crucified. I realized that I was telepathic. I understood that the internet had been invented by my father and my uncle and that I was being observed via spyware by a secret alliance (or conspiracy) of wise old men, all for the greater good. I discovered that the earth was flat and that flying was an illusion, the work of a widespread conspiracy. I was certain that God existed, and nothing but God.
Such strange experiences and thoughts form a seemingly incoherent skin of madness around a deeper, essential “spiritual change”—if not a cosmic change. This book discloses that other world, behind the smoke screens of what is so often dismissed as confusion, psychic disorder, and illness.
In my experience it is easy to make a first rough distinction between normality and madness without resorting to additional theory. But this book deals with my experience only insofar as it rises above the particular and reaches a general conceptual plane. To draw this work out of the autobiographical egosphere and move it to a more general level, further “objectification” is needed. In this light, my experience begins to bear a striking resemblance to those self-described by many others labeled “psychotic,” of which I will make extensive use. The collected works of Artaud, Wisdom, Madness and Folly by Custance, Uhren und Meere by Harald Kaas, and Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken by Schreber are so rich and expressive that we will meet them again and again throughout the book.
In addition to agreement over the concept of psychosis—among both madmen and psychiatrists—there are also areas of overlap, “family resemblances,” with diagnostic concepts such as schizophrenia and borderline syndrome. Psychosis itself can be subdivided into many different types, such as manic, depressive, and schizophrenic psychosis; drug-induced psychosis and psychosis brought on by trauma; chronic, acute, short-term, and mass psychosis; catatonic and paranoid psychosis, psychoses not otherwise specified, and so forth. As a rule I will speak of “psychosis” or “madness” unless otherwise specified (but see the reading guidelines below for a practical grasp of these terms).
Because the term “psychosis” is applied to so many different cases, my assertions will always be open to possible criticism along the lines of “this is not valid with regard to this or that kind of psychosis or psychotic person.” So be it. It is not my purpose to improve psychiatric classifications by adducing empirical experiential facts. My reason for using the terms “madness” and “psychosis” is precisely to circumvent medical-psychiatric classifications and, in so doing, to clear the way for the admission of madness to a domain of philosophy, culture, and spirituality. As soon as we have arrived there (in part III), we will make other “diagnoses” of an entirely new and different order, based on insights from philosophy and mysticism.
To what extent my analysis of madness corresponds with the lives of “real patients” will be reflected in the extent to which they feel addressed by my descriptions. At the outset, my focus and role model will be the acute psychotic patient. As we slowly manage to extricate the madman from the grip of psychiatry (as an attitude of mind), we will find that more and more experiences, thoughts, and pursuits in “normal” life rest on a substratum of madness. This will considerably expand the focus of what madness is. The fire of madness will be found smoldering beneath the experiences and activities of a whole range of human types: philosophers, mystics, poets, shamans, absurdists, magical realists, and many others.
In my book on psychoses, Pure Madness (2004), I wrote, “Because of the time constraints imposed by the essay contest, many ideas could only be dealt with briefly, indirectly, or cursorily. That is why this book is no more than an essay, literally a trial run. I hope to explore my ideas in greater depth in the coming years.”
This exploration is fulfilled in the book that lies before you: A Philosophy of Madness. This book has also been immeasurably enriched and deepened by an unsolicited shipment of fresh new “data.” I wrote Pure Madness seventeen years after my first psychosis, so I was basing it on old, somewhat crumbling memories. But for this new book, I had the opportunity to collect new memories, owing to another psychotic episode I had in the summer of 2007, twenty years after the first. It was a personal disaster, but for the writing of this book it was a blessing. Like it or not, I was able to “test” and modify my ideas in Pure Madness under actual psychotic conditions. So my decision to “explore my ideas in greater depth” after Pure Madness was more than theoretical. (I also graduated cum laude with a master’s degree in philosophy from Utrecht University). It had another practical side as well: I was committed to a psychiatric institution literally a stone’s throw from the building that housed the philosophy department.
A Philosophy of Madness is not only an opportunity to delve more deeply into existing material but contains significant additions: this book covers more of the gray zone between madness, mysticism, and spirituality (in parts II and III). During my participatory fieldwork in the isolation cell and the closed ward in 2007, my experiences extended far beyond the linguistic-semiotic analysis of Pure Madness, as the text and spirit of that work were still characterized by a basic trust in language. Although I demonstrated there how signs dissolve and disappear during psychosis, I still believed that language would be capable of articulating and registering its own disappearance.
In 2007 I was much more aware than in 1987 of the experience of breaking through the boundaries of language—and thereby the boundaries of thought—and reaching a new domain of madness that bears a strong affinity with religious and mystical experiences and is light years away from the psychiatric assessment or the autobiographical narratives about “recovery,” “self-management,” “acceptance,” and so on. In later parts of this book, I will make use of a great deal of data from autobiographies and writings that bring up notions such as ineffability, infinity, ecstasy and anxiety, revelations, messianism, and prophecies of doom. In that zone, the language of “data”—the expression of madness—converges with the language of reflection and of philosophy.

Table of Contents

Preface to the English Edition xv 
Preface xix 
Introduction: Philosophy and Madness 1 
I Cogitating Your Head Off
2 Inlooks and Outlooks 69
3 Outside Time 87
4 Inside Space 121
II Via Mystica Psychotica 
5 Detachment 173
6 Demagination 195
7 Delanguization 213
8 Dethinking 233
III Light Mists
9 Pyramids of Light 283
10 White Fullness 301
11 The Infinity Trap 331
12 Absolutely Nothing 389
IV Crystal Fever 463
13 Paradoxes 467
14 Deliverance and Doom in Madness and Therapy 521
15 The Mad Plan in Story and System 577
16 Typology of Plans and Psychoplanatics 605
Acknowledgments 661
Notes 663
References 705
Index 723

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