TV Review: Science and madness

The last programme of Jonathan Miller’s series on BBC2 entitled States of Mind brought to a head one of its recurring themes: can psychology in any of its forms be considered as a science and, moreover, what exactly is a science? This question is of interest because its resolution parallels the debate between the “idealist” and “materialist” approaches to politics.

Dr. Miller’s guest in this programme was Dr. Thomas Szasz, and his hypothesis was that there is not, and never has been, anything to prove that certain mental states are to be considered as medical conditions. He then went on to make several very persuasive points to this end. He said that it is only since around 1800 that mental institutions (mad houses) have existed and that society did not recognise “madness” before that time. He thought it highly significant that only in so-called “mental illnesses” did the state have the power to forcefully administer “treatment” (like locking away). Unlike other medical conditions, he said, no physical agent could be discovered in causing symptoms of mental disorder. And finally he stated that the victims of such medical treatment by the state were mostly those who rejected the values of society; the fact that theirs is a minority opinion is no proof of insanity, since all majority opinion was once a minority one at some time. It is not claimed that early Christians were all mad because they were in the minority. His conclusion in the light of all this was that a scientific (medical) approach to mental conditions was fundamentally inappropriate and dangerous, and that it should be replaced by a moral and ethical one.

It is undeniable that capitalism has used psychology for its own ends, as it does with every discovery, but this misuse can be seen as a direct result of the morality to which the doctor wants to turn, and not as a logical result of the scientific method itself. As Marx showed, by using the same scientific method, the morality of any social epoch is that of its ruling class, and as the doctor pointed out, it is no coincidence that it is the non-conformers who are removed by this misuse of science. The majority prejudice in society against so-called mental cases is fostered by the state so that this removal can continue. To claim that it is science which causes such abuse is like saying that physics, and not the political regime under which it has to work, is responsible for nuclear weapons.

Dr. Szasz’s confusion lies in his misunderstanding of what science really is, and it seems appropriate to let Sigmund Freud enlighten him. Freud says that science endeavours “to understand the phenomena, to establish a correlation between them and, in the end, if it is possible, to enlarge our power over them” (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). The doctor, in contrast to this, seems to see science as many intellectuals do, in terms of a metaphysical dogma of black and white, right and wrong. But science is in fact the direct opposite to this moral idealism, because it concentrates on the dynamics of nature where there are none of these absolutes: Hence the doctor’s misplaced criticism when he reverses the qualities attributable to science and morality and completely overlooks the real problem, the social power of capitalism.

As Freud continues in his article: “Its (science’s) findings are bound to canvass on its behalf and it can wait until these have compelled attention to it”. In other words, it is the scientific method and its discoveries which can help to undermine social prejudices. This is exactly what Marx did with his analysis of history and it has proved, together with such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology that the scientific method, however incomplete, is alone to be considered as the relevant method of analysis of society today.

Andrew Westley