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Joseph Agassi on Rationality and Psychiatry April 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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After a highly stimulating (successful?, entertaining?) talk for the members of Zilsel and le séminaire de sociologie des sciences (SoS) at Laboratoire Printemps, CNRS-UVSQ, which included an all-departmental search for my memory stick, I wanted to expand on a few points and point out some new directions. Arnaud made the observation that much of Agassi’s language is permeated with the language of psychiatry. Although the quote concerning sadism and masochism concerns Lakatos and Feyerabend and is not an invocation of Agassi (unfortunately), Agassi spent much of the 1970s and early 1980s examining psychology, medical diagnosis, and the brain sciences.

Why the interest in psychiatry? Very simply, Agassi’s engagement with psychiatric matters was key to his understanding of human beings as not-quite-rational; psychiatry pointed to the pitfalls of assuming too much rationality; men were conditioned by their environments; they had beliefs and they made mistakes. Agassi wrote a great deal on psychiatry at the exact moment when he was formulating the bulk of his philosophical anthropology. Thus, any discussion his writings on psychology is an account of his philosophical anthropology.

This is not an obvious choice for a prominent student of Popper and a post-Second World War philosopher of science. Psychiatry in all of its variants was labeled frequently by philosophers of science as a pseudo-science. Of course there have always been problems with any of these diagnoses. In the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatry in its Freudian and non-Freudian variants was under attack by both behaviorism and anti-psychiatry. The former underscored that man was simply a product of environmental conditioning- he was no active agent; the latter, that mental illness was merely a way for society to impose conformity.  The schizophrenic was simply a non-conformist whose behavior was “deviant” only due to a society interested solely in the imposition of its norms.  For those who know Agassi, both behaviorism and anti-psychiatry are absurd forms of “monism,” which in its most extreme forms (perhaps not, perhaps all monisms are like this) is a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude.

Of course, the ACTUAL positions of B.F. Skinner are much more complex than Agassi’s reading of him, see Chapter 14, “Summing Up.” Agassi is not an intellectual historian by any stretch of the imagination; his readings of all ideas tend to emphasize their worst tenancies. Like many post-war discussions of policies and ideas, he embraces, like many heterodox figures, the possibilities of worst-case scenarios. He does this with people as well. Feyerabend was not a supporter of Chairman Mao, but Agassi accuses him of being such.

Much like behaviorism in Agassi’s reading, epistemological relativism for Agassi is a monism because it confidently declares that there are no rules and standards; it questions the motives and sanity or motives of those who question that basic deductive principle. Classical rationalism (Bacon, Descartes, Kant) likewise  assumes that men must always be rational; if they are not, they are not really men. According to this conception, any error or false ideas are actually the product of a malevolent influence (Descartes). Men are under the influence of evil if they err.

Popper and Agassi both believe that error is productive, that error is not the sign of an evil influence.  The both contend, furthermore, that rationality is both a belief and an aspiration, while also a reality. Agassi takes Popper’s fundamental contribution to the discovery and progress of certain knowledge to be that knowledge is not certain. This goes against theories of knowledge since Plato.  Concomitant with this theory of knowledge is Popper and Agassi’s reconstruction of the person- somewhat less than the rational being some philosophers have thought him to be, but infinitely more than the opponents of rationalism have argued.

Psychiatry for Agassi goes to the core of his philosophical anthropology: men can be rational; men should be rational;  men, being men, are not always rational. Men are not always rational because they are sometimes ill. Agassi as he relates in his memoir suffered from deep depression which was “sub-clinical” in his early life. As I discussed in the SOS, much of Agassi’s writing comes across not merely as dialogue but a productive, therapeutic dialogue in which errors are uncovered rather than pointed out. Agassi’s exchange with Feyerabend’s work reads very much as between doctor and patient, with both Feyerabend and Agassi assuming the role of the analyst in their exchange. Psychiatry and Freud both were not only essential to Agassi’s understanding of pedagogy and education, but also to his image of science.

As I explained in the SOS, contemporary philosophy of science, according to Agassi, constructs an ideal image of science as a rational pursuit and proceeds to solve small, insignificant problems. This is why philosophy of science is of such a low standard. Bruno Latour and others writing like him, have much the same image of science, except they chastise science and scientists for failing to live up their high standards. For both contemporary philosophers of science and sociologists Agassi complains, science is a Utopia. For Agassi, science is made up of scientists, who as men, have interesting beliefs. Sometimes these beliefs are rational, sometimes not. Agassi’s interest in Freud, psychology and psychiatry stems from his pluralism and his interest in metaphysics.

In his Science in Flux (1975), Agassi points to Freud as ambivalent as to the nature of the intellect: is reason an intellectual faculty or a psychological faculty?  For him the importance of Freud was to demonstrate the “psychopathology of everyday life.” This builds upon the fundamental tenet of his philosophical anthropology (and his philosophy of scientific progress), namely the ideas that “assuming too much rationality is silly” and the rationality of science is partial” (this is to be found in the table of contents of his Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology).

Agassi’s first sustained, though not only, excursion into the psychology and psychiatry illustrates a great deal not only about his commitment to a particular vision of man, but to a particular notion of scientific method. Agassi’s co-authored book with Yehuda Fried Paranoia: A Study in Diagnosis (1976, written in tandem with his Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology) took at its subject paranoia because paranoia was an intriguing problem for the student of rationality (and a problem for monist philosophies of sciences) namely because “the paranoiac is logical. Indeed, he is strikingly, meticulously logical. The paranoiac perceives well and correctly, perhaps even accurately”;  there are many cases of the paranoiac perceiving his own condition.

As importantly, many of the perceptions and judgments of the paranoiac are no better or worse than normal individuals. Thus, “at times fundamental assumptions of the paranoiac are no worse than that of the alternative- those which are accepted by his society (the popularity among paranoiacs of the Christ complex are no accident)” (6). Paranoia then presents a fundamental series of paradoxes—the most apparent of which are: how can a person be logical and yet mentally ill? How can we consider behaviors pathological based upon context, as in, the paranoiac displays aspects of behaviors which are perfectly acceptable in normal society?  One can also see how discussions of paranoia in this framework are basically candy to Agassi, as it illustrates to him the tenuous distinction between rationality and unfounded belief.

Agassi also underscored that the paradoxes of paranoia did not in any way diminish the reality of mental illness. Mental illness, like rationality itself, should be treated in a complex and nuanced manner. Any account of paranoia which sought to discount the paradox, to resolve the issues, by declaring mental illness a fiction—like Foucault, R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz—partakes in the same kind of monism which Agassi detests.  For Agassi, paranoia is the perfect illness to study because of its complexity, its connections with rationality as it offers a clue “to a theory of demarcation of mental health from mental disease” (7). Now this theory of demarcation of mental health from mental disease is very complex, quite Freudian and will be the subject of another post.

Here it is enough to say that Agassi (and Fried) try to say that there is pathology even if normalcy is fuzzy (60).  Laing and Agassi agree that normalcy and pathology are fluid; that it depends upon ones standards however, “We take the paradoxes of paranoia to be in need of resolution and a challenge for a theory of paranoia to solve, not as evidence that there is no such clinical condition as paranoia.” This is key and rather than get bogged down in the details, I would say that we need not describe in exceeding detail Agassi’s work in theory of mental illness- the key points are already clear.

First, Agassi (and Fried) turn the demarcation debate on its head: psychiatry is not a pseudo-science, what is needed is instead a clear account of the division between the normal and the pathological.  Mental illness is yet another needed field for Popper’s (and Lakatos’ and others) work in demarcation.  Agassi and others did much the same for the natural and the social sciences, but more on this later.  Second, any description of the pathological is difficult because of the traffic between the normal and the pathological.  There is not one feature, one behavior which defines rationality; in much the same way, just because one is ill does not mean one is irrational.  Finally, by acknowledging the reality of mental illness and the reality of rationality and the distinction between them, Agassi opens the way for not only his discussion of the role of beliefs on behavior (which is essential to his account of the work of metaphysics in the advance of science), but also for an account of rationality which takes into perspective an entire spectrum of human behavior.

In my next posts, I will finally address Agassi’s Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology.  Here the emphasis will be on Agassi’s development as a philosopher of science in post-war/Cold War ideas: behaviorism, neo-Darwinism and post-war psychiatry is where we will begin.


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