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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.