Talking to Each Other

Members of the CHH have spent time this week on an away day, during which time staff, post-docs and PhD students all presented on work they have been doing and future research plans. It was an opportunity to foster links between our respective disciplines and specialist areas, and the discussions that ensued threw up a number of interesting themes, methodological questions and lines of inquiry that could lead to possible collaborations across the research strands (some of which may be reported here as we develop these ideas).

Having had a little time to reflect on the potential for cross-talk between disciplines centred around our Medical Humanities theme of “The Boundaries of Illness”, I found a recent blog post here, written by Vaughan Bell of the popular Mind Hacks blog, immensely apposite. It provides an excellent summary of some of the conceptual problems facing the development of the DSM-V (often referred to in American circles as the “Bible of Psychiatry”) through the use of an analogy with the classification of genres in literature. Simply put, one of Bell’s arguments is to suggest that attempts to define mental disorders on the basis of biological substrates is akin to classifying literary texts by conducting statistical analyses on, say, sentence length or number of commas- such analysis simply “misses the point”. As a philosopher of psychiatry grappling with such problems as the definition of mental disorder, framing the issue in this way for the benefit of those not mired in the philosophy of concepts and nosology, seems intuitively attractive and plausible.

In seeking ways to help each other understand what our respective research is about, traversing disciplinary boundaries through such analogies and metaphors seems like an excellent way to lay some conceptual foundations for the kinds of intellectual collaborations the CHH could embody.



  1. Not having read the mentioned authors I wonder if there is a vertical and axial component. Vertical being perhaps a thematic breakdown of content e.g. crime novel, science fiction and the axial components being things like poetry vs prose and sub categories. Which, I wonder, would best map to the symptoms (experienced by the patient) and the signs (observable manerisms or biological differences) of mental illness? It is very easy to construct an innappropriate analogy in criticising the finer points of a mordern nosology such as DSM or ICD

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. I agree the analogy is an imperfect one, and cannot map onto the finer points of psychiatric nosology or the experience of mental disorder: I’d suggest the analogy stretches too far when it comes to distinguishing signs and symptoms, and ceases to be plausible or indeed useful at that point. A belaboured analogy can actually confuse the issue considerably! So I’d be reluctant to push the genre-mapping-onto-classifications point beyond what Bell suggests in his article, into what you’ve suggested as vertical or axial components. Where I think it does succeed, however, is in introducing those unfamiliar with the debates raging over the DSM to a way of conceptualising one of the key questions: “can (and should) classifications be based on biological/genetic/in some other way medically “objective” markers?” and the answer, at least according to Bell, is to query what the point of such an attempt to classify in this way would be. Whether this is possible and/or desirable or not is a further conceptual debate, but as an initial pass at a complex question, I think the literary analogy is a useful way to start one thinking about the purposes of a classificatory system.

  2. ‘Classifying literary texts by conducting statistical analyses’ is in fact a well established (although no longer very fashionable) discipline (stylometry). But more to the point is how this illustrates that systems of classification are systems of signification and might be approached with some of the same tools. For example Andrew’s suggestion of vertical and axial components sounds very like the old distinction between parole and langue or Roman Jakobson’s metaphoric/metonymic poles — themselves applied to psychiatric theory (of a very different sort) via Lacan. In this respect I’m not sure we’ve really come very far beyond Foucault’s chapter on ‘The Madman in the Garden of the Species’ (hint hint). I appreciate these are names (Jakobson, Lacan, Foucault) that make clinicians and scientists start to feel itchy. But that’s interdisciplinarity for you…

    • Thanks Jamie. It’s intriguing (and perhaps hardly surprising) to learn that there are indeed such approaches to literary analysis, though you’re right that mention of those lofty names may well strike fear, confusion or antipathy into the hearts of clincians, scientists and many a philosopher. But no doubt there are some nuggets of insight to be gained from broadening one’s disclipinary horizons, for example when considering the role of a classificatory system and how it might be conceptualised…time to get that Foucault reading group off the ground perhaps?

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