Tuesday 29 December 2020

Rationality in Mental Disorders

Today's post is by Valentina Cardella (Università di Messina). Here she talks about a recent paper she wrote, "Rationality in Mental Disorder: Too little or too much?", published open access in a special issue of the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy on Bounds of Rationality.

Valentina Cardella

Are people with mental disorders irrational? At first sight, this seems to be a trivial question: madness is the realm of non-sense. When someone tells you that her neighbour installed a tracking device in her abdomen, or that her internal organs are decomposing, you can’t help to wonder: how can she believe such impossible things? Where has her rationality gone? The common conceptualization of madness, which dates back to the Enlightenment, reflects this common-sense intuition: in people with mental disorders emotions are abnormal and unrestrained, and, on the other side, reason is severely affected. People with mental disorders can’t reason properly, healthy people can.

Yet, is it really so? We can bring it into question for several reasons. First, man is not a rational animal, after all. Irrationality is widespread in the general population. We are far from being rational, especially if by rationality we mean logic. When we reason, we make systematic errors, because our rationality is bounded (we don’t have enough cognitive resources to always apply correct strategies, see Simon, 1991), and because we use heuristics, i.e. quick mental shortcuts which reach satisfactory, even if not rational, solutions (Kahneman et al., 1982; Girotto, 1994).

On the other side, the clinical reality seems to show that madness is not the realm of non-sense. Even severe psychoses like schizophrenia don’t affect the ability to reason. Research in the area of both deductive and probabilistic reasoning showed that schizophrenic patients don’t break the formal rules of logic, and, surprisingly, they can also be more logical than non clinical subjects. For example, in the tasks where common sense truth and logical truth conflict, people with schizophrenia perform even better than normal controls. Asked to judge the validity of a syllogism, control subjects tend to consider it valid when its conclusion is commonsensical, while schizophrenic patients recognize the validity of the argument also when its conclusion goes against common sense.

Actually, common sense, rather than rationality, is dramatically impaired in schizophrenia. What would normally seem self-evident causes amazement and perplexity in schizophrenic subjects, who experience a detachment from the web of beliefs, attitudes and categories which represent the background of everyday life. To give an example, C.D.B., a schizophrenic patient, says that “nothing is obvious to him; everything can be uncanny. The world is complicated, difficult to understand. […] Facts are not self-evident.” 

Yet, it is worth noting that this detachment from common sense (the loss of natural evidence, cf. Blankenburg 1971), is compensated precisely by logic. C.D.B., as reported by Stanghellini, “feels the need for a general theory that makes the world understandable and his actions possible.” (Stanghellini 2000, 777). In other words, schizophrenic patients develop an intellectual attitude toward the world, the so-called morbid rationalism in Minkowski's La  Schizophrénie (1927), or hyper-reflexivity in Sass's Madness and Modernism (1992), trying to explain rationally what looks absolutely evident to common people. 

And what about delusions? Schizophrenic can be good at logic, but holding impossible beliefs is clearly irrational. Once again, this is not the case. First of all, perfectly healthy people hold beliefs that are not supported by evidence, or that break the norms of rationality: superstitious beliefs, racist beliefs, magic beliefs, paranoid beliefs (Bortolotti, 2013; Galbraith on delusions and pathologies of belief). If by rationality we mean having beliefs that are consistent and supported by facts, it seems that the vast majority of us, not to say all of us, is not rational.

Furthermore, delusional subjects use logic and reason to protect and justify their beliefs. For instance, the patient who claims that his neighbour implanted a device in his abdomen, explains that the device has been atomized, i.e., dismantled into its component atoms to pass through the body, and reassembled again on the other side, otherwise there had been an incision. The subject who believes he’s decomposing, says he realized it because of the strong smell coming from his body. As observed by Jaspers in General Psychopathology (1963), delusions are frequently accompanied by the fully preserved capacity for reasoning and formal logic.

What lesson can we learn from this data? We can say that, even if we intuitively attribute irrationality to mental disorders, this attribution lacks any evidence, since both the experimental tasks and the autobiographical reports of single patients outline a different, even opposite, picture. Maybe we keep considering irrationality a crucial feature of mental disorder for different reasons, not grounded on evidence, but on historical, psychological and sociological factors. After all, it’s very easy to call irrational what we don’t understand.


Tuesday 22 December 2020

Doctors without 'Disorders'

In today's post I am going to present an argument I developed in an article for the Supplementary Volume of the Aristotelian Society, Doctors without 'Disorders'. The paper was recently listed among the best articles in Philosophy published by Oxford University Press in 2020 (and thus it is available open access at the moment). I also presented this idea at the Joint Session last summer in a symposium on the concept of disorder and a video of the presentation is available (click below to watch).

How do we decide whether the problems we experience deserve the attention of medical professionals? Many believe that the answer hangs on whether the problem we have is caused by a disorder: if it is caused by a disorder, then medical attention is appropriate. If it is not caused by a disorder, then it is still a problem, but not a medical problem. It is a problem in living, a problem we need to try and solve by some other means.

I argue that the dichotomy between medical problems and problems in living is unhelpful, because the presence of a disorder does not successfully demarcate those problems that deserve medical attention from those that need to be addressed differently. Indeed, both in the context of somatic and mental health, we may seek medical attention for problems whose causes are unknown or problems that we know are not caused by a disorder (such as pregnancy, obesity, back pain) given the most influential accounts of what a disorder is.

Counterexamples to the rule that we seek medical attention only for problems caused by disorders abound no matter which influential account of disorder we adopt, from value-free naturalist accounts where a disorder is a biological dysfunction to value-laden constructivist or normativist accounts where a disorder is an undesirable state that can be potentially addressed by medical intervention. 

In the paper, the example I develop in some detail is that of delusions. We tend to consider delusions as pathological beliefs. But what makes them pathological? There are several hypotheses about delusions being the outcome of a cognitive dysfunction but the failures of cognition observed in people with delusions could as well be the product of reasoning biases, so the naturalist account does not help. 

Delusions are regarded as harmful, but it is not clear that harm always accompanies a delusion or that the harm experienced by the person with delusions is due to the delusions themselves. Harm could be a consequence of whatever problem delusions are a response to, or to the stigma and resulting social exclusion that the person with delusions is likely to encounter. That means that normativist accounts are also inadequate to capture what is pathological about delusions.

Even if we could offer a plausible account of the pathological nature of delusions, would that explain why people with delusional beliefs often come to the attention of mental healthcare professionals? I suggest it wouldn't. The cognitive dysfunction often associated with delusions is also appealed to in the explanation of non-pathological phenomena such as self-deception; and delusions are not the only beliefs that are irrational and potentially harmful and yet they are considered as symptoms of mental disorders whereas equally irrational and potentially harmful beliefs (such as prejudiced beliefs) are not.

Another example that is not addressed in the paper but that people have recently discussed is that of anxiety at the time of a pandemic (see brief discussion below). Does it matter whether the troubling state of anxiety many people have experienced during COVID-19 is the manifestation of a disorder or a natural response to adverse circumstances? If a medical intervention can help, should we avoid seeking it because the problem we have is not caused by a disorder? My conclusion is that the notion of 'disorder' does not successfully demarcate the scope of medical practice. Something can be at the same time a problem in living and a medical problem.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Narrative Capacity and Moral Responsibility

This post is by Meghan Griffith (Davidson College).

Meghan Griffith

In “Narrative Capacity and Moral Responsibility”, I argue that our ability to understand and tell stories plays a role in moral responsibility. One standard approach to moral responsibility involves “reasons-responsiveness.” If we can recognize and react to reasons for acting, then it seems that we are in control of our behavior, and therefore responsible (see Fischer and Ravizza 1998 for an influential account). I think “narrative capacity” enhances our sensitivity to reasons.

Narrative capacity is a way of making sense of the world (Velleman 2003, 1) and involves understanding the “meaning-affecting” relation between events (Rosati 2013, 34). In other words, we come to understand and interpret the events in our lives within the context of a story. Each event is not interpreted on its own. Instead, its meaning is “conditioned by” its relation to other events (Schechtman 2007, 162). For example, an event might be interpreted as disappointing or ironic only because it is understood in a particular context (Velleman 2003).


There is fascinating research in psychology that discusses narrative skill as a social and cognitive achievement. Learning to “read the world” begins early. Children first develop an understanding of life events in a problem-resolution structure (Habermas and Bluck 2000, 752), later developing an understanding of their own and others’ inner mental states (Nelson 2003). They begin to see goals, motivations, and reasons for action (Rubin and Greenberg 2003, Hutto 2007). Typically, in adolescence, children begin to see their own lives as an entire “life story” (McAdams 2001).


I think narrative capacity enables us to recognize reasons we wouldn’t otherwise see, and also enables us to weigh reasons differently than we otherwise would. A philosophical account of this capacity engenders a more nuanced understanding of degrees of blameworthiness. According to traditional philosophical accounts, children are often thought to be exempt from blame because they do not know better or because they have problems with self-control.

But these traditional explanations, while not entirely incorrect, are problematically oversimplified. In some cases, what children cannot do is feel the full weight of a reason the way a typical adult would (or should). Improper weighting can result from lacking context and perspective; a young child knows it is wrong to harm but is less able to feel the full force of this as a reason. As children develop, their ability to properly weigh reasons improves. Their degree of blameworthiness therefore increases as it becomes less difficult for them to properly evaluate. There is also evidence that psychopaths struggle with narrative skills (Kennett and Matthews 2009), which might explain a reluctance to hold them fully blameworthy.


Furthermore, narrative capacity may illuminate inner psychological barriers to agential control by helping us understand why an agent encounters relative difficulty (from the inside) at seeing or responding to reasons. Past reasons-responsiveness accounts have been criticized on the grounds that they don’t illuminate inner psychological barriers to action (see McKenna and Van Schoelandt 2015).

Tuesday 8 December 2020

What Are Political Beliefs?

Today's post is by Jeroen de Ridder (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Michael Hannon (University of Nottingham). Their post is based on their chapter ‘The Point of Political Belief’ to appear in the Routledge Handbook of Political Epistemology (forthcoming in 2021), which they edited together.

About a week after CNN and most other major news outlets had called the 2020 US election for Joe Biden, secretary of state Mike Pompeo stated in a press conference: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” This is just one example of a political belief that seems, shall we say, slightly out of touch with reality. There are others: one out of seven survey respondents agree with the statement “Barack Obama is the antichrist” and one out of seven Trump supporters maintain that the half-empty photo of Trump’s 2017 inauguration has more people than a photo of Obama’s packed 2009 inauguration.

Do people really believe these things, in the same way they believe, say, that their father was born in Amsterdam or that Earth has one moon? Do they really take these things to be accurate representations of what the world is like? Perhaps something else is going on.

Michael Hannon

Psychologists have established that people’s political beliefs are highly susceptible to motivated reasoning, identity-protective cognition, and confabulation (see Brennan 2016 for an overview). We process political information in ways that confirm our pre-existing beliefs, nurture and maintain our political identity, and bolster group loyalties—often at the expense of truth. Instead of accurately representing the world, our political beliefs often serve socially adaptive functions: they allow us to fit in, get us invited to barbecues, and bond with people ‘like us’.

If this is right, it can also account for why some political beliefs are so easily given up or even traded for contrary ones. Geoffrey Cohen’s (2003) work provides a striking example. He ran a study in which participants were told about two welfare programs: stingy and lavish. Both Democrats and Republicans supported whatever they were told their party supported. It made little difference what the actual content of the policy was.

Jeroen de Ridder

Perhaps we can go even further. Maybe these crazy-sounding utterances and elusive convictions aren’t really beliefs at all. Maybe they’re more like the chanting of football fans or the Italian tailor-made suit of a city banker: they express a set of attitudes or a social identity, but don’t report what someone believes about the world. Saying that Obama is the antichrist or that more people attended Trump’s inauguration is simply partisan cheerleading, not an honest assertion in a political conversation.

Recent research in political behavior offers some empirical support for this idea. Bullock and colleagues (2015) found that partisans tend to give more accurate (less partisan) responses to politically charged questions when offered modest monetary incentives to answer correctly. If these survey responses reflected actual beliefs, then paying partisans to answer correctly should not affect their responses. Yet it does. This suggests that partisans will deliberately misreport their beliefs as a way to signal their allegiance to a particular ideological community. We should therefore be wary of taking factual claims about politically charged issues at face value, since they are often contaminated by the motivation to root for one’s team.

What’s the upshot? When thinking about political beliefs, we naturally assume that their function is to represent the world. But maybe that’s just wrong – for at least many political ‘beliefs’. They often appear to serve different functions: bolster group loyalty, protect identities, or receive psychological gratification. While it is easy to criticize people for making false claims or believing against the evidence, such criticisms may miss the point that for many voters, politics is not really about truth.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Philosophy of Madness

Today's post is by Wouter Kusters, a philosopher, linguist and independent writer, teacher and consultant living in the Netherlands. In 2014 his comprehensive and transgressive book Philosophy of Madness was published in the Netherlands, and later this month the English translation will appear at MIT Press. Here you find an excerpt from the Preface to the English Edition (there is also a video presentation you can watch).

Wouter Kusters

Madness as I discuss it in this book is the imperfect translation of the Dutch waanzin, with which I focus on the range of experiences of all those who are deemed in medical jargon to be psychotic, as I myself was twice.

Its first thematic line is a philosophical examination of the experience of being psychotic. I examine what happens in the various phases of the psychotic experience. What happens to the experience of time and space? What happens to reality? How are other persons perceived, and what happens to thought? It was this highlighting, analyzing, expressing, and evoking of the experience of psychosis which made this book to such a success in the Netherlands.

I was asked to give lectures, presentations, and courses to inform and teach psychiatrists, psychologists, and all kinds of other professionals and non-professionals who work and live with psychotic people. But didn’t they already know what the experience of psychosis is like? Apparently not. 

In mental health education today, so much of the psychotic experience is hidden behind supposedly objective labels and descriptions, behind risk management, fear, and theoretical and distanced semi-professional attitudes. Consequently, the voices of the psychotic, with their full meanings, intentions, desires, and intensities, are seldom heard.

The book also touched a nerve among other kinds of readers, namely all those who at one time or another have been labeled psychotic, schizophrenic, bi-polar, or by any number of related terms. So many have gone through the same depths and heights, the same dark confusions and bright insights, but have never had the chance to allow madness to re-enter their consciousness, to be put into words, either for others or for themselves. 

In a way this is also a dangerous book, since it concerns the possible maddening effect of certain words and thoughts. I demonstrate that a certain kind of consistent philosophizing may very well result in aporias, paradoxes, unworldy insights, and circular frozenness that is reminiscent of madness. This fed another kind of reader who was primarily interested in the book for its perspective on philosophy as a dangerous, possibly maddening, activity in which the stakes are, and should be, set high.

These thematic lines blend together and can be depicted as a circle, as the proverbial snake that eats its own tail, or as a so-called Möbius strip. This paradoxical image forms the basic structure of the book and runs in coded and mirrored forms throughout the book. The empty center of the circle refers to the voice and subjectivity of the author of the text, but also to the empty mind of the reader, and to the quasi-mystical, ineffable content of the concept of madness. 

This circular, paradoxical form is the signpost in the field where madness and philosophy intertwine, contrast, and converge in the text. Without any stable stronghold in an “objective point of view” or in a “neutral language or framework,” I present this field with all its intrinsic mysteries, paradoxes, and strange obstacles of down-to-earth spirituality.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Philosophy by Women

Today's post is by Elly Vintiadis. She introduces her new book, Philosophy by Women: 22 Philosophers Reflect on Philosophy and Its Value (Routledge, 2020).
A couple of summers ago I was reading something (I don’t remember what) and it struck me that most people have no idea what philosophy is and that they only think of old white guys when they think about philosophers. So I decided that I would put together a book of essays on the nature and value of philosophy written exclusively by women in the field of philosophy. I wanted it to be a book about philosophy so that readers can get a better idea of what it is we do and why it is important, while at the same time, without making a fuss about it (I didn’t even want the word “women” in the title), registering in peoples’ minds that there are women doing philosophy and doing it well. At a time when the usefulness of philosophy, and the humanities in general, is being questioned and when the voices of women are being increasingly heard around the world, a book such as this seemed to be particularly timely. 

To my amazement, though, I found it quite difficult to find a publisher. I had to explain why the contributors are all women and to show what would be produced that was worth producing, if only women wrote in the book – as if our voices ceased to be philosophers’ voices but had to be women’s voices and as if women would necessarily have another point of view, as a group, instead of our voices being the individual points of view taken by philosophers. I thought that was strange, given that I am sure no one asked such questions for all the anthologies over the years that have been written exclusively by male contributors. But eventually, after trying a number of publishers, Routledge took up the book and the result is an anthology of essays by a rather diverse group of philosophers, with different interests and different writing styles. 

By offering essays on the nature of philosophy and its value, this volume aims to contribute to a move towards philosophy reaching outward, engaging with the world it is a philosophy of. Through short and accessible essays the contributors of this book introduce people outside our field to the work that philosophers actually do, and to those aspects of it that can be relevant in our everyday life. At the same time though, in the essays in this collection philosophers are looking inward, to philosophy itself. 

By trying to explain what philosophy is some essays include criticism of contemporary academic philosophy. Such a critical view that challenges the status quo is essential for the evolution of any discipline that does not want to remain stagnant and especially for a discipline like philosophy that requires constant self-examination. So this is a book with a philosophical message: that more inclusivity would be good for philosophy because inclusivity is not only about what people enter in philosophy, it is also about the ideas and perspectives that are allowed to be heard. But it also has a political message: that inclusivity in philosophy is also a matter of justice. 

By putting together a book composed only of texts by women in philosophy, the aim is to show what is actually the case (that there are many women working in philosophy) while also providing counter-stereotypical examples that can also serve as role models, and thus show what is possible, hopefully motivating more women to pursue goals that they might otherwise have shied away from. Hopefully, also, this book will provide new readings in meta-philosophy; after all, the world around us is constantly changing and philosophy is too but we are stuck reading the same things by the same group of people.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Does Monogamy Work?

Today's post is by Luke Brunning (University of Birmingham). He presents his new book, Does Monogamy Work? (Thames & Hudson 2020).

Luke Brunning

Monogamy, where someone has one romantic partner at a time, is the dominant form of romantic life in our society, and most others. But why is this the case? Has monogamy always been dominant? Are there realistic alternatives to monogamy? What will the future of romantic life be different? I explore some of the questions in Does Monogamy Work? a short book for a general audience.

People often suppose monogamy is the ‘natural’ result of our biological constitution. Human babies require extensive care, so we might think we are hardwired to form monogamous ‘pair bonds.’ But the evidence for this is not conclusive. Different strategies can aid the survival of our genes, and two may favour nonmonogamous social dynamics: group care and kin support, or the prioritisation of offspring quantity over quality.


Monogamy is better thought of as a form of social organisation, which later became an ethical ideal. Marriages, which help people secure and transfer resources between groups in contexts of scarcity and uncertainty, became monogamous due to contextual pressures. Fewer wars, or better understanding of disease, equalised numbers of men and women in society, for example, or the shift away from agricultural labour, to wage labour, made larger families less tenable. It is no accident that the legal codification of monogamous marriage arose in societies like Ancient Greece and Rome which used imperial domination to maintain access to sexual slaves, therefore allowing male patricians to secure their estates while remaining sexually nonmonogamous with noncitizens.


The emergence and slow evolution of Christian thinking about marriage helped entrench monogamy as a social ideal. But this was not a straightforward process. Some Christian patriarchs were polygamous, some Church Fathers thought polygamy might help Christian communities ‘be fruitful and multiply’, and many influential teachings about the value of monogamous marriage presupposed the imminent end of the world. It was not until the Middle Ages that monogamous marriage was entrenched as a spiritual and secular architype. Christian colonialization then helped export monogamous norms across the globe, often forcing them on unwilling populations as the price of ‘civilisation.’


Romantic love, as we understood it, was folded into the monogamous ideal at a later date, rather than animating it from the offset. Historically, love matches were the exception. The monogamy ideal reached its heights in the USA and Europe after WWII, when people craved love and domestic security, and rebuilding economies could provide it. Since then, however, changes to social and economic organisation have increasingly pressured monogamy. Monogamy weakened as a social practice as globalisation increased worker mobility, inflation incentivised women to join the workforce, the sexual revolution delayed child-birth and catalysed sexual experimentation, and feminist thinkers challenged social norms. People began to date more, delay marriage, and divorce. At the same time, people came to want more from a romantic partnership; more experiences, self-growth, emotional resonance, and sexual satisfaction.



These changes encouraged some people to explore nonmonogamy as a response to the desire for more in romantic life. These experiments in living vary widely; from hierarchical forms of polyamory, to looser forms of relationship anarchy, or religious polygamy. All forms of nonmonogamy, however, can offer people greater resources and sources of fulfilment while reducing the pressure to be ‘the one’ to someone else. Recognition of these benefits has led some scholars to argue for legal reform to either abolish, or redesign, marriage to accommodate multi-partner unions and so protect the care and love found in nonmonogamous lives. Political debate over such unions may be more common in coming decades.


Nonmonogamous relationships have always been critiqued: as impractical, unjust, or emotionally untenable. These critiques can be answered, or apply with equal force to modern monogamous family life; often they rely on contentious premises or an overly narrow conception of nonmonogamy. Of greater importance, is the need to attend to the ways that emerging forms of romantic life, like polyamory, might amplify existing norms we have reason to question, e.g. amatonormativity, the privileging of amorous relationships, or sex-negativity, the privileging of sexual restraint. The norms of nonmonogamous practices, of openness, clarity in communication, and so on, can also unwittingly favour ideals of individualism that reinforce potentially harmful power dynamics, or existing forms of romantic privilege concerning race, gender, and class.


Does Monogamy Work? aims to destabilise our relationship to monogamy. Monogamy is one form of romantic life someone might consider, amongst others. Monogamy is not straightforwardly ‘natural’, socially inevitable, or the only route to intimate flourishing.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Explaining Imagination

This post is by Peter Langland-Hassan, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, who is presenting his new book, Explaining Imagination (OUP 2020). The book is available as a free open access download, thanks to a TOME grant from the University of Cincinnati.

Peter Langland-Hassan 

We won’t understand what imagination is—we won’t be able to explain imagination—until we can write a recipe for making it out of parts we already understand. My book, Explaining Imagination, is a compendium of such recipes.

What ingredients do they feature? On my telling, they are other familiar mental states like beliefs, desires, judgments, decisions, and intentions. In different combinations and contexts, they constitute cases of imagining.

The idea that imagination can be reduced to other kinds of mental states in this way is at odds with what most (maybe all) other philosophers have had to say about imagination. According to the orthodox view, if we list a person’s beliefs, desires, intentions, judgments, decisions, hopes, wishes, fears, and so on, and fully describe their ongoing use of those states in practical and theoretical reasoning, we will leave open whether they are imagining. For the facts about what, if anything, a person is imagining are thought not to be entailed by any facts about other folk psychological states they might be in. This is the sense in which imagination is commonly held to involve a sui generis or “primitive” type of mental state.

My reductive strategy is to look closely at behaviors and abilities commonly held to be enabled by imagination and to show how the work assigned to imagination can be accomplished by other kinds of states we already knew we had. These phenomena include conditional reasoning (Chapters 5 and 6), pretending (Chapters 7 and 8), the comprehension and enjoyment of fictions (Chapters 9, 10, and 11), and creativity (Chapter 12). In each case I try to explain how it can be that the imagining we associate with each activity is nothing over and above the skillful use of states like beliefs, desires, and intentions.

I do not, however, argue that imagining that p is the same thing as believing or desiring that p—or even as weakly believing or desiring that p. Rather, my claim is that some uses of beliefs, desires, judgments, intentions, and so on—none of which may have the precise content p—constitute cases of imagining that p. Here I apply the maxim, “Don’t assume content mirroring.” For example, suspecting that p is not the same as believing that p; but suspecting that p may nevertheless be reducible to believing that q, where q is the proposition that it is somewhat likely that p.

A second important maxim at work in my book is: “Don’t assume homogeneity.” In order for imagining to reduce to other kinds of mental states, we needn’t assume that it reduces in the same way in each instance. What gets called ‘imagining’ in one context—such as pretense—may be something different than what is called ‘imagining’ in another—such as daydreaming.

What unifies the diverse phenomena I try to explain as “imaginings” is that they are all cases of rich, elaborated thought about the unreal, fantastical, fictional, or possible that is, in general, epistemically safe. (“Epistemically safe” in the sense that it does not tend to decrease one’s epistemic standing, as opposed to, say, delusions which can also be about the unreal and fantastical.) Imagining, in this sense, sometimes involves mental imagery. But it needn’t by its nature. 

Some readers of may worry that the reductive approach I recommend is dismissive, deflationary, or even eliminative of imagination proper. But that is a misunderstanding. My aim is to explain imagination, not to question its importance, or to make it disappear. The take-home message is rather this: imagination is mysterious on its face. Because we have a comparatively clear understanding beliefs, desires, perceptions, and intentions, then—if the sometimes surprising recipes offered in Explaining Imagination succeed—a similarly clear conception of imagination is close at hand.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Mental Disorder and Social Deviance

This post is by Awais Aftab (Department of Psychiatry, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA). In this blog post he introduces and summarizes the article “Mental Disorder and Social Deviance”, co-written with Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed (Philosophy, Birkbeck College), and published in International Review of Psychiatry. Aftab also leads the interview series ‘Conversations in Critical Psychiatry’ for Psychiatric Times which is likely to be of great interest to the readers of this blog.

Awais Aftab


I have been fascinated by the problem of distinguishing between “mental disorder” and “social deviance” since the early days of my psychiatric training. My exposure to the antipsychiatry philosophical literature had left me with a lingering, nagging doubt that unless there was some valid way of making this distinction, the legitimacy of psychiatry as a profession would stand on precarious and perilous ground.


Social deviance refers to actions or behaviors that violate social norms. The declassification of homosexuality brought the issue of differentiation between disorder and deviance to the forefront in the 1970s. When DSM-III was published, Spitzer sought to formalize a definition of mental disorder that would make explicit this distinction.


In the article, Rashed and I provide an overview of some of the major conceptual strategies that have been discussed as a means of discriminating between mental disorder and social deviance, and the extent to which these strategies can be said to be philosophically successful. We begin by reviewing the DSM's definition of mental disorder, which relies on “dysfunction in the individual” as the primary demarcating criterion. 

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed

However, given that “dysfunction” is left undefined, it offers little guidance, forcing us to explore specific notions of dysfunction as they exist within the context of commonsensical, clinical, and naturalist approaches. The commonsensical approach ends up relying on “folk” judgments, the naturalist approach (exemplified by Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis) puts us in an epistemic bind since our knowledge of the mechanisms of psychological functioning is limited, and their evolutionary history is largely speculative. 

The clinical approach, on the other hand, blurs the distinction between dysfunction and distress/disability since the presence of distress/disability is seen as an indicator of dysfunction. This leads us to discuss how distress (conceptualized in our discussion as intrinsic vs socially constituted) and disability (which is always in the context of a particular social environment) fare in this regard. While both are promising and practically more helpful than dysfunction, neither offers a perfect or straightforward way of making this distinction.


3E enactive approaches offer a promising theoretical strategy which relies on “functional norms” of an individual that support continued self-maintenance and adaptation, however, the notions of self-maintenance and adaptation are not currently operationalized in a manner that would allow us to resolve controversial cases with any degree of consensus. 

Finally, the application of ethical and political approaches transforms this issue into a complex negotiation of values which requires us to consider, for instance, balancing of harms and benefits of disorder designation, the need for “rational moral justification” vs reliance on relativistic societal value judgments, and higher-level arguments based upon a theory of the good society or eudaimonia. Other approaches such as such as Mad Pride and neurodiversity question the very distinction between social deviance and mental disorder in the first place.


Our review of all these strategies suggests that no single approach satisfactorily accounts for all possible cases and that a distinct dividing line between disorder and deviance remains elusive. However, these various philosophical strategies help illuminate the relevant considerations involved and suggest that the distinction between disorder and deviance is not simply a natural fact to be discovered but a complex judgment that requires negotiation between competing values.


Perhaps you may be wondering: how does this conclusion impact my lingering, nagging doubts about the legitimacy of psychiatry that I mentioned in the beginning? The process of philosophical reflection over the years has disabused me of the notion that a simple reliance of naturalism is what is needed for psychiatry to be legitimate. Psychiatry may be value-laden through and through, and there may be no easy demarcations, but that is a problem only if we continue to naively insist that nature be carved at its joints when no such joints exist.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Philosophy for Girls: An Invitation to the Life of Thought

Today's post is by Melissa M. Shew and Kimberly K. Garchar. They present their new book, Philosophy for Girls: An Invitation to the Life of Thought (OUP 2020).

Despite social and institutional improvements, women and girls are routinely discouraged from full participation in intellectual and civic life. Kamala Harris’s recent refrain of “I’m speaking, I’m speaking” in a debate against Vice President Mike Pence evidences the ongoing challenge that women face in having their voices--and therefore their ideas--truly heard.

This disrespect of women’s intellectual expertise occurs in nearly all aspects of our lives, so academic philosophy is no different. The chronic erasure of women’s voices in content, meager representation in philosophy syllabi, persistence of all-male panels in philosophy, and dominance in faculty meetings evidence the gender disparity in education.

Melissa M. Shew

This gap is harmful not just to women who are unable to fulfill their philosophical potential as a result of biases and stereotypes but also to the field of philosophy itself insofar as the philosophical potential of women remains untapped. Some of the best work remains unexplored and unpublished. More fundamentally, girls do not see their experiences represented, analyzed, and addressed in academic philosophy, and young women are not culturally encouraged to think philosophically about their lives.

This revolutionary book aims to address this gender disparity, both in academic philosophy and the wider world. It invites and encourages girls and young women to think broadly, creatively, and critically about a host of enduring questions from the nature of autonomy and identity to ways to respond to an unjust world. Philosophy for Girls empowers young people intellectually and encourages them to find the joys of hard thinking; readers are thereby encouraged to pursue an examined life and live philosophically. We insist that girls have a right to intellectual conversations from which they have largely been excluded.

Kimberly K. Garchar

The collected volume of vibrant and clear but simultaneously rigorous essays by women philosophers evidences that women are indeed outstanding philosophers and that young women have a great capacity for philosophical thinking. The book cites nearly only women, and each chapter opens with an anecdote about a girl or woman from mythology, science, literature, or history.

Particular pathways for intellectual exploration are outlined in the book’s Introduction, with the hope and expectation that those pathways will become readers’ own pathways and that they will enter into conversation with others about topics in the book. This book, then, serves as an overdue correction to the hundreds of anthologies that supposedly represent the life of thought, but that nonetheless remain almost exclusively male-dominated. Consequently, this book serves as a small contribution to larger movements of equity and inclusion in intellectual life as a whole so that all are affirmed in their capacities as knowers.

The book thus has both epistemic and ethical goals: We want girls to embrace their existence as thinking agents and make the world better in the process. Simultaneously, we aim to provide avenues for young women to enter the field of philosophy through the work of women scholars and prose that explicitly includes young women in its enduring questions.

In light of the current climate for women in the profession as well as in our world, this book is a significant contribution to girls’ philosophical inquiry, both formally and informally. As such, this book is timely and urgent though it grapples with enduring questions of the human condition.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

From Bad Thinkers to Vice Epistemology

This post is by Ian James Kidd, Heather Battaly, and Quassim Cassam. They present their new book, Vice Epistemology, which was published by Routledge five days ago.

Ian Kidd
Ian Kidd

Study of the human epistemic failings has been a staple theme of philosophy since antiquity. Ancient Greek, Indian, and Chinese philosophers were all concerned with ignorance, stupidity, and prejudiced and biased ways of thinking – ones opposed to such high-fidelity philosophical goods as wisdom, certain knowledge, or rationality. Attempted amelioration of those epistemic failings has been an aim of ethics, logic, and the more overtly ‘therapeutic’ forms of philosophical practice, too. Obviously, our world remains populated by human beings with very many epistemic failings, a glum fact reiterated by contemporary research in empirical psychology, philosophy of mind and epistemology. Such work offers a whole range of conceptual tools for the study of those failings and one of the newest is that of an epistemic vice.

Vice Epistemology
Vice Epistemology

Epistemic vices are character traits that make us bad thinkers. Usually we think of vices and virtues in relation to ethics. The vices include cruelty and dishonesty and selfishness – failings of character that make us bad people and which are corrected by the cultivation of virtues and other excellences of character, like compassion and honesty. But we shouldn’t confine ‘vices’ to moral failings of character. We speak of vices of the mind, too, like arrogance, dogmatism, and closed-mindedness (“He’s so arrogant!”, “She’s so dogmatic!”). Alongside those examples, there are also less-obvious epistemic vices, with names like ‘epistemic insouciance’ and ‘epistemic self-indulgence’.

Quassim Cassam
Quassim Cassam

Over the last decade, a new subdiscipline has emerged devoted to studying the nature, identity, and significance of epistemic vices – vice epistemology. It’s sister discipline is virtue epistemology, which focuses on the virtues of the mind. Most modern work in vice epistemology falls into three sorts, each of them represented in our upcoming edited collection, Vice Epistemology

First, there’s the foundational work devoted to conceptual, normative, and empirical issues about epistemic vices – like the relation of epistemic vices to epistemic virtues, ethical vices and to related concepts like implicit bias. 

Heather Battaly
Heather Battaly

Second, the identification and analysis of specific vices, whether the familiar ones, like dogmatism, or the more esoteric ones, like epistemic hubris. After all, there’s no good reason to suppose that we have a clear view of all of the epistemic vices to which we are prone, given the historical contingency of our inherited conceptual resources.

A third sort of work is what might be called applied vice epistemology – the effort to put these conceptual tools to work in the world. An obvious reason we’re interested in epistemic vices is because they play a role in the social and political world. We’re sadly living through a golden age for arrogance, dogmatism, and insouciance about the truth. It’s no coincidence that contemporary vice epistemology takes so many of its case studies from modern politics. But epistemic vices are also relevant to more abstract issues in ethics, epistemology, and psychology, too. Whatever ones’ own interests, our hope as vice epistemologists is to better understand our stubborn and entrenched epistemic failings.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

The Concept of Loneliness

This post originally appeared as a Birmingham Perspective on the University of Birmingham website, authored by Valeria Motta. In the post, Valeria summarises her view of loneliness on which she was also recently interviewed by Radical Philosophy's host, Beth Matthews (podcast available, part 1 and part 2), for Melbourne 3CR Community Radio.

Valeria Motta

How is loneliness defined? And what do these definitions say about what we understand of the phenomenon? Over the last few decades, an increasing amount of empirical research has involved a range of definitions of loneliness. Distinctions have been made between loneliness and social isolation, and between loneliness and solitude. Many researchers acknowledge that loneliness and social isolation (a state of no physical contact with other people) are different constructs. However, this theoretical distinction is not always fully reflected in research on loneliness, let alone in interventions to lessen it. Interventions with the goal to increase social interactions carry the assumption that loneliness is the same as social isolation because they provide social exposure in response. This results in the widely recognized distinction between loneliness and social isolation being undermined.

Making clear distinctions between loneliness and social isolation is particularly important in times of COVID-19 because new terminology (such as ‘social distancing’) is starting to appear in recent research to refer to experiences that may have some similarities with loneliness and social isolation but that are not exactly the same.

Research has provided different definitions of loneliness. Some have focused on the multifaceted nature of loneliness - addressing the interaction between specific behaviours (different forms of inhibited sociability), emotions (feeling unloved or unwanted) and thoughts of negative and self-depreciating nature. While other research has focused on cognitive aspects (e.g. the discrepancy between the relationships we wish we had and those we perceive we have). In such definitions, loneliness is also regarded as a subjective experience. However, the this subjective aspect is often described as something ‘private’, which obscures the experiential features that are essential to understanding loneliness.

A common thread that runs through all the current definitions is the tendency to focus on social distress. This originated with awareness that social relations play a fundamental role in psychological well-being. It has led mental health researchers to integrate work on loneliness and social support. However, the social disruption of loneliness is just one aspect of the experience. Sociality or being around others is affected in many dysfunctions such as depression and social anxiety. Therefore, excessive focus on social relations when we define loneliness does not allow us to investigate the particularities of the experience and to distinguish loneliness from other experiences that are as socially disruptive.

My research is about loneliness and solitude, but I am not just interested in people’s experiences of these phenomena. I am also interested in understanding the phenomena at a conceptual level. And for this I’ve been carrying out research interviews with groups of people who have different perspectives on those phenomena. What makes my research different from other people’s research on loneliness is that it is a combination of philosophical argument and phenomenological-psychological investigation. 

In the analysis I discovered how seemingly different descriptions were pointing at some characteristics that could be structural of those experiences. I discovered interesting things. Loneliness includes experiential abnormalities that may result in, or be provoked by, different alterations in our experience of time, or even by fluctuations in the intensity, quality and meaning of loneliness, according to context. Another important aspect to note about the experience of loneliness is that the different forms of contact that a person has with her physical environment may have consequences for how she interacts with the social environment, for whether this evolves into a social disruption problem.

Further research needs to disclose the mechanisms involved in our capacity to adapt to different environments, and analysis on whether such a capacity allows for social adaptation.

Social disruption is not the sole ground for research on loneliness: there may be other more fundamental aspects at the onset of the experience. Understanding absences and other aspects of loneliness experiences seem likely to be important features. We need definitions of loneliness that address a wide array of life events and of disturbances in the subjective structure. Exploring the issues raised here would have implications for our terminology and our future research on types of loneliness. And these would in turn allow for the design of new treatments and interventions.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Affective Instability and Paranoia

This post is by me (Lisa Bortolotti), summarising a paper I wrote with Matthew Broome on how affective instability may be a causal factor in paranoia. It was published in a special issue of Discipline Filosofiche on Philosophical Perspectives on Affective Experience and Psychopathology, edited by Anna Bortolan and Alessandro Salice.

Matthew Broome

Most accounts of paranoia rely on cognitive biases and perceptual anomalies. However, recent empirical research has shown that affective instability may play an important role. 

What is affective instability? Unexpected changes of mood include emotional dysregulation, lability, impulsiveness, and swings. Collating the main overlapping dimensions, definitions, and their measurement scales, a recent systematic review proposed that affective instability is “rapid oscillations of intense affect, with a difficulty in regulating these oscillations or their behavioural consequences” (Marwaha et al. 2013). 

How does affective instability impact on paranoia? In large samples, recent research has identified some interesting correlations and potential causal relationships: affective instability predicted not only the onset of paranoid ideation, but also its maintenance. This association between affective instability and paranoia remains after controlling for numerous confounds, and affective instability does not impact in the same way on other phenomena. For instance, no association is found between affective instability and auditory hallucinations.

Affective instability might explain some of the connections between childhood sexual abuse and psychosis (Marwaha et al. 2014) and between bullying, psychotic disorder and psychotic symptoms (Catone et al. 2015), with bullying doubling the risk of paranoia.

How should we think about the causal role that affective instability plays in relation to paranoia? There are several options we examine in the paper:

  1. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is biological, with a single mechanism causally responsible for both affective instability and paranoia.
  2. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is mediated by behavioural effects. 
  3. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is mediated by the way the person appraises the world or appraises the self. 
  4. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is determined by the person’s lifestyle rather than the person's behaviour.

Lisa Bortolotti

Acknowledging and further examining the causal contribution of affective instability to paranoia is not incompatible with the main models of delusion formation currently discussed in the empirical and philosophical literature.

It has also significant implications for prevention and treatment. For instance, instability of mood would need to be addressed in the attempt to prevent psychotic episodes. People at risk of psychosis would need to be supported in implementing lifestyle changes that are conducive to an improvement in emotional regulation, such as sleeping better.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Cognitive Transformation, Dementia, and the Moral Weight of Advance Directives

Today's post is by Em Walsh (McGill University).

Em Walsh

The following is a real-life case study of a woman referred to as Mrs Black (Sokolowski 2018, 45-83). Mrs Black received a diagnosis of mid-stage dementia at the age of eighty-five. Mrs Black’s dementia impacted her ability to recall both the names and faces of her family members. Nevertheless, Mrs Black was noted by nurses who cared for her as always being an exceptionally happy woman, who took great pleasure in her daily activities in the residential care home in which she lived. Whilst in care, however, Mrs Black developed a serious bacterial infection, which posed a risk to her life if left untreated. Mrs Black’s primary caregivers wanted to treat the infection, but Mrs Black’s son noted that she had an advance directive stipulating that if she ever developed a condition which resulted in her inability to recognize her family members, she would not wish to receive any medical treatment to prolong her life. Her advance directive was implemented, and Mrs Black died shortly thereafter, leaving the medical team who cared for her devastated (Sokolowski 2018).

The dominant view in the philosophical literature suggests that advance directives, documents which allow individuals to set out directions for their future medical care in the eventuality that they lose decisional capacity (de Boer et al 2010, 202), ought to hold decisive moral weight. Thus, defenders of this view such as, Ronald Dworkin (1994), Jeff McMahan (2005), and Govind Persad (2019) would maintain that the decision made in the case of Mrs Black was the correct one. The reason for this is that such views suggest documents such as advance directives reflect an individual’s judgements about their own lives and should therefore be given significant moral weight, even when the price of so doing is the life of the individual in question.

In my paper, "Cognitive Transformation, Dementia, and the Moral Weight of Advance Directives", I suggest that the dominant philosophical view does not best align with current clinical practice. In current clinical practice, clinician’s show great reluctance to implement advance directives which undermine the dementia patient’s overall well-being. I put forward a philosophical defence of current clinical practice which gives moral weight to the preferences of dementia patients after the onset of their disease. In particular, I use L.A. Paul’s transformative experience framework [Paul 2016] to argue that having dementia is a cognitive transformative experience and that preference changes which arise from this are legitimate and ought to be given moral-weight in medical decision-making.

This paper has been responded to by various bioethicists, clinicians, lawyers, and psychologists. These responses have also been published in the American Journal of Bioethics, and so too has my own response to these open peer commentaries. I invite those interested in the debate to email me if they have any comments or questions, as I would love to continue the dialogue on this issue further.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Intellectual Humility and Prejudice

Today's post is by Matteo Colombo, Kevin Strangmann, Lieke Houkes, Zhasmina Kostadinova and Mark J. Brandt.


How does intellectual humility relate to prejudice? If I am more intellectually humble than you are, will I also be less prejudiced? Some would say yes. In much of the early monastic Christian tradition, for example, humility is understood as a virtuous form of abasement grounded in self-knowledge and self-appraisal. In his Demonstrations, Aphrahat the Persian Sage—a Syriac Christian author of the third-fourth century—writes that “humility is the dwelling place of righteousness. Instruction is found with the humble, and their lips pour forth knowledge. Humility brings forth wisdom and understanding.” Aphrahat’s suggestion that intellectual humility is the antidote to vanity, pride, and prejudice, is representative of one traditional way of understanding this character trait.


Some would say no. The idea is that the self-abnegation and abasement constituting humility are not virtuous, since they can reinforce existing structures of oppression and self-denigration. In Section IX of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume, for example, includes humility in his list of “monkish virtues,” which “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.” According to Hume’s view, being intellectually humble is generally a vice, which need not weaken one’s pride and prejudices against others. Contributing to the recent boom of philosophical and psychological work on intellectual humility, our paper “Intellectually Humble, but Prejudiced People. A Paradox of Intellectual Virtue” presents four empirical studies that clarify the relationship between intellectual humility and prejudice. We find support for three conclusions.

First, people are prejudiced towards groups perceived as dissimilar. If I perceive you belong to a group very different from the type of human I happen to be, then I will probably dislike you, even if I know nothing about you.


Second, intellectual humility weakens the association between perceived dissimilarity and prejudice. This suggests that intellectual humility helps break the link (or at least weaken the link) between seeing a group as dissimilar and prejudice. Aphrahat could use such a finding as an empirical basis for his account of humility.

Third, and paradoxically, more intellectual humility is associated with more prejudice overall. When looking across groups who are perceived as most similar to most dissimilar people with more intellectual humility express more prejudice towards these groups than people with less intellectual humility. Intellectual humility might make prejudice more severe! Such a finding might help Hume ground his view empirically.


When juxtaposed, these three conclusions suggest that we should not think about Aphrahat vs. Hume, but rather Aphrahat and Hume. Both are identifying some truth of intellectual humility. From our studies, we believe that whether and how intellectual humility emerges and a virtue or a vice likely depends on the situation or the target of judgment.

Evaluating when and to what extent intellectual humility promotes (or hinders) the attainment of certain epistemic goods requires we clarify its mechanism, its causal relationships with other beliefs, attitudes and traits, and the functions it performs across different situations.