Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry in the 70s in Italy

Today's blog is by Matteo Fiorani (University of Rome, Tor Vergata) and it is the last in a series of posts associated with the special issue of the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy on Bounds of Rationality. Matteo's paper (open access) is entitled: "Rationality, Irrationality and Irrationalism in the Anti-institutional Debate in Psychiatry around the Second-Half of the 1970s in Italy".


Matteo Fiorani


The 1968 movements overwhelmed psychiatry with anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional criticism. The young protesters demanded, first of all, the rights of madness and, provocatively, of unreason. At the same time, they dismissed the dominant normality, represented by bourgeois common sense. They also affirmed the need not to repress contradictions and suffering. Emotions and affectivity were indeed part of the social and political world. From these premises it was possible to develop a deep political and cultural reflection on the boundary between reason and madness. The so-called official psychiatry and the scientific criteria that sought to distinguish with certainty between insanity and mental health, were radically challenged.

In Italy, psychiatric discourse was politicized as in no other Western country. Starting in the 1970s, in a scenario characterized by a profound cultural and political transformation within the left, anti-psychiatry became a word that was used, abused, mythologized and misunderstood. It was at the center of a veritable battle of ideas. The traditional concept of rationality and its very connection to irrationality were challenged, as was the idea of classical reason. The attempt was to redefine limits. Did madness really exist? Was it, in a perspective of overthrowing the bourgeois order, a manifestation of freedom and creativity? Or was it illness and suffering produced by life's experiences?

In my article I tried to give an account of all this. Not without difficulty, especially in the interpretation of the sources. On the one hand, in fact, the reviews of the movement, the writings of anti-establishment psychiatrists and the militants of the so-called New Left gave a sensation of hopeless desolation, made up of irrationalist drifts that simplified psychiatric discourse. They also left unresolved the many important questions about normality and madness raised since 1968. On the other hand, oral sources and individual experiences of psychiatric renewal, less visible and less recounted (and for this reason present in the paper as suggestions), warned me of the danger of excluding the positive legacy of those years, probably crushed by the depressed look of today. 




The hyper-politicization of the psychiatric and scientific question certainly struggled to find a synthesis and a direction. Especially since the mid-1970s, the irrationalist drifts can be interpreted as the failed attempt to affirm a new rationality that was even more rigid, even if directed against the system. In this sense, even Marxism, in its various interpretations, proved unable to find a way out. However, it was not only psychiatrists who approached anti-psychiatry texts, but also students and intellectuals (an Italian peculiarity) in search of alternative tools to interpret reality.

These people wanted to free themselves from the decades-long devaluation of science, typical of Italy (in the footsteps of the neo-idealism of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile) and to open up to foreign countries, especially the United States, where science was not devalued, but complicated, and where it was possible to criticize Galilean rationality without being accused of relativism. In short, the answer to the rationality of the system was not only an aimless flight into irrationalism (which it was). It was also an attempt to hold together rationality and irrationality, intellect and affects (reason and sentiment, we could say), to build a new free and vital subjectivity.

1 comment:

  1. This paper looks excellent. I will give it a read at some point. I'm interested in the search for the language that ties reason and subjectivity together - it seems we are still fumbling in this area!

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