Tuesday 25 May 2021

Social Approaches to Delusion (3): The Social Formation and Social Evaluation of Delusion

Today's post is by Sam Wilkinson (University of Exeter) and it is the third in the series “Social Approaches to Delusions”.

Sam Wilkinson

This series of posts has sought to show how there has been a “social turn” in thinking about delusions. The excellent posts by Kengo Miyazono and Dan Williams on their respective co-authored papers (Miyazono and Salice 2020; Williams and Montagnese preprint) are testament to the fruitfulness of going beyond individual cognition and individualistic epistemology when theorising about delusion.

In this post I draw inspiration from their work to reflect on precisely what we might mean by delusions being social.

Let’s draw a distinction between delusions being social in their formation (call this “the social formation claim”), and in their evaluation (call this “the social evaluation claim”). In other words, social factors (deficits in social cognition, social epistemology) may play a role in generating those things that we end up calling delusions (as Kengo and Dan’s papers suggest, in compatible but different ways). On the other hand, social factors (societal norms) may play a role in determining which candidate phenomena count as delusions (which is roughly what my expressivism paper suggests (Wilkinson 2020; see also here)).

On close inspection, these look like very different hypotheses, and they are conceptually entirely separable. To demonstrate their separability, consider two positions.

  • Position 1. The social formation claim is right: social cognitive and social epistemic factors are involved in the kinds of deviations that give rise to delusions. But the social evaluation claim is wrong: their status as delusions is entirely non-social, objective and descriptive (saying that someone is delusional is like saying that they have brown hair). 
  • Position 2. The social formation claim is wrong: many of the things that we call delusions have individualistic aetiologies. But the social evaluation claim is right: we give them delusional status, as I have suggested, based on a kind folk-epistemic disgust. 

These two positions, though conceptually coherent, are, I suggest, implausible, and the reason for this is that our practices of belief formation and of belief evaluation are closely, and non-accidentally, related. In short, we should accept both the social formation and the social evaluation claims.

Let us start with some key insights from both Kengo and Dan: we are profoundly social creatures who navigate a world with a variety of informational pitfalls. Where do such pitfalls typically come from? Not from perception (we do not inhabit a wacky world of illusions) but from testimony (we do inhabit a world where people may lie, mislead, conceal). So we need to be epistemically vigilant (Sperber et al. 2010). But we aren’t only individualistically vigilant: our vigilance is socially distributed. In other words, we give testimony about the quality of other individuals as sources of testimony.

What stronger way of flagging a poor testimonial source than to call someone delusional? (And when this is bolstered by the suggestion that there’s something (psychiatrically) wrong with them, the effect is strengthened further.) But we also flag good sources of testimony, and more general folk-epistemic trustworthiness, in subtle and implicit ways, through our social practices of taking people seriously (through which we encourage others to do the same).

How far can we push things? According to a moderate position, views that make use of individualistic approaches could be right, they just happen to be wrong. According to a more adventurous position, the individualistic notions are fundamentally misguided, or even incoherent. I’m not yet sure whether I’d want to adhere to it, but the adventurous position is worth exploring.

Take traditional epistemic notions like “evidence”. What is a private, individualistic notion of evidence? Often people talk about experiential evidence. If I genuinely believe something, then that is how I take the world to be. I believe it, because it strikes me that the world is thus. But when, then, do people ever believe without private evidence? In contrast, a public, social notion of evidence gets more purchase: grounding belief in evidence is about bringing others along with you.

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