Monday, June 30, 2014

Jean-Luc Picard: If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1x01

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by American Psychiatric Association in 1973 remains a significant moment in the history of psychiatry, not simply from the perspective of human rights but also because it forced psychiatrists to confront the complex and deep-seated conceptual issue of what it means to say that a condition is a 'mental disorder'. It was following this debate that DSM under Robert Spitzer, for the first time, attempted to provide a definition of mental disorder. Also, what is less apparent to many is how politically-driven APA's decision was. What is seemingly a scientific question, the pathology or non-pathology of homosexuality, was eventually settled by a democratic vote, a referendum of the full APA membership, following a bitter controversy.

Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis by Ronald Bayer is a political analysis of this historic event. It recounts in details the socio-political background and the events which led to this decision, and the fierce debates within the discipline which all but fractured the psychiatric community. For anyone interested in the topic, it is a highly recommended book.

Ronald Bayer explains in the introduction why he chose a primarily political vantage point for this analysis:

"To assume that there is an answer to this question that is not ultimately political is to assume that it is possible to determine, with the appropriate scientific methodology, whether homosexuality is a disease given in nature. I do not accept that assumption, seeing in it a mistaken view of the problem. The status of homosexuality is a political question.... It requires a political analysis."

The philosophical significance of the debate is explained by Bayer as well. Again, I quote:

"For psychiatrists engaged in clinical work, the extent to which normative considerations inform contemporary definitions of mental health and illness remain largely an unexamined matter.... Only when their conventional orientations have been challenged by extraordinary occurences have therapists been forced to assume a more self-reflective posture. The dispute over the status of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder did just that, compelling many clinicians to confront the extent to which social values frame the most basic elements of their professional work."

For this reason the case of homosexuality is an excellent case study to investigate the ways in which medical diagnoses are shaped by social and political considerations.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Semicompatibilism is the philosophical position that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism, while being agnostic about the compatibility of free will and determinism. More here and here.

Got introduced to it from a recent interview of John Martin Fischer at 3:AM Magazine.

Character: There is no God.
Hannibal: Certainly not with that attitude!

Hannibal, Episode 2x02

Sunday, June 15, 2014

'[Thales] held there was no difference between life and death. "Why then," said one, "do you not die?" "Because," said he, "there is no difference."'

Narrated by Simon Critchley in The Book of Dead Philosophers

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Dr Manhattan from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen

Friday, June 6, 2014

Recently Cambridge students were asked in an exam to write about a poem consisting only of punctuation, Tipp-Ex-Sonate by the South African writer Koos Kombuis. Jon Kelly discusses how to make sense of such a poem. Apart from the general discussion of interpreting such poetry as anti-art or typographic trickery, the article mentions something specific about the poem:

'In fact, according to Kombuis, a long-standing anti-apartheid activist, Tipp-Ex-Sonate was a protest against censorship laws imposed during white minority rule. "If you know about the historical and political context you could make sense of it as an inability to use a language that's tainted by apartheid," says Ford. But assuming undergraduates did not have access to an internet connection, it would be difficult for them to work out the poem's intended meaning, he adds.'

This reinforces an opinion that I have expressed on this blog several times: a proper understanding and interpretation of art, especially modern art, requires a certain awareness of the social-political-philosophical-religious context, and a knowledge of the author's intention. From my perspective, an understanding of Tipp-Ex-Sonate remains incomplete as long as the reader is unaware that the poem was a protest against censorship; we remain deprived of the 'objective meaning' of the poem. (By objective meaning I refer to what an author attempts to convey to the reader via a work of art.) Yet, modern art and poetry continue to be presented to the public in anthologies, magazines and museums without the necessary context that is required for proper appreciation. Modern art is in this sense paradoxical: it implicitly or explicitly insists that a work of art be taken on its own terms and be interpreted utilizing the internal clues it has to offer, while at the same time the work of art is more often than not produced to serve a certain purpose or convey a certain message, such as protest against authority or rebuking of tradition, which cannot be discerned wholly from the internal clues.

What I wrote in an earlier post warrants reiteration:

'The point is, unless the poet himself reveals what the poem is about, the reader is free to judge the poem as belonging to any category he thinks appropriate. When a poem is published in isolation, the objective meaning of the poem is lost, and the poem becomes a matter of complete subjective interpretation, capable of being fit in any category the reader believes it to belong to. The poet abandons a poem to subjectivity by withholding the objective meaning. Of course, people can and do argue that this very subjectivity is what makes poetry what it is. If that is so, well, then that is so. The question of "What does it mean?" becomes irrelevant, because the answer to that is "It means whatever you want it to mean."'

* By 'modern' I refer loosely to both modern and post-modern.

Eric Schwitzgebel presents a theory of jerks:

"I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests. The bumpkin ignorance captured in the earlier use of ‘jerk’ has changed into a type of moral ignorance."

 

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