Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Philosophy, social science and reasons

Yesterday I went to a paper given by my colleague Phil Thomas at an inter departmental group for Mental Health and Society. Taking as his point of departure Peter Sedgwick’s Marxist book Psychopolitics which argued, among other things, that the arguments for anti-psychiatry might be used by the right wing to reduce resources for mental healthcare, Phil wanted briskly to outline (rather than argue in full at much greater length than time allowed) that there was a difficulty even in Marxist writing in escaping an Enlightenment individualism and that this had consequences for a proper understanding of multiculturalism.

A post-Enlightenment conception of the self based on ‘interiority and self reflexivity’ led, at a distance, to a failure to escape a ‘normative, reified and fixed’ view of culture. Thus, escaping an individualist account of the self was the cost of being able to adopt a properly sensitive approach to multiculturalism.

Two things struck me about the seminar. Firstly, there was something utterly appropriate about being at a seminar at an ex-polytechnic at which the participants debated with themselves about whether they should call themselves, or think of themselves as, Marxists or not. The issue was both an academic one (befitting university debate) but also politically and practically significant (befitting a polytechnic).

Secondly, I was left a little uneasy about how the connections which Phil – for the sake of speed – merely gestured at might be filled out if time had allowed. Just how does one get from a view of the self has having particular ‘inner’ characteristics to a view of culture as both fixed, substantive and to be judged judgementally? For one thing, how does one get from what seem to be non-evaluative premises concerning the nature of selves to evaluative conclusions about culture?

Two options strike me. One is that there might be a conceptual argument that connects the two with suitably specified additional premises. Phil himself suggested that an individualistic model of the self is often combined with adoption of autonomy as a moral principle. Nevertheless, I doubt that that would really work.

So I suspect that what sustains the longer argument is a piece of qualitative social science. The Enlightenment model of the self is taken by many to be a reason for the moral importance of individual autonomy. That’s what it is to be a reason in this field. And given that, if you want a better view of multiculturalism, you need to argue against the ‘premiss’.

Interestingly, if so, whilst that may seem very close to philosophical analysis (and thus to the philosophy of psychiatry as I see it) it is actually diametrically opposed to it in spirit. Philosophical analysis often focuses on an association that is plausible and taken for granted and then points out that the one thing doesn’t actually follow from the other, despite the common view. That something is taken to be a reason isn’t enough for it to be a reason.

(Of course, one problem for reason-particularism is that it is quite hard to fill out why that is true. It is not that real reasons can in general be codified in deductive structures, for example. That is not the test of a genuine reason.)