Monday, 5 October 2009

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Psychiatry

I’m rattling back on the train from Oxford from a planning meeting organised by Bill Fulford for the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Psychiatry. (One can just about day trip using the 6:20am train out and getting back around 9:30pm.) Twenty or so academics (including Givoanni Stanghellini, Werdie van Staden, the Matthews: Broome and Ratcliffe, Rachel Cooper, Lisa Bortolotti, Richard Gipps, Gerrit Glas, (pictured)), mainly philosophers, from Europe, South Africa and the USA came to Oxford and a few joined in by phone.

Martin Davies described being recruited onto the project by Bill Fulford. Thinking along the lines of the philosophy of psychology with which he is very familiar, he had assumed that such a book would be planned by writing down the agreed problems or areas which made up the subject and then commisioning the agreed experts. He was thus surprised when Bill said that there wasn’t that degree of consensus in our subject. Thus the aim of today’s perhaps otherwise eccentric meeting - just think of the opportunity cost! - was to attempt to address that issue. (At the very least we need ways to manage the dissensus.)

One initial finding concerned the opposition between a book structured around a series of problems and one ‘chunked’ by broader subject areas (as my own slim book is). As a matter of fact, there was some agreement at least on possible subject headings but almost none about an orientation around some key problems. We will discover in the next few weeks whether there’s agreement at the lower level of individual chapter topics or problems. There may be. It may be that the problem comes one level up at the length of chunking 50 chapters into a handful of areas.

Martin Davies also suggested that if, as had been suggested, psychiatry is unified at the level of practice rather than through a single science (perhaps by contrast with, say, cognitive psychology) the book should adopt something like the clinical process as its unifying structure. At Warwick the locally taught philosophy of mental health course did just that for one term, weaving together aspects of the philosophy of science and values. What I now realise more than I did then was that such an approach would have to be balanced by some realisation that such a medical process is already to assume something about the nature of the right response to mental distress. (That isn’t to say it couldn’t form the heart of the book but it would need augmentation.)

That point suggests another. The issue that seemed to me to be least present today (in a group of philosophers with perhaps a bias towards philosophy of mind) was a sense of the significance of the mental health service user movement. As I’ve pondered before: in a philosophy of psychiatry book not just any such representation would be appropriate. (It is not the handbook of the politics or sociology of psychiatry, for example.) But there’s a danger that this other key difference from the philosophy of cognitive psychology might go missing.