Non-rational understanding? Can psychiatry draw on Wittgenstein’s discussion of other cultures?
Since Jaspers’ time, an important issue for psychiatry has been assessing the role of understanding, by contrast with explanation, for making the experiences and beliefs of people suffering mental illnesses intelligible. More recently, the key feature of understanding that has been taken to mark it off from other forms of scientific intelligibility has been a connection to the rationality and normativity of thought, influenced by Wittgenstein, Davidson and McDowell. But especially within recent philosophy of psychiatry this has also been criticised (eg recent work by Campbell and Bortolotti).
If, however, one does think that the connection between understanding something and fitting it within a rational pattern is a genuine insight, how can one approach phenomena which apparently resist such rational capture? In this presentation I attempt to balance two themes from the later Wittgenstein which, although both are contestable, are, I will argue, sound. The limits of sense coincide with the limits of rationality. Nevertheless, consideration of behaviour from quite different cultures can suggest, precisely because of its strange quality, a way of approaching phenomena which cannot be fitted within familiar rational patterns.