Schizophrenia is defined as having episodes of psychosis: periods of time when one suffers from delusions, hallucinations, disorganized behaviors, disorganized speech, and negative symptoms. The concept of schizophrenia can be simplified as a detachment from reality. Patients who struggle with this illness frame their perceptions with a different set of rules and beliefs than the rest of society. These altered perceptions frequently become the basis of delusions, one of the most recognized symptoms of schizophrenia.
A patient with schizophrenia doesn't have delusions, as much as having a belief system, which is not recognized by any other. It is not the mismatch between "objective reality" and the held belief, which qualifies the belief as delusional, so much as the mismatch with the beliefs of those around you. Heliocentrism denial, denying the knowledge that the earth rotates around the sun, is incorrect because it is not factual. However, heliocentrism denial is not a delusion because it is incorrect, but because society chooses it to be incorrect.
We'd like to invite the reader to a thought experiment. "Objective reality" can be referred to as "anything that exists as it is independent of any conscious awareness of it."1 "Consciousness awareness" entails an observer. If we remove the concept of consciousness or observer from existence, how would we then define "objective reality," as the very definition of "objective reality" points to the existence of an observer. One deduces that there is no way to define "objective reality" without invoking the notion of an observer or of consciousness.
It is our contention that the concept of an "objective reality" is tautological — it answers itself. This philosophical quandary helps explain why a person with schizophrenia may feel alienated by others who do not appreciate their perceived "objective reality."
Schizophrenia and "Objective Reality"
A patient with schizophrenia enters a psychiatrist's office and may realize that their belief is not shared by others and society. The schizophrenic patient may understand the concept of delusions as fixed and false beliefs. However, to them, it is everyone else who is delusional. They may attempt to convince you, as their provider, to switch to their side. They may provide you with evidence for their belief system. One could argue that believing them, in response, would be curative. If not only one's psychiatrist, but society accepted the schizophrenic patient's belief system, it would no longer be delusional, whether real or not. Objective reality requires the presence of an object, an observer, to grant its value of truth.
In a simplistic way, those were the arguments of postmodernist philosophers. Reality is tainted by its observer, in a similar way that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle teaches that there is a limit to our simultaneous understanding of position and momentum of particles. This perspective may explain why Michel Foucault, PhD, the famous French postmodernist philosopher, was so interested in psychiatry and in particular schizophrenia.
Foucault was deeply concerned with society imposing its beliefs and value system on patients, and positioning itself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. He went on to postulate that the bigger difference between schizophrenic patients and psychiatrists was not who was in the correct plane of reality but who was granted by society to arbitrate the answer. If reality is a subjective construct enforced by a ruling class, who has the power to rule becomes of the utmost importance.
Intersubjectivity theory in psychoanalysis has many of its sensibilities rooted in such thought. It argues against the myth of the isolated mind. Truth, in the context of psychoanalysis, is seen as an emergent product of dialogue between the therapist/patient dyad. It is in line with the ontological shift from a logical-positivist model to the more modern, constructivist framework. In terms of its view of psychosis, "delusional ideas were understood as a form of absolution – a radical decontextualization serving vital and restorative defensive functions."2
It is an interesting proposition to advance this theory further in contending that it is not the independent consciousness of two entities that create the intersubjective space; but rather that it is the intersubjective space that literally creates the conscious entities. Could it not be said that the subjective relationship is more fundamental than consciousness itself? As Chris Jaenicke, Dipl.-Psych., wrote, "infant research has opened our eyes to the fact that there is no unilateral action."3
Postmodernism and Psychiatry
Postmodernism and its precursor skepticism have significant histories within the field of philosophy. This article will not summarize centuries of philosophical thought. In brief, skepticism is a powerful philosophical tool that can powerfully point out the limitations of human knowledge and certainty.
As a pedagogic jest to trainees, we will often point out that none of us "really knows" our date of birth with absolute certainty. None of us were conscious enough to remember our birth, conscious enough to understand the concept of date or time, and conscious enough to know who participated in it. At a fundamental level, we chose to believe our date of birth. Similarly, while the world could be a fictionalized simulation,4 we chose to believe that it is real because it behaves in a consistent way that permits scientific study. Postmodernism and skepticism are philosophical tools that permit one to question everything but are themselves limited by the real and empiric lives we live.
Psychiatrists are empiricists. We treat real people, who suffer in a very perceptible way, and live in a very tangible world. We frown on the postmodernist perspective and do not spend much or any time studying it as trainees. However, postmodernism, despite its philosophical and practical flaws, and adjacency to antipsychiatry,5 is an essential tool for the psychiatrist. In addition to the standard treatments for schizophrenia, the psychiatrist should attempt to create a bond with someone who is disconnected from the world. Postmodernism provides us with a way of doing so.
A psychiatrist who understands and appreciates postmodernism can show a patient why at some level we cannot refute all delusions. This psychiatrist can subsequently have empathy that some of the core beliefs of a patient may always be left unanswered. The psychiatrist can appreciate that to some degree the reason why the patient's beliefs are not true is because society has chosen for them not to be true. Additionally, the psychiatrist can acknowledge to the patient that in some ways the correctness of a delusion is less relevant than the power of society to enforce its reality on the patient. Postmodernism gives psychiatrists a framework to authentically connect to a psychotic human being. This connection in itself is partially curative as it restores the patient's attachment to society; we now have some plane of reality, the relationship, which is the same.
Psychiatry and Philosophy
However, tempting it may be to be satisfied with this approach as an end in itself; this would be dangerous. While gratifying to the patient to be seen and heard, they will over time only become further entrenched in that compromise formation of delusional beliefs. The role of the psychiatrist, once deep and meaningful rapport has been established and solidified, is to point out to the patient the limitations of the delusions' belief system.
"I empathize that not all your delusions can be disproved. An extension of that thought is that many beliefs can't be disproved. Society chooses to believe that aliens do not live on earth but at the same time we can't disprove with absolute certainty that they don't. We live in a world where attachment to others enriches our lives. If you continue to believe that aliens affect all existence around you, you will disconnect yourself from all of us. I hope that our therapy has shown you the importance of human connection and the sacrifice of your belief system."
In the modern day, psychiatry has chosen to believe that schizophrenia is a biological disorder that requires treatment with antipsychotics. We choose to believe that this is likely true, and we think that our empirical experience has been consistent with this belief. However, we also think that patients with this illness are salient beings that deserve to have their thoughts examined and addressed in a therapeutic framework that seeks to understand and acknowledge them as worthy and intelligent individuals. Philosophy provides psychiatry with tools on how to do so.
Badre is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist in San Diego. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Badre can be reached at his website, BadreMD.com. Khalafian practices full time as a general outpatient psychiatrist. He trained at the University of California, San Diego, for his psychiatric residency and currently works as a telepsychiatrist, serving an outpatient clinic population in northern California. Badre and Khalafian have no conflicts of interest.
2. Stolorow, RD. The phenomenology of trauma and the absolutisms of everyday life: A personal journey. Psychoanal Psychol. 1999;16(3):464-8. doi: 10.1037/0736-97184.108.40.2064.
3. Jaenicke C. "The Risk of Relatedness: Intersubjectivity Theory in Clinical Practice" Lanham, Md.: Jason Aronson, 2007.
4. Cuthbertson A. "Elon Musk cites Pong as evidence that we are already living in a simulation" The Independent. 2021 Dec 1. https://www.independent.co.uk/space/elon-musk-simulation-pong-video-game-b1972369.html.
5. Foucault M (Howard R, translator). "Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason" New York: Vintage, 1965.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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Image 1: Dr Nicolas Badre
Image 2: Dr Vladimir Khalafian
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Cite this: Schizophrenia, Postmodernism: A Philosophical Treatment Exercise - Medscape - Sep 27, 2022.