Steele on Szasz

There is a book called Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and his Ideas edited by Schaler, Lothane and Vatz.

A libertarian called David Ramsay Steele contributed a chapter called “What follows from the non-existence of mental illness?”. This chapter is quite bad and Steele has been promoted on a libertarian podcast as an expert on Szasz, so I’m posting a criticism.

On p. 85 of the book, Steele writes:

Szasz evidently believed that there is a tight connection between the proposition that there is literally no such thing as mental illness and the proposition that all psychiatric coercion is wrong, or at least unjustified. Again and again he reveals that he assumes some such tight connection (1976, p. 189, 2010, pp. 267–268), but he never spells out an argument demonstrating this connection.

Steele has completely misunderstood Szasz’s argument. In Chapter 4 of “The Myth of Mental Illness” Szasz writes:

In my opinion, this sort of search for the biological and physical causes of so-called psychopathological phenomena is motivated more by the investigator’s craving for prestige and power than by his desire for understanding and clarity. I have suggested earlier that patterning his beliefs and behavior on the medical model enables the psychiatrist to share in the prestige and power of the physician. The same applies to the psychiatric and psychological investigator or research worker. Because theoretical physicists enjoy greater prestige than theoreticians of psychology or human relations, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts stand to gain from claiming, as they do, that, at bottom as it were, they too are in quest of the physical or physiological causes of bodily illnesses. This impersonation makes them, of course, pseudo-physicists and pseudo-physicians, and has many regrettable consequences. Yet, this imitation of the natural scientist has been largely successful, at least in a social or opportunistic way: I refer to the widespread social acceptance of psychiatry and psychoanalysis as allegedly biological—and hence ultimately physicochemical—sciences, and to the prestige of their practitioners based, in part, on this connection between what they claim they do and what other scientists do.

To put it bluntly, the idea that mental illness is a disease is a lie. Psychiatrists tell this lie to gain prestige and then use that prestige to persecute people they dislike and help people they like. Explaining that such claims are lies is a reasonable way to try to undermine the power of psychiatrists. Some mental patients also endorse this lie because they want to get out of criminal responsibility, or ask for help in a deniable way or for other purposes. Steele doesn’t bother to explain Szasz’s arguments about these issues let alone refute them, which makes his entire chapter irrelevant to any issue of any real importance.

Another quote from this chapter that represents the level of arguments offered by Steele is the following (p. 87):

Since Szasz accepts the common-sense medical view that many patterns of behavior and feeling were once observed and discussed (and even treated) without their neurological causes being known, and that these causes were later identified, he has to acknowledge that there are very likely some present-day patterns where the neurological cause is unknown, but where this cause will probably be discovered in the future (Szasz, 1997, 52).

Let’s have a look at the actual quote from Insanity: The idea and its consequences:

In view of the relatively unsophisticated state of our understanding of neurophysiology and neuropathology, it is more than likely that there are diseases of the human brain, just as there are diseases of the human immune system, that have not yet been discovered. However, ordinary honesty, not to mention scientific integrity, requires that we distinguish between proven and putative diseases, lest we discover diseases by fantasy and fiat, and we do when we attach disease labels to disapproved behaviors such as gambling.

Steele has missed the point entirely. The problem is that if we say a behaviour is a result of a brain disease when we have no way of knowing that it is, then we will attribute choices to diseases in cases where no disease is relevant.

I could keep going, but I won’t. Szasz’s position isn’t that there is some fancy argument that’s supposed to lead from the idea that mental illness is a brain disease to involutary commitment. Rather, it is just a lie told by psychiatrists to legitimise involuntary commitment and other psychiatric practices. Szasz wrote an entire book called Psychiatry: The science of lies in which he made exactly this point. Looking for anything other than specious plausibility in arguments by psychiatrists is a mistake. Trying to refute psychiatric ideas as if they were strictly logical arguments would also be a mistake.

Psychiatrists are not the only people to make specious arguments that are either deliberate or negligent lies. Anyone looking for prestige or power may fall into this trap. This includes intellectuals writing authoritative sounding essays on subjects they don’t understand. David Ramsay Steele fell into this trap when writing his essay on Szasz.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

13 Responses to Steele on Szasz

  1. DRS is an idiot. I just forwarded you 43 DRS emails from around sept 2016 from the crit cafe group, when I debated with him a bit. He trashed Rand and had no idea how to do truth seeking. In response to debate arguments about why he was mistaken and especially how he had been non-responsive to various questions and arguments, he offered me $400/hr psychotherapy for the purpose of flaming me. He called me needy and guessed that I’d never had a productive conversation with anyone, ever. He said things like “As always, I was right and you are wrong.” instead of answering questions or arguing points.

    > distinguish between prove and putative diseases

    Typo in quote for “proven”?

  2. David Ramsay Steele says:

    The author (can I assume this is Alan Forrester?) says I have “completely misunderstood” Szasz’s argument, but makes no attempt to explain what my misunderstanding is. He gives a long quote from Szasz as though it contained something that contradicted what I attributed to Szasz. I am familiar with the quote, and it conforms entirely to my understanding of Szasz’s position. I made several substantive points in my article (since reprinted in my book, The Mystery of Fascism) and Alan Forrester makes no attempt to dispute any of these points. To give three examples, I said 1. that Szasz assumes a tight connection between the non-existence of mental illness and the wrongness of involuntary commitment, but logically no such tight connection exists. And 2. I said that, while Szasz is correct to say that mental illness is a mistaken category according to a certain definition, the way the term ‘mental illness’ is now most often used is: a brain disorder with mental symptoms. According to this understanding of the term, mental illness does seem to be a real phenomenon. 3. I pointed out that we don’t have to prove that some emotion or behavior is caused by a brain disorder to conjecture the possibility that it so. This might be the best explanation of what we observe, even though we haven’t yet established the precise connection between the brain disorder and the emotion or behavior. Of course, Alan Forrester may disagree with any of these three points, or with other points I made, but he talks as though he has presented arguments against them, when in point of fact he has presented no arguments.

    • > Szasz assumes a tight connection between the non-existence of mental illness and the wrongness of involuntary commitment

      Having read Szasz’s books, and having had discussions with him, I don’t think he does. Do you have quotes?

  3. David Ramsay Steele says:

    “The practice of psychiatry rests on two pillars: mental illness and involuntary mental hospitalization. Each of these elements justifies and reinforces the other.” Sounds like a tight connection to me.


    • DRS, I think you’re mistaken, and that your opinions and arguments are too low quality to be worthwhile to engage with.

      Nevertheless, I value open debate. If you care to debate the issue, see or link alternative terms and explain some way that they’re better.

      • David Ramsay Steele says:

        You see, this is the way open debate works. You claim that Szasz didn’t maintain a tight connection between mental illness and involuntary commitment, and ask for a quotation. Ignoring the point that my original article gave two Szasz quotations to substantiate this point, I give you a new, a third, citation from Szasz. You then apologize for your blunder and, agree that Szasz did in fact maintain a tight connection between mental illness and involuntary commitment. Oh, wait . . .

    • Psychiatrists’ position is that mental illness legitimises involuntary commitment. That claim is commonly accepted as the basis for involuntary commitment. Accepting that this is the way people commonly talk about this issue doesn’t require accepting that their framing of the issue is correct, but stating psychiatrists’ position accurately requires stating their position in that way. Szasz is stating his opponents’ position to refute it, not accepting their framing of the issue.

      Szasz states their position is a lie as illustrated by the quotes I gave in the post. It would be odd for Szasz to say that psychiatrists’ position is a lie if he accepts part of it.

      • David Ramsay Steele says:

        Well, saying someone’s position is a “lie” involves the claim that they don’t believe it. I think it’s a stretch to say that all psychiatrists are insisting on claims they secretly believe to be false. I think some of them do believe what they say, in which case they are not lying.

        Second, Szasz numerous times indicates that there is a tight connection between belief in mental illness and the practice of involuntary commitment. Because of this, he thinks that by refuting the concept of mental illness, he is automatically arguing against involuntary commitment. I think Szasz was wrong here on several levels, but perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t dispute that mental illness does exist if we define mental illness to mean a brain disorder with mental symptoms. And this is the way “mental illness” is now defined by most mental health professionals (though that was not the case at the outset of Szasz’s career, when psychoanalysis was dominant).

        • > Well, saying someone’s position is a “lie” involves the claim that they don’t believe it. I think it’s a stretch to say that all psychiatrists are insisting on claims they secretly believe to be false. I think some of them do believe what they say, in which case they are not lying.

          Your statements about lying are wrong:

          • David Ramsay Steele says:

            The word “lie” has a definition in English. It means asserting what you believe to be false. The piece you refer me to strikes me as muddled. If you assert what you believe to be the case, you are not lying. Of course, you can’t lie to yourself (not without bringing in multiple personality disorder, which I think is a myth).

            But even if we were to accept this nonsense about lying to oneself, and take everything in this piece as correct, do you seriously want to claim that all psychiatrists are in this frame of mind? That they are performing these bizarre mental contortions? That none of them simply believes what he is saying? If so, you seem to be getting close to the position that anyone who has an opinion different to yours is lying. I think this is a mistake. I think that people genuinely do differ in their beliefs. That is why we have debate. It changes people’s opinions.

            • We’ve had two impasses in this discussion:


              The first one is about whether Szasz is giving an account of the conventional account of mental illness in the quotes you gave that you claim are about Szasz accepting a tight connection between mental illness and involuntary commitment. The second is about lying. Your arguments in both cases seem to me to be very low quality. Do you have a proposal about how we should proceed?

              • David Ramsay Steele says:

                In debate, you do not say things like “Your arguments seem to me to be very low quality.” That is abuse, not argument. What you do is try to answer your opponent’s argument.

                Nothing would be easier for Szasz than to say “The existence of mental illness would do nothing to justify involuntary commitment.” But he does not say that. Instead, he says: “Mental illness does not exist and so there is no justification for involuntary commitment.”

                Lying to oneself is not possible, because to lie is to deliberately mis-state what one believes to be the facts, in order to mislead. How can anyone say to themselves “The moon is made of green cheese. I know it is not, and so therefore you do too, but I am going to deceive you, that is myself, by saying it to you (myself).”

                That is not possible, but even if it were possible, it would still not automatically apply to all cases where someone states an opinion contrary to yours.

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