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 pour 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.

2 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”?

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