7th International Conference on Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology, University of Heidelberg, 23–26 September 2004

Conference report

Time, memory and history7th International Conference on Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology, University of Heidelberg, 23–26 September 2004

Jointly organised by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Heidelberg, the Society for Philosophy and the Science of the Psyche, and the International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry, this conference was an opportunity for mental health clinicians and philosophers to further the project of a philosophy of psychiatry in discussions grouped around the themes of time, memory and history. There were four main aspects to the encounter between philosophy and psychiatry staged by the conference: the task of conceptual clarification and the orientation of psychiatry; pure philosophical analysis, which opened up spaces for a new thinking of pathology; the delineation of features of psychopathology which could illuminate existing philosophical concepts, and, finally, the application of philosophical theories to direct psychiatric treatment of a variety of disorders.

The main philosophical protagonists within the conference were Husserlian phenomenology, particularly as applied through Jaspersʼs seminal work on psychopathology, and adherents of concepts of narrativity and narrative time derived from appropriations of Ricoeurʼs work. For example, Nassir Ghaemiʼs paper argued for a return to the pluralistic model of Karl Jaspers as an escape from the eclecticism of the biopsychosocial model in psychiatry. A similar thematic of a return to phenomenology as a basis for other forms of thinking psychopathology emanated throughout the conference, for example in Dan Zahaviʼs talk of the pre-eminence of a self-referential concept of selfhood in any discussion of narrative accounts. However, there was occasionally in these papers a lack of historical analysis as to how the phenomenological method would be mediated by technological and social changes in late modernity.

Giovanni Stanghellini attempted just such a discussion in his account of the ʻpornographic selfʼ conducted through a parallel reading of sociological accounts of late-modern selves and first-person accounts of eating disorders. The ʻimperative flexibilityʼ of these selves accounted for a new form of embodiment which did not rely on situated bodies, but rather on an instrumental attitude towards embodiment as something to be manipulated. Stanghellini offered a suggestive form for a new psychopathology which could be conducted in terms of deriving pathological phenomena in accordance with the loss of different forms of self: schizophrenia arising from the loss of a pre-cognitive self; melancholy, the loss of a narrative self; and eating and personality disorders from the loss of discursive/relational selves. Robert Kimball complemented this picture with his account of mania and depression as disorders which are characterized through breakdowns in time, and the loss of narrative time.

Different forms of thinking temporality other than through a Husserlian phenomenological analysis of a temporal field of present, past and future gave a more complicated and nuanced account of the relation between temporality and pathology. Iben Damgaardʼs interesting paper on Kierkegaardʼs philosophy contrasted the form of temporality encapsulated by Judge Vilhelm in Either/Or with Kierkegaardʼs concept of temporality in his later works. The judge refers to himself as an editor of experience, ordering experience into a narrative whole in relation to a linear temporal flow, but this form of temporality is problematized in Kierkegaardʼs later writing, which emphasizes discontinuities and interruptions in the flow of time. James Phillips pointed to similar congruences in the work of Freud and Heidegger. Rather than being viewed as a developmental theory, Freudʼs work stresses interruptions and intensities to experience, as well as forms of repetition and retrieval which are unwilled.Keith Ansell-Pearsonʼs paper on Bergsonʼs ʻcurious time of memoryʼ outlined an image of memory as outside time, as a form of dead time, that one could be stuck in either creatively, as in the form of the Proustian involuntary memory, or pathologically, in terms of some states which could be equated with schizophrenia. The question he did not have time to address was what the criteria are for entering into such a time: what would determine either a creative or a pathological entry into the ʻdead timeʼ of memory?

The question of history, in a philosophical sense, was perhaps the most underrepresented in the conference, despite historical symposia on the Nazi ʻeuthanasiaʼ programme and the history of psychiatry. The question of the mediation of forms of mental disorder by historical and cultural changes in forms of experience was occasionally addressed, for example in Ian Prenelleʼs paper on urban psychosis, which used Debord and Benjamin to attempt to think the concept of schizophrenia as a historical and changeable experience which is itself being constructed as an image through media, user and psychiatric representation. This was one of the few papers to reference the Marxist tradition directly and pointed to one of the main philosophical gaps in the conference.

Nevertheless, the event provided a vast and diverse range of thought on the interrelationship between philosophy and psychiatry, ranging from Werdie van Stadenʼs intriguing attempt to use neo-Fregean relational theory as a treatment typology and modality for borderline personality disorder, to important conceptual work on the philosophy of neuroscience. Overall, the conference provided a mine of resources for all of us working in the field, attempting to resist the dominance of biological approaches within psychiatry.

Alastair morgan