working with madness

by Andrew Phelps


A growth opportunity for social constructionism

To become the dominant paradigm, social constructionism needs to exhibit a superior practicum for working with madness. I propose that by linking with the mental patients movement's fight against discrimination, this can be exhibited because major needs that are currently unmet can be met. Social constructions are needed to challenge the perplexity that governs social relations in the mental health sphere. Human imagination which now expresses itself in 'regressed' ways to fit the available 'client' social roles can upgrade to a more satisfactory presentation as reasonable.

My argument draws from direct mental health client activist experience in the San Francisco Bay Area, identifying the incapacities of client organizing where support is craved. I make analogy to the untimely execution and philosophical survival of Boethius as described by Gibbon (Decline and fall), a prototype that draws out the contradictions of irrational social role. Then, from Francis Bacon's work on 'illusions' of reason ("idols"), I derive a historical model for deconstructing irrationality and blending in new rationalities. Lastly, I illustrate the grounds for affecting/changing prevailing social relations - what I call the 'perplexity system' - by reference to Aristotle's philosophy of 'material cause'.

An individualist model of personality and the attendant clinical practicum has major resource limitations, see for instance Albee (J. of mind and behavior, 1990). For one thing, a model based on the alliance of mental health client activism and social construction makes for a better fit with the social nature of personality. And by relocating therapy to the framework of a mass movement, we can hope to assemble a more economical, more productive engine for healing. This approach to madness work will come to be seen as a remedy to many of the failures that beset the present system - and will have the prospect of being funded correspondingly.

In place of current cliches of blaming craziness and current habits of discriminating against people involved in 'madness', we will place value on the imaginative gifts that accompany madness on their merits. This sea change in social attitude, comparable to an earlier change associated with the name of Freud, will revolutionize aspects of society. Like that preceding change vector, however, it will be accommodated more than suppressed politically, by equilibrating with the low-level endemic reform processes. So we will come to have new arguments about the efficacy/repercussions of diverse radical interpretations in constructionism, and that will be all to the good.