IAS Fellow's Seminar
Fellow: Gail Hornstein
Chair: Barbara Graziosi
Title: How might the evidence of testimony reframe our understanding of psychological experience?
Despite their many theoretical differences, professionals who theorize mental life (psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, etc.) share a common assumption that people's own descriptions of their subjective experience are typically inchoate and thus in need of interpretation by experts. This assumption is held most strongly about people labeled ‘psychotic' or ‘mad', who are universally regarded by professionals as incapable of understanding themselves.
But after many years of reading hundreds of the first-person narratives of madness which have been published since the 15th century, I have (somewhat reluctantly) been forced to challenge this key assumption of the superiority of professional explanation. People's own depictions and analyses of self-harm, voice hearing, melancholia, mania, or many other extreme states often turn out, quite strikingly, to be at odds with what psychologists, psychiatrists, or psychoanalysts say about psychosis or mental illness.
In this seminar, I want to explore the question of whether theoretical explanations of emotional distress - and, by implication, less problematic states of mind as well - run the risk of creating a ‘colonizing discourse' that can rob people of the right to understand their minds in their own terms.
At issue here are core questions about what constitute the appropriate data upon which to base our understandings of mental life. Psychiatrists have, of late, increasingly emphasised their reliance on ‘evidence-based medicine', but in my experience they are distressingly dismissive of the evidence of testimony. And unfortunately, clinical psychologists have been all too quick to adopt that same tone, turning case histories into exercises in pathologizing rather than attempts at understanding. But years of immersing myself in first-person madness narratives has made me acutely sensitive to the extraordinary variability in people's experiences, and has led me to explore a radically subjective understanding of distress, one that resists categorisation except as metaphor, and reaffirms the right of every person to make choices about what happens inside her own mind so long as this does no violence to anyone else. So I want us to consider the implications of listening at a far deeper level to what people actually say about their own experiences, resisting the temptation to use their mental lives to advance our own theoretical ends. What if we take people's psychological descriptions of themselves not as some kind of code to be deciphered but rather as meaningful and accurate (even if fragmentary and contradictory) accounts?
Further details about Professor Gail Hornstein are available at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/ias/fellows/1112/hornstein/