Category Archives: Mind Modernity Madness

Did Shakespeare Invent Love? (Nerdwriter1 Video)



Buy Liah Greenfeld’s most recent book, Mind, Modernity, and Madness here:

Her sociology class was among the most influential (probably the most) of my formal education. The aim of her research is a better understanding of manic depression and schizophrenia, diseases which even today are poorly understood by most scientists and psychiatrists. Greenfeld’s theory of symbolic reality, the symbolic basis of both the mind and culture, has had immeasurable effect on my thinking, personal philosophy, and writing. And it’s a perfect example of a foundation of worldview to which other elements have adhered over time. This is what The Nerdwriter is all about.


Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex

By Liah Greenfeld

If you ever wondered, love–the identity-affirming one we all desire–is not dependent on sex and can well thrive without it. Love, as already Shakespeare said (and Shakespeare–see Modern Emotions: Love–was the expert on the subject) is a marriage of minds, after all, and the bodily element in it is at most secondary. Of course, the experience of that love we are discussing here is essentially erotic in the sense that the emotion is ecstatic and self-transcendent–finding that perfect understanding (the understanding that allows one to understand and accept oneself) in another person implies virtually merging with the other person in one’s innermost self, making the other person an essential, vital part of one’s identity. And this self-transcendence, merging of the minds, is naturally felt as a physical longing, a desire to become physically one–expressed as sexual desire. But sex, in this case, is an expression of love, not the other way around, and love can have numerous other expressions, it does not necessitate sex under all circumstances.

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Modern Emotions: Love

By Liah Greenfeld

Surprise! Surprise! Love, too, in the sense we understand it now, is not a universal human emotion. Even today it is not universal: some cultures are familiar with it and some are not. And, historically, only the last five hundred years in human history have known it — the same five hundred years that have known happiness, aspiration, and ambition. The first humans to fall in love also lived in the 16th century and were English. Today, of course, this most powerful feeling is familiar everywhere within the so-called “Western” civilization (which includes all societies based on monotheistic religion, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and it has penetrated into other civilizations as well. But it has spread from England, accompanying other experiences (such as ambition or happiness) which were at first specifically English, and reached other societies in translation from the English language. Love as we understand it, therefore, also does not spring from human “nature”: it is essentially a cultural phenomenon.

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Psychiatry: Time for a Paradigm Shift

The Division of Clinical Psychologists (DCP) of the British Psychological Society Time for a Paradigm Shift Position Statement, May 13, 2013:  “The DCP is of the view that it is timely and appropriate to affirm publicly that the current classification system as outlined in DSM and ICD, in respect of the functional psychiatric diagnoses, has significant conceptual and empirical limitations. Consequently, there is a need for a paradigm shift in relation to the experiences that these diagnoses refer to, towards a conceptual system not based on a ‘disease’ model… This position… recognises the complexity of the relationship between social, psychological and biological factors. In relation to the experiences that give rise to a functional psychiatric diagnosis, it calls for an approach that fully acknowledges the growing amount of evidence for psychosocial causal factors, but which does not assign an unevidenced role for biology as a primary cause, and that is transparent about the very limited support for the ‘disease’ model in such conditions.”

Oliver James, “Do we need to change the way we are thinking about mental illness,” The Observer, May 13, 2013: “While there is some evidence that the electro-chemistry of distressed people can be different from the undistressed, the Human Genome Project seems to be proving that genes play almost no part in causing this. Eleven years of careful study of our DNA shows that differences in it do not explain mental illness, hardly at all.

Liah Greenfeld:

DSM-5’s approach is similar to attempting to salvage a house, falling apart because it is built on an unsound foundation, by adding to it a fresh coat of paint and new shutters. What Mind, Modernity, Madness does, in contrast, is to dismantle the structure, establish a sound foundation, and then rebuild the house on top of it. I begin by questioning and analyzing the fundamental diagnostic categories themselves, consider them against the existing clinical, neurobiological, genetic, and epidemiological evidence, bring into the mix the never-before-considered cultural data, and on this basis propose that the two (schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness) or even three (schizophrenia, manic depression, and unipolar depression) discreet diseases are better conceptualized–and therefore treated–as the same disease, with one cause, which expresses itself differently depending on the circumstances in which this cause becomes operative. Psychiatric epidemiologists, at least, have long suspected that “the black box of culture” is an important contributing factor in these diseases. However, as the phrase indicates, they lack the means to understand or even examine its contribution. By unpacking the “black box” (and showing, specifically, how it is reflected in the logically necessary structures of the mind, such as identity, will, and thinking self), I add a missing yet essential dimension to the diagnostic tool-kit, which the DSM-5, like the previous editions, disregards.

Identity Construction and Cultural Madness

From the Harvard University Press Blog:

It sometimes seems as if each day brings a new raft of articles proclaiming yet another biological or genetic explanation for human behavior and activity. To Liah Greenfeld, that barrage is just a new bubble, and in Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, she does her best to burst it. While not entirely dismissing biological factors in mental illness, Greenfeld argues that the phenomenon that was for a long time called simply “madness”—today’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—is actually a symptom of modernity, an effect of our cultural environment.   Continue reading

“What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”

Shane Koyczan, in his March 2013 TED Talk (HT Farnam Street Blog):

I hid my heart under the bed because my mother said if your not careful someday someone’s gonna break it. Take it from me, under the bed is not a good hiding spot. I know because I’ve been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself. But that’s what we were told, stand up for yourself. That’s hard to do if you don’t know who you are. We are expected to define ourselves at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it, others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag.

And at the same time we were being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be what we already are. We were kids. … They asked me what I wanted to be then told me what not to be. … I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me.

Liah Greenfeld in Mind, Modernity, Madness:

Why do the secular focus of nationalism and the two principles embodied in the society constructed on its basis lead to madness–or schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness? All three of these features place the individual in control of his or her destiny, eliminating the expectation of putting things right in the afterlife, making one the ultimate authority in deciding on one’s priorities, encouraging one to strive for a higher social status (since one is presumed to be equal to everyone, but one wants to be equal only to those who are superior) and giving one the right to choose one’s social position (since the presumption of fundamental equality makes everyone interchangeable) and therefore identity. But this very liberty, implied in nationalism, both empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be–in contrast to all the religious pre-national societies, in which no one was asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” since one was whatever one was born–makes the formation of the individual identity problematic, and the more so the more choices for the definition of one’s identity a society offers and the more insistent it is on equality. A clear sense of identity being a condition sine qua non for adequate mental functioning, malformation of identity leads to mental disease, but modern culture cannot help the individual to acquire such clear sense, it is inherently confusing. This cultural insufficiency–the inability of a culture to provide individuals within it with consistent guidance–was named anomie by Durkheim.

Though realized in vastly different ways (depending on the manner in which this form of consciousness developed in a particular society), the three principles of nationalism–secularism, egalitarianism, and popular sovereignty–affect the formation of the individual identity in nations necessarily. A member of a nation can no longer learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself. Schizophrenia and depressive (bipolar and unipolar) illnesses, I argue, are caused specifically by the values of equality and self-realization, which make every individual one’s own maker–and the rates of such mental disease increase in accordance with the extent to which a particular society is devoted to these values, inherent in the nationalist image of reality, i.e., in the national consciousness, and the scope allowed to the freedom of choice in it. This turns the prevailing view of the mental diseases in question upside down.

Understanding Schizophrenia

From “Throughout History, Defining Schizophrenia Has Remained a Challenge [Timeline]” in Scientific American Mind:

Less than two hundred years ago, schizophrenia emerged from a tangle of mental disorders known simply as madness. Yet its diagnosis remains shrouded in ambiguity. Only now is the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatrists’ primary guidebook, shedding the outdated, nineteenth-century descriptions that have characterized schizophrenia to this day. “There is substantial dissatisfaction with schizophrenia treated as a disease entity, it’s symptoms are like a fever—something is wrong but we don’t know what,” says William Carpenter, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland and chair of the manual’s Psychotic Disorder Workgroup. Psychiatrists may discover that this disorder is not a single syndrome after all but a bundle of overlapping conditions.

Liah Greenfeld in “Madness in its Pure Form,” Chapter 3 in Mind, Modernity, Madness:

The root of the schizophrenic experience, from the earliest stages and throughout the episode, is the problem with the self, specifically the acting self: the dissolution of the will. The difference between the early, middle, acutely psychotic, and elaborate delusional stages for the patient consists in that, during the prodrome, the loss of the acting self is experienced indirectly, through changed experience of the outside world, becoming more and more direct through the middle stages, culminating in the sense of the loss of the mind (and both relationally-constituted self and the thinking self) in the stage of acute psychosis, and continuing in a partial restitution of identity and the thinking self, or the reconstruction of the self-in-the-world in the elaborate delusion. The structure of self-consciousness or the “I of Descartes” is involved at every stage in the disease process, but it changes its function from that of the thinking self to the one of the “eye of an external observer” and back, or, in other words, transforms from the part of the mind (individualized culture) to culture in general and back, confusing the levels of the mental and symbolic process. The different phases or stages of the illness, obviously, cannot be strictly separated but seamlessly flow and transmogrify one into another.

I would like to draw the reader’s attention to two points. 1. Seen in this light, as a mental, rather than a brain, disease, as the disorder of the mind, and therefore, a cultural phenomenon, schizophrenia appears to be of a piece. All of its symptoms (however contradictory they may seem when seen in other frameworks) can be accounted for by the loss of the acting self and related to each other through this overarching relationship to the impairment of the will. One is no longer forced to consider the extreme variability of abnormalities to be the single invariable characteristic of schizophrenia. There is, after all, an organizing principle which makes it possible to integrate all of its features into an understandable whole. 2. To arrive at this interpretation of schizophrenia and depict its underlying psychological structure, there was no need to step outside the theory of the healthy mind as outlined in Chapter 2, “The Mind as an Emergent Phenomenon.” No abnormality was interpreted ad hoc, proving the sufficiency of this theory. The analysis of schizophrenia, it is possible to claim, provides a strong support for its hypotheses regarding the structure of the mind.

It still remains to us, of course, to explain schizophrenia causally. As was stated in the Introduction, the explanation I propose is that modern society, based on the principles of nationalism, is profoundly anomic and, as such, makes the formation of identity (the relationally constituted self) problematic. Malformed identity, in turn, necessarily impairs the will. This hypothesis will be tested in two stages: first, through an examination of a well-documented contemporary case (the case of John Nash) and then, much more thoroughly, on the basis of comparative-historical analysis of the development of relevant aspects of the modern culture.