The Corner

RE: SZASZ

Jonah, J.J.:  It was precisely the libertarian in me that caused Szasz to get my attention ca. 1970.  You should understand that the psychiatric profession was way too big for its boots at that time, was institutionalizing a lot of people who were merely eccentric or sad, and was silent about a lot of crazy spin-off phenomena that, to be sure, the profession was not directly responsible for.  I am thinking of things like the institutionalization, forced medication, and worse, that was inflicted on Soviet dissidents; or the Frankfurt School , which came close to arguing that to be bourgeois and conservative was a form of mental illness. 

As to the materialism business:  I had no strong views on metaphysics at that time, and certainly wasn’t anything like as keen on materialism as I now, and increasingly, am.  Most probably (it now seems to me) the brain is just an organ, which a couple decades of diligent research will bring us to understand as well as we understand, say, the liver.  I’m open to the idea that some irreducible core of “self-ness” may never yield to materialist explanation;  but I’m sure 99 percent of thought will turn out to be just a kind of physiological process, and 100 percent is not, on any grounds that I can see, necessarily impossible.  (I am as reluctant as anyone to contemplate the consequences of that being the case; but I don’t see any evidence that my personal peace of mind, or yours, is of any concern to the universe at large.)  So then Szasz, at least the early Szasz, will have been proven right in a way:  If there are no mental objects, only physical ones, then there can be no mental illnesses, only physical ones!  But this is idle speculation.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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