Words at Play: Much Madness Is Divinest Sense

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Reviews the book, The Metaphor of Mental Illness by Neil Pickering (see record 2006-05384-000). In this book, the author attempts to address the radical skepticism surrounding the existence of mental illness, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As many people know, Szasz believes that mental illness is a myth, akin to alchemy or astrology. Boyle has claimed that belief in schizophrenia is a scientific delusion, and Breggin simply has claimed that there is no such thing as ADHD. Pickering's response to such skepticism is that mental illness and the rest are not myths, that they do exist; they exist to the degree that we construct them. He suggests that how skeptics and nonskeptics alike frame the debate concerning the existence or nonexistence of these entities is fundamentally awry. Pickering begins by questioning the very question “Do mental illness, schizophrenia, and ADHD exist?” What kind of answer does this question require? In looking at the nature of the responses to this question, Pickering reveals the assumptions–often incorrect, according to him–that underlie them. importance of metaphor in this discussion cannot be emphasized enough. Much of our meaning-making activity is bound to relating something new, strange, or unfamiliar to something we already know or understand. Metaphor is one of the principal ways we do this. For Pickering, a metaphor is a wrong naming–that is, it involves the categorization of one kind of thing as something it is not. The answer proffered by Pickering to the skeptics' question “Does mental illness exist?” is “yes.” Mental illness does exist, but how one perceives it, talks about it, and treats it is informed by one's chosen metaphor. The Metaphor of Mental Illness is an important book. It obliges us to step back from our reified notions of mental illness and recognize their contingent and ephemeral character and to acknowledge the creative and imaginative aspects of scientific practice.

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