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Review by Suchaita Tenneti, Email: suchaita1987@gmail.com

Keywords: identity; mental illness; demedicalization; Mad Studies

Dutch philosopher and linguist Wouter Kusters’ A Philosophy of Madness could be described as a series of arguments and strategies to foreground psychosis as a legitimate epistemological and phenomenological category that shares a symbiotic relationship with the discipline of philosophy. Kusters demonstrates how inquiries into fundamental questions of reality and existence that constitute the crux of philosophy could lead to psychosis and how philosophy could assist those with a diagnosis of psychosis to make sense of their experiences of madness. Through the establishment of this symbiosis, Kusters attempts to demedicalize madness and considers the book to be a contribution to the repertoire of literature in anti-psychiatry (Kusters, 2020, p.553). Kusters writes as an ‘expert-by-experience’ (Kusters, 2021, para 6) since his work is the result of his own twin episodes of psychosis that were twenty years apart. A Philosophy of Madness was first published in Dutch in 2014 as Filosofie van de waanzin and was translated into English by the MIT Press in 2020. This is Kusters’ second book after Pure Madness: A Quest for the Psychotic Experience (2004). 

The book is broadly divided into four sections. The first section comprises a philosophical analysis of psychosis through categories such as time, space, perception and notions of reality. This section attempts to identify patterns in psychosis and thereby legitimizes it as possessing a certain set of structures and a kind of predictability. The second and the third sections adopt a more emic perspective to psychosis and attempt to approximate a capture of the true language of madness including concepts of revelation and emptiness with specific reference to the forms and meanings assumed during psychosis as opposed to sanist presumptions about the same. These sections discuss an important affinity between the experiences of mysticism and psychosis and demonstrate the “deterritorialization” or placelessness of the experiences of psychosis (Kusters, 2020, p.551). This implies that Kusters attempts to illustrate a certain universality in the experiences of madness across geographies and, arguably, across temporalities. The final section penetrates further into the depths of the experiences of psychosis to reveal how paradoxes are integral to both madness and philosophy itself, the integral position that the sacred occupies in madness and the sanctity of the mad “Plan”, which refers to the form and direction that the journey of the person with psychosis – referred to as the “psychoplanatic” – takes. Thus, the book follows the trajectory of commencing with a more distanced philosophical and phenomenological approach to understanding psychosis to an argumentation for how philosophizing might lead to madness and how the very act of philosophizing entails madness and an exploration of perception, thinking and feeling from the perspective of a person with psychosis.  

A Philosophy of Madness challenges the psychiatrized and deficit-based understanding of madness and replaces it with an exploration of madness as a system of knowledge systems. At the same time, Kusters is careful to refrain from romanticizing the experiences of madness and acknowledges the suffering and distress that can accompany psychosis, even emphasizing that the desire to evade psychosis or recover from its systems is not inimical to the legitimizing of madness (Kusters, 2021). He also uses madness as the epistemological genesis for a reflection on normality itself: “Madness is liberating. You rise above the reasonableness and, consequently, can move within it more freely” (Kusters, 2020, p.575). Madness also motivated Kusters’ own transition from linguistics to philosophy to analyze key philosophers’ approaches to madness (Kusters, 2020), which signifies the materiality and phenomenology of madness as frames of analysis to make philosophy itself the subject of interrogation. Through his foregrounding of the legitimacy of the pathological, Kusters illustrates Georges Canguilhem’s notion that that which is deemed pathological merits autonomy in its own right and should not be analysed in terms of the normal. The second, third and fourth sections of the books comprise in-depth analyses of writers and philosophers who were themselves considered to be psychotic and explores the nuances and the veracities of their testimonies and experiences, making Kusters’ analyses reminiscent of the quest narrative in Disability Studies, as discussed by Arthur Frank in his book The Wounded Storyteller. The quest narrative is designated to those kinds of disability narratives where the person affected explores the possibilities of a new life with disability having come to terms with the onset and the impairment effects (to borrow Carol Thomas’ term) of the disability. Kusters’ book seems to have been written keeping in mind that the readers of his work are likely to be people with psychoses and other kinds of mental disabilities themselves as well as their caregivers and other members of their support groups and not merely those with an academic or medical interest in mental illness. This is aptly justified by the symbiosis between philosophy and psychosis that are aptly captured in the text. 

A lacuna in A Philosophy of Madness is the limited attention paid to the diverse dynamics of psychoses in the Global South. While Kusters describes the paranormal experiences of yogic mystics and their acceptance within the broader social ethos of India, he does not venture into discussions of the political economy of Indian godmen, for instance, and the ways in which mysticism scaffolds and contradicts the demands of the psychopharmaceutical industry in India (Mills, 2012). Kusters discusses the role of psychopharmaceuticals in perpetuating the stigma and pathologization of alternative psychological experiences but refrains from a discussion of the complexities of the materialities of madness outside of the Global North. Furthermore, there is no discussion of the user-survivor and anti-psychiatry movements in the Global South that have led to legal reforms while a brief discussion of the same in the context of the Global North is included. There is also no discussion of intersectional understandings of psychoses in any context or the differential ways in which psychoses are conceptualized in accordance with the structural axes of gender, race, class, caste, ethnicity and others in any specific geographical context. Hence, while Kusters’ work offers a thorough and invaluable contribution to the field of Mad Studies, it suggests through its exclusion the criticality of place, territory and context to epistemologies and phenomenologies of madness. 

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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