Re ontology? of mental illness

Chris Burford cburford at
Wed Jun 28 23:46:28 MDT 1995

Thanks Jim [D] for coming back on mental illness, and of course
I take the point you make about the contribution of
biological or organic components to some disorders, such as autism.

However although I take your positive intentions on this,
there may still be a difference of understanding relevant to the
wider question of the nature of ontology, in Hans D's terms. I would
still stand my a statement on the ontology of
mental illness that is not limited to the biological.

Decades of doctors have talked past non-medics by jumping to
a physical/mental dichotomy about mental illness. But the momentum of
the distinctive dynamical pattern, [the ontological existence for
Hans D] of mental illness is so, whether that pattern arises
mainly out of abnormal features at the most cellular level, at
the structural level, or at the interactional level.

What I have most in mind is "schizophrenia", which is only slightly
more common if there has been a history of birth injury than not.
I personally regard it as a mainly psychological disorder.
The point of intersection where it is a relevant example for Hans
D's discussion of ontology, is that it actually exists as an
illness, whether there are doctors around or not, and whatever
name it is given. (The word "schizophrenia" was coined only in

To show however that in mental illness "biological" does not
mean a real illness versus "psychological" meaning an unreal
illness, in some simplistic mechanical way, let me refer to some
recent research on Huntington's Chorea, quoted in the textbooks as a
example of a "biological" disorder clearly inherited, and unfortunately
expressing itself in uncontrollable jerks and progressive
dementia only after the individual has reached the age where
they have had some children to pass the gene on to.

Recent research has identified the nucleotide sequence associated
with the disorder. And there is a sting in the tail for
simplistic and reductionist models of science. The nucleotide
sequence may vary in length from 9 nucleotides to 100, and
the longer the sequence the more likely there is to be an
earlier age of onset.

So this is an example of the riddle of determinism so often
discussed in social and political terms on this list: even if
there is one cause for a phenomenon and it is determined in that
sense, such a deterministic cause may generate only probabilities:
ie no certainties of exactly what will happen.

In reality there is probably an interaction of phenomena even
in something with such a clearly inherited causation as
Huntington's chorea. And what makes a difference also
is the personality and mental attitudes of the individual and
those around him, as is the case with a client of mine who has
a very strong family history of this miserable condition but who
has become more positive in his thinking.

How much more so that the dynamics of many mental disorders which
involve changes both at the cellular and the psychological level
can be called ontologically real and manifestations of an
illness whether doctors are present or not.

Jim, I like your signature line.

Chris B, London


From: JDevine at (James Devine)
Date: Wed, 28 Jun 1995 11:54:37 -0700
Subject: Re: Ontology? of mental illness

In addition to the societal component of "mental illness,"
there's often a biological or organic component.  Reading Uta
Frith's book on AUTISM AND ASPERGER SYNDROME, for example, you
find a lot of evidence for an organic basis for autism, perhaps
due to prenatal trauma.  Autism used to be blamed on "cold
mothers" (by the then-dominant Freudians) but is now blamed on
cognitive barriers (difficulty in filtering out stimulus from the
person's environment). That doesn't mean that the social sitation
is irrelevant: people can help or hinder the ability of the
autistic child to climb these cognitive barriers.

If there is an organic component, then there is clearly an
ontological basis for this kind of "mental illness" beyond the
relationship with the doctor.

for socialism from below,

Jim Devine   jdevine at
Los Angeles, CA (the city of emphysema)

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list