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Mental illness: psychiatry's phlogiston
  1. Thomas Szasz
  1. State University of New York, USA

    Abstract

    In physics, we use the same laws to explain why airplanes fly, and why they crash. In psychiatry, we use one set of laws to explain sane behaviour, which we attribute to reasons (choices), and another set of laws to explain insane behaviour, which we attribute to causes (diseases). God, man's idea of moral perfection, judges human deeds without distinguishing between sane persons responsible for their behaviour and insane persons deserving to be excused for their evil deeds. It is hubris to pretend that the insanity defence is compassionate, just, or scientific. Mental illness is to psychiatry as phlogiston was to chemistry. Establishing chemistry as a science of the nature of matter required the recognition of the non-existence of phlogiston. Establishing psychiatry as a science of the nature of human behaviour requires the recognition of the non-existence of mental illness.

    • Agency
    • alchemy
    • behaviour
    • cause
    • chemistry
    • dignity
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    Footnotes

    • Thomas Szasz, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, Upstate Medical University, State University of New York, Syracuse, New York, USA.

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