Published on June 1st, 2015 | by LHart0
R. D. Laing and the Philosophy of Madness
Twenty-six years after his death, it was recently announced that a biopic is to be made of the life of, “acid psychiatrist,” and countercultural guru, R. D. Laing. Whilst a range of theorists, writers and even some of his former patients have attempted to discredit Laing’s theories and practice, his star continues to shine. Supporting this is the primacy and currency of discourse about the man and his world view.
Ronald David Laing (1927-1989) was most famous for challenging mainstream psychiatry. His legacy also includes an attack on the dominant model of scientific reason and Western post-enlightenment thinking. Laing uprooted traditional belief systems and rather, reconfigured psychiatry in a framework that was both sociopolitical and philosophic.
Influenced by existential philosophy, Laing argued that the diagnosis of mental disorder, or madness (his preferred term) should not be based on patients’ presentation or behaviour. He believed that treating behaviour medically was false epistemology. Patients’ mental health became no longer a signifier of their conduct but was in Laing’s view the result of how their beliefs impacted and shaped their behaviour.
Laing famously wrote about the experience of breakdown/breakthrough as a regenerative process. He encouraged unmedicated patients’ personal growth and claimed that a psychotic break did not have to induce psychical deterioration. Rather, he perceived the experience as transformative, comparable with a shamanic journey. Determining a positive outcome involved freer and more humanistic treatment.
In 1965 he opened the now notorious Kingsley Hall as an alternative to traditional psychiatric hospitals, which promoted a medical model approach to mental health. Here, patients were allowed to act out their psychosis free of the tranquilising effects of antipsychotic medication and offered in contrast illegal and hallucinogenic drugs.
Laing recognised that antipsychotic medication sedated and dulled the mind to the more metaphysical and beautifully horrific symptoms associated with psychosis and believed in contrast that hallucinogens expanded consciousness and promoted the free expression of thought, feeling and behaviour. Laing proposed that his revolutionary approach to mental illness, backed by the use of hallucinogenic drugs constituted a more effective treatment option for those affected by psychosis than the traditional medicalised approach, the Laingian approach promising the possibility of healing and spiritual and psychological renewal.
At best, the Kingsley Hall experiment produced mixed results. At least two patients died jumping from the rooftop. But, it represented an important landmark in the aetiology of mental health theory and practice and catalysed the debate about the use medication for psychiatric disorders.
Today’s mental health recovery movement is one of the more progressive social movements and arguably would not exist without Laing’s influence. It is progressive because it challenges not only mainstream psychiatry, but the ideological basis of received thinking about how we conceptualise both the normative principle and what society constitutes as normality. To Laing and recovery model advocates, the existence of the concept of normality was the prerequisite for the creation of the construct of madness. If we nullify normality, madness becomes extinct.