Hard Talk

Schizophrenia and postmodernism: A philosophical exercise in treatment


Schizophrenia is defined as having episodes of psychosis: periods of time when one suffers from delusions, hallucinations, disorganized behaviors, disorganized speech, and negative symptoms. The concept of schizophrenia can be simplified as a detachment from reality. Patients who struggle with this illness frame their perceptions with a different set of rules and beliefs than the rest of society. These altered perceptions frequently become the basis of delusions, one of the most recognized symptoms of schizophrenia.

A patient with schizophrenia doesn’t have delusions, as much as having a belief system, which is not recognized by any other. It is not the mismatch between “objective reality” and the held belief, which qualifies the belief as delusional, so much as the mismatch with the beliefs of those around you. Heliocentrism denial, denying the knowledge that the earth rotates around the sun, is incorrect because it is not factual. However, heliocentrism denial is not a delusion because it is incorrect, but because society chooses it to be incorrect.

Dr. Nicolas Badre, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego

Dr. Nicolas Badre

We’d like to invite the reader to a thought experiment. “Objective reality” can be referred to as “anything that exists as it is independent of any conscious awareness of it.”1 “Consciousness awareness” entails an observer. If we remove the concept of consciousness or observer from existence, how would we then define “objective reality,” as the very definition of “objective reality” points to the existence of an observer. One deduces that there is no way to define “objective reality” without invoking the notion of an observer or of consciousness.

It is our contention that the concept of an “objective reality” is tautological – it answers itself. This philosophical quandary helps explain why a person with schizophrenia may feel alienated by others who do not appreciate their perceived “objective reality.”

Schizophrenia and ‘objective reality’

A patient with schizophrenia enters a psychiatrist’s office and may realize that their belief is not shared by others and society. The schizophrenic patient may understand the concept of delusions as fixed and false beliefs. However, to them, it is everyone else who is delusional. They may attempt to convince you, as their provider, to switch to their side. They may provide you with evidence for their belief system. One could argue that believing them, in response, would be curative. If not only one’s psychiatrist, but society accepted the schizophrenic patient’s belief system, it would no longer be delusional, whether real or not. Objective reality requires the presence of an object, an observer, to grant its value of truth.

Dr. Vladimir Khalafian, General outpatient psychiatrist, telepsychiatry, northern California

Dr. Vladimir Khalafian

In a simplistic way, those were the arguments of postmodernist philosophers. Reality is tainted by its observer, in a similar way that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle teaches that there is a limit to our simultaneous understanding of position and momentum of particles. This perspective may explain why Michel Foucault, PhD, the famous French postmodernist philosopher, was so interested in psychiatry and in particular schizophrenia. Dr. Foucault was deeply concerned with society imposing its beliefs and value system on patients, and positioning itself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. He went on to postulate that the bigger difference between schizophrenic patients and psychiatrists was not who was in the correct plane of reality but who was granted by society to arbitrate the answer. If reality is a subjective construct enforced by a ruling class, who has the power to rule becomes of the utmost importance.

Intersubjectivity theory in psychoanalysis has many of its sensibilities rooted in such thought. It argues against the myth of the isolated mind. Truth, in the context of psychoanalysis, is seen as an emergent product of dialogue between the therapist/patient dyad. It is in line with the ontological shift from a logical-positivist model to the more modern, constructivist framework. In terms of its view of psychosis, “delusional ideas were understood as a form of absolution – a radical decontextualization serving vital and restorative defensive functions.”2

It is an interesting proposition to advance this theory further in contending that it is not the independent consciousness of two entities that create the intersubjective space; but rather that it is the intersubjective space that literally creates the conscious entities. Could it not be said that the subjective relationship is more fundamental than consciousness itself? As Chris Jaenicke, Dipl.-Psych., wrote, “infant research has opened our eyes to the fact that there is no unilateral action.”3


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