Posted by Brad @ 2:44 pm on September 19th 2012

RIP Thomas Szasz

I somehow completely missed that Thomas Szasz passed away last week (this is the better obit).

I wrote a post the other day of who, in this day and age, you might consider one of your heroes. I am not sure of Szasz was fully in that category for me, but he was close. I originally set out studying psychology as an undergrad, and wound up getting as far into as you can as an undergrad, including running a research laboratory. There is a lot, a LOT, that I love about psychology from the 20th century to today. And, like many Americans, I’ve also certainly spent my fair share of time on the other side of the couch divide. On the whole, I truly believe that psychology is one of the great frontiers, with maybe physics, of both science and philosophy.

But I’ve also seen firsthand its practical limitations – and, very often, its practitioners either ignoring, being ignorant of, or glossing over those limitations, and the damage it can do in real people’s lives (not talking about me here on that latter part). Psychology has reason to be the most ambitious of disciplines, but it also has reason to be the most humble, and sadly, in practice – particularly in clinical settings – those two things don’t always go together.

So when I discovered, after years and years of taking classes, The Myth of Mental Illness, it resonated with me to an extent that I can’t think of with any other book. It really did single-handedly change my entire perspective on the world and the social constructions we all share and live in. It was not that Szasz himself was perfect or even consistently right – like many visionaries, he could run off the rails with the best of them. But his central insight was both so radical, and so intuitive (but so often unexamined, forgotten, ignored, or buried), and so important, that I think it has to be the central dissent to the entire field, and many, many others. Again, he wasn’t the the first to have it by any means. But in his field, in his context, and practically applying it in the way he did – essentially standing in front of a tsunami of social science bent on defining and treating abberation and shouting “there is no normal” – he really remains, to this day, the single arrow stuck in the Achille’s Heel of a discipline that infuses nearly everything we do, and which controls, defines, and guides tens of millions of lives.

Essentially, the day I read it cover to cover is the day I became uninterested in pursing psychology as anything more than an interesting field of study. And it’s also the day I developed a profound skepticism of standing in judgement of certain things and pretending I am doing so objectively; it was almost the day that I became mostly no longer interested in trying to put a stamp on the hearts, minds, and souls of my fellow man (a part of my personality that, weirdly, I developed further through some Catholic exploration).

And I have a first edition of The Myth of Mental Illness proudly displayed on my bookshelf at home.

So yeah, RIP Thomas Szasz – you were one of my heroes.

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