The Maudsley Philosophy Group in Britain holds talks dedicated to
exploring questions like whether a mental illness has a physical
With its battered desks, fluorescent lights and interactive
whiteboard showing an odd creature that, depending on how you look
at it, could be either a duck or a rabbit, this could be a class in
any university philosophy department.
But this is a class with a difference. It is the Maudsley
Philosophy Group, a seminar that meets regularly on the grounds of
the Maudsley Hospital, Britain's largest mental health teaching
hospital, which is affiliated with the Institute of Psychiatry at
King's College London. Participants at the last session included
psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers and an actor who had just
finished working as a chaplain in a locked men's ward at the
hospital and who was about to organize a storytelling group there.
"We started out as a reading group for trainee psychiatrists,"
said Gareth S. Owen, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry who
co-founded the group in 2002. "Then, gradually, we developed and
started inviting philosophers -- at first it was quite low key. We
would talk about our clinical experiences and then they would relate
those experiences to their way of thinking."
Robert Harland, another co-founder of the group, said he had
known Dr. Owen since they "cut up a corpse together at medical
"The analytic philosophers brought a real clarity to our
discussions," Dr. Harland said. "We were looking at various models
to help us understand what we were doing as psychiatrists.
"There is lots of applied science now in psychiatry:
neuroimaging, genetics, epidemiology. But they don't have much to
say about sitting with a patient and trying to understand that
Tania L. Gergel, a philosopher whose work stretches from Ancient
Greek ideas about ethics to dilemmas in contemporary medicine, was
drawn to the Maudsley seminar out of intellectual curiosity. She
also relished the chance to "come into contact with people who have
actual clinical experience."
"You can only learn so much from reading journal articles," Ms.
Gergel said. "The problem is that, as you move towards abstraction,
it's easy to lose sight of the fact that people are dealing with
real suffering and real dysfunctions. We need to remember that those
dysfunctions -- whether of the brain or of the mind -- are linked to
a real individual who is going through a devastating crisis."
The question of whether a mental illness has a bodily, physical
cause is one aspect of what philosophers call the mind-body problem.
For Plato, the mental world was the real world, while Descartes
argued that mind and matter were distinct.
More recently, some scientists have tried to locate consciousness
in different parts of the brain. But the dispute over its location
and origins is not just confined to philosophy or neurology
A longtime member of the Maudsley seminar, Richard Sykes, a
social worker who has studied both the physical and mental sides of
chronic fatigue syndrome, or C.F.S., said there was a "terrific
animosity between psychiatrists and patient groups."
"There is an immense hostility to psychiatrists because they have
got C.F.S. wrong for such a long time," he said. "At first they
thought it was hysteria. Then they said it was depression. But the
absence of a medical explanation is not a good reason for saying
it's a psychiatric illness."
For Mr. Sykes, the Maudsley group "is a chance to make use of my
own philosophical background."
The mind-body problem also preoccupied Jacqueline P. …