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Presentation and Thought Processes

Szasz often begins his argumentation with the conclusion. For example, in Chapter 2 of Ideology and Insanity, after several introductory lines he posits, “My aim in this essay is to ask if there is such a thing as mental illness, and to argue that there is not.” (p. 12) In itself there is nothing wrong with this, but with Szasz, something peculiar happens. The conclusion is constantly repeated in one form or another during the argumentation so that it turns into a premise. The reader is left uncertain whether the author considers his argumentation completed and has drawn the conclusion yet. It seems to me that his frequent repetition of the premise and conclusion encourage this confusion.

A second, most noticeable trait is repeating certain contentions time and time again. It seems as though Szasz wishes to hammer them into the reader. Sometimes the repetition seems almost like an incantation as though the ritual of repeating it will illuminate the truth. Verbeek, who, in a thin book about antipsychiatry, dedicates two chapters to Szasz, is apparently highly irritated by these repetitions because he calls him a “crashing bore.” The repetition, however, is not only a matter of premises and conclusions. Reading Szasz’s entire oeuvre is mighty tiring as the same contentions and explanations repeatedly show up in different places, with minor variations. Possibly the large number of journals in the United States has something to do with this. In any case, repetition of contentions, statements of position, and argumentation is frequent and a feature of his style.

Another feature of Szasz’s style is what could be called the conditional pseudo-argumentation. By that I mean reasoning by the following structure: if A is true then B is true – where A is a contention that still has to be proved so B is also unproved. A variation on this is that B is a consequence that does not necessarily follow A. Normally A would be a contention that needs no confirmation because it is generally accepted or proved in the preceding text, so such a structure is suggestive.

An example of the first is: “Modern psychiatry, if dated from Charcot’s work on hysteria and hypnosis, is approximately one hundred years old.” (The Myth of Mental Illness, p. 25) Beginning modern psychiatry with Charcot is completely arbitrary. Probably nobody does that, not even Szasz himself. He dates the beginning of institutional psychiatry in the middle of the seventeenth century and the beginning of contractual psychiatry with Freud. (See Chapter I, 4.2.2.)
An example of the variation is that Szasz advocates, in my opinion correctly, absolute “privacy” in psychoanalysis. In other words, the psychotherapist must strictly adhere to confidentiality, no matter what. Then Szasz continues, “If it is agreed that this model of analysis is indeed the correct or desirable one, do we not jeopardize the candidate’s image of analysis … by conducting his analysis in other than a private setting?” Statement A was certainly not “agreed” in the United States around 1960 when these words were written. (See Chapter I, 3.) Moreover, the correct conclusion would be to require the training analyst to adhere to strict confidentiality as should all other analysts as well. Szasz, however, reaches the conclusion of a private analysis, which can mean psychoanalysis unrelated to the training as well as psychoanalysis by an analyst in private practice. And although the latter is often advocated by Szasz (also regarding psychiatric treatment in general), it does not follow from statement A.

Another style typical of Szasz is that he uses ear-catching, plausible sounding “shorthand” descriptions for complex concepts. Describing mental illness as “problems in living” or as “human conflict” are the most frequently occurring examples. Szasz’s gain by staying easily readable and not complicating matters seems to me often outweighed by loss when such shorthand is misunderstood and by the advantage that is so easily and so often taken of such handy pocket-definitions by his critics.

Finally, there is the “nothing-but” aspect. By that I mean that, after having demonstrated that a certain phenomenon or behavior has a certain meaning he takes the position that this is not only the real, but also the only meaning, without presenting further arguments. On page 29 of The Myth of Mental Illness is the following example: “The language of hysteria … is nothing other than the language of illness, employed either because another language has not been learned well enough, or because this language happens to be especially useful. There may occur, of course, various combinations of these two reasons for using this language.” Because Szasz defines hysteria as “communications by means of bodily signs and complaints,” hysteria has been presented here in a nutshell.

I list the above elements under Presentation and Thought Processes because they are not arguments on their own but more to be considered as stylistic techniques and thought processes. It seems to me however, that these elements not infrequently profoundly influence the argumentation, and in particular the power of persuasion.
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