The paralogisms of psychosis

Grant Gillett

in Reconceiving Schizophrenia

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print November 2006 | ISBN: 9780198526131
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754340 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

The paralogisms of psychosis

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Psychotic paranoia is a type of unreason. However, when we consider the contents of paranoid thought we find that, rather than being irrational or disorganized, they are often hyper-rational. This chapter will argue that this variety of reason is an aberration; although in logical form, it seems to be consistent and carefully structured. The puzzle presented by paranoid reasoning is closely linked to the problems encountered in attempts to define delusions. Both spring from a philosophical view of mind and epistemology in which reason and the apprehension of the true nature of reality are seen as individual attainments by a Cartesian thinker. However, the unreason of psychosis looks very abnormal when we adopt the discursive naturalism of post-Wittgensteinian philosophy of mind and epistemology.

Discursive naturalism relates psychotic thinking to the kind of informed rule-following and practised habits of reason that are useful in human language games and cultural evolution. When language games and human forms of life are seen as the true home of reason (with logic and deductive consistency as an abstraction from idealized forms of those natural activities) the aberrations in psychotic thinking become readily apparent. For instance, we begin to see that psychotic thought represents a departure from what is taken for granted in human engagement with others in a real world where one strives for agreement in judgements. We can also see that an initial causal unhinging of reason from the regularities of everyday discourse paves the way for paranoia, such that the elaboration of paranoid thought arises through the exaggeration of an adaptive tendency in our cognitive response to the world. One would normally weave a coherent narrative out of the events of life in the light of common sense, as revealed by the checks and balances conveyed through communication and interaction with others. In psychotic unreason that source of correction is lost (Gillett 1999a). Thus the individual cognitive system must make sense of the world unaided by discursive engagement with others and the drive for experiential coherence can become exaggerated to a pathological extent. An evolutionary account of human rationality and its role in paranoid thought, which takes account of the nature of cultural evolution, coheres well with Wittgenstein's approach to understanding and meaning. The resulting philosophical discussion has a bearing on three key topics in devising a naturalistic approach to the philosophy of mind: (1) the unconscious (Ucs) and the nature of the conscious mind; (2) the normative drive to reason as an evolutionary good trick; (3) the discursive modulation of reason as a further cognitive adaptation.

I well recall an evening when a young friend of our family came around to our home obviously quite agitated. He liked discussing philosophy and was talking excitedly in our hallway. My wife and daughter were upset because they had heard that he was to be taken back in to the acute psychiatric unit for treatment. My wife kept saying to me, ‘Just try to understand him because I am sure he is making sense but we are not getting it’. This is a common intuition that arises in folk who are conversationally engaged with a person suffering a psychotic episode. I will try, in exploring the three themes I have identified, to illuminate that intuition.

Chapter.  6857 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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