Wouter Kusters: A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking

Thomas Froy

A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking Book Cover A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking
Wouter Kusters. Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
The MIT Press
Hardback $39.95

Reviewed by: Thomas Froy

Wouter Kusters’ ‘Philosophy of Madness’ is difficult to classify. This is probably the point. This enormous work – the full text reaches 738 pages – draws from sources diverse as Plotinus, Sartre, Eastern mysticism, personal testimonies, free associative prose and more; some canonical, some obscure, some empirical, some fictional. It’s difficult, too, among this mass of material, to discern the author’s intentions. Kusters states his explicit intentions quite often, but these statements often contradict each other, remain unfulfilled and unexplained. Gradually, what becomes clear, however – and this is perhaps the overarching theme of the book – is that Kusters’ doesn’t want to be classified.

Insofar as the author and his work reject classification, this book positions itself in a certain post-Foucauldian, anti-psychiatric tradition, which includes figures such as R.D Laing and Thoms Szaz. Psychiatry, writes Kusters, is largely “unable or unwilling to understand madness … [psychiatrists] hold it in contempt or even fear it while at the same time boasting about their “expertise” because they are thought to be able to explain or effectively subdue it” (Kusters 2020: 64). The inability or unwillingness to understand madness which Kusters identifies in psychiatrists and the psychiatric tradition as a whole is thus counterposed to the author’s own comprehensive and emancipatory ambitions: at one point, Kusters writes that the book aims to “alleviate psychosis and emancipate the psychotic person from medical classifications” (Ibid., xv). This work thus shares with many others in the anti-psychiatric genre an allegiance to what might be considered the more Romantic aspects of Foucault’s early work on madness: philosophy and madness are uniquely positioned to emancipate each other from their institutional imprisonments.

Kusters subject, then, is madness, and his aim is emancipation. ‘Madness’ is a rough translation of the Dutch ‘waanzin’; Kusters’ previous works include (as yet untranslated) Pure waanzin (2013) which recounts his personal experiences of psychosis, episodes to which he returns frequently, both as source for philosophical reflection and direct citation (Kusters is no stranger to self-citation, including sizeable passages from previous work, semi-fictional prose and passages which appear to be expressions of his own paranoid fears). Philosophy, for Kusters, is uniquely positioned to gain insights into the experience of madness, and madness into philosophy. The book can thus be understood as a dialogue between madness and reason, in which both slowly unwind and unhinge the other. The process of unwinding and unhinging will gradually lead each toward emancipation from their origins toward freedom.

The opposition between madness and reason – as well as his emancipatory aspirations – does not, however, lead Kusters to a confrontation with the concerns raised, about Foucault’s work, by Jacques Derrida. ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’ (Derrida: 1978), an essay originally delivered as a lecture, warns that any author, including Foucault, who aspires to emancipation from their chains risks reinterning the mad in the institution of philosophy. Already 60 years ago, then, the difficulties associated with semi-Romantic aspirations toward emancipation from the institution of psychiatry have been available to the reader, and presumably to Kusters himself. The consequence of Derrida’s confrontation with Foucault, consequently, are that if Kusters sets his sights on liberation from the prison of psychiatry – with its associated “medical jargon … supposedly objective labels and descriptions, and behind risk management, fear, and attitudes” (xvi) – he will have to be cautious not to reproduce that other trick of reconfinement. Emancipation demands, on the one hand, a rigorous distinction between, on the one hand, the domain from which the emancipated will escape (psychiatry) and on the other hand, the domain into which the mad will arrive. If no rigorous distinction is established, it may remain unclear whether liberation has occurred, and where the liberated find themselves as a result. Consequently, the risk is that madness may be liberated from psychiatry, but reinterned with philosophy.

Indeed, Kusters constructs a yawning chasm between the domains of madness and philosophy. “Madness is kept out of bounds as a nadir of meaninglessness, a breeding ground for unreal apparitions, chimeras, and sham” (2). However, this chasm does not present any obstacles to repeated definitions, in highly philosophical terms, of the essence of madness. On the contrary, despite Kusters’ repeated and clearly stated opposition to psychiatric definitions of madness, he displays no aversion to a philosophical classification of madness: psychosis is defined as “the desire for “the desire for infinity and absolute freedom” (xvii); madness is the experience of “trying to resolve the most fundamental questions of existence but in an uncontrolled, wildly associative way. You want to know what it’s all about, what good and evil are, what is at the very heart of existence: you want to know the meaning of life and the cosmos” (xxiii), and so on.

Not only does this appear to be in contradiction with the author’s stated opposition to classificatory jargon, but also with his declaration that he does not intend to contribute to classifications of madness (4). Since Kusters does not engage – at least, not explicitly – with the concerns Derrida raises about emancipatory critiques of institutions, it’s difficult to know where Kusters stands. It appears that he takes no issue with liberating madness from psychiatric definitions by means of firmly subjecting madness to philosophical definitions. As such, it remains, from start to finish, difficult – mystifying, perhaps maddeningly so – to divine precisely what Kusters’ aim – in terms of method or subject matter – might be.

This mad road is trod by a series of associations or identifications between philosophical notions and Kusters ideas about madness. For the most part, these associations are drawn from canonical works of Western philosophy – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre – and form the comparative structure of the book. Oppositions and comparisons are drawn from a huge number of texts in order to define, describe, and refine Kusters idea of the relation between madness and philosophy. The discourse is highly conceptual, dealing primarily with time and space. Aristotelian time, for example, is considered exemplary of the ‘normal’ attitude and can be juxtaposed with “mad crystal time”: normal time is chronological, while mad time might be circular, or perhaps everything happens at once (89-105). Although he states, early on, that madness and philosophy have appeared as each other’s enemies (p2), this does not mean that they cannot speak to each other, and inform our understanding of both; Aristotle may represent a spokesperson of normal experience at one point, and then an exemplar of insanity at another. As the book progresses, Kusters writes, oppositions will collapse and contradictions will multiply meaning that the reader will be “seduced seduced into identifying even more with the madman and letting himself be transported down a ‘stream’ of madness” (18).

In Part One, Kusters’ comparisons are most commonly within in the phenomenological tradition. Chapters One and Two give describe normal and mad experiences of perception, with citations drawn primarily from Edmund Husserl’s The Phenomenology of Internal-Time Consciousness. Beginning with what Kusters takes to be a Husserlian phenomenological description of experience, the normal perception of time can be characterized as Aristotelian – continuous – while the mad experience of time is circular (45-52). Chapters Three and Four subsequently develop phenomenologies of space and time, citing Husserl, Paul Ricoeur’s notion of ‘static time’ (94-6), as well as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of schizophrenia (98). Rather than subject each citation to analysis, Kusters’ approach is closer to compilation: long passages are introduced with a brief remark indicating that the text is ‘another example of’ of Kusters’ theory of madness, and rarely followed with any interpretation. Husserl, Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty are not subjected to interpretation or criticism, but rather contribute insights to the growing understanding of madness. Given this lack critical engagement, it’s difficult to discern Kusters’ own understanding of these texts. The specific texts are not selected for any stated reason, other than the evocation of a certain phenomenological experience: Kusters frequently introduces texts by describing them as “examples” of the conceptual terms or neologisms which characterize madness.

Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological work is given slightly less attention, and this represents something of a missed opportunity. Insofar as the assumption that phenomenological analysis of a subject’s experience can give us insight into their world is one of the key – if unstated – presuppositions of Kusters’ interest in phenomenology, the lack of engagement with Heidegger’s thinking is a shortcoming. Contemporary thinkers, such as Havi Carel, draw extensively from Heidegger’s rethinking of the spatio-temporal essence of being in order to give a clear picture of the situation and experience of an ill person (Carel 2016). Kusters’ constructions of a series of oppositions and comparisons between normal and abnormal experiences precisely mirrors the work done by post-Heideggerian phenomenologists, especially those working on the experience of mental and physical illnesses.

Part II – Chapters Five to Eight – shifts away from, without leaving, the explicitly phenomenological discourse toward Kusters’ interest in mysticism. Mystical experiences, he argues, are highly comparable with experiences of insanity, insofar as both provide an escape from the normal experience of the world. To some extent, Part II is continuous with Part I: those abnormal perceptions evoked by phenomenology are described more richly in Kusters’ selections from the mystical tradition; the experience of time, for example, may not only become non-continuous but also more intense. Kusters names four processes – ‘Detachment’, ‘Demagination’, ‘Dethinking’, ‘Delanguization’ – in which mysticism can lead the reader further along the path of madness. Here, Kusters draws most consistently from Plotinus: various long passages are drawn from his corpus and cited as instances of each process. Again, Kusters leaves Plotinus’ words largely unexamined, preferring to compile texts rather than subject them to analysis.

In Part III, Kusters describes a series of delusions: ‘The Uni-Delusion’, ‘The Esse-Delusion’, ‘The Ω-Delusion’ and ‘The Ø-Delusion’. Like the mystic processes, the removal of delusions will open the door and lead the reader down the path of madness. The ‘opening door’ motif, an explicit reference to Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelia, chimes with the earlier engagement with phenomenology: the experience of madness expands and reformulates our understanding in the world by breaking through the normal limits and parameters of thought. In this part of the book, the content shifts from canonical philosophy toward logical paradoxes, reflections on LSD, and extracts from fictional works. Kusters describes his process as being increasingly illogical, both in terms of content and form; the gradual destructuration and unravelling should mirror the experience of going mad.

Part IV extends Part III’s interest in paradoxes, aiming to cement Kusters’ idea that the process of philosophizing – be it about space and time, or the prisoner’s dilemma, or nothing at all – may lead the philosopher into madness. In this regard, Part IV is continuous with the previous parts of the book, insofar as the style is consistently compilatory. A number of the same ideas reappear in each part – madness, perception, space, time – but Kusters does not construct a theory of any of these; he merely cites, compares and collects interesting insights into various aspects of what he considers to be madness. On the one hand, this is clearly deliberate and fulfils his refusal to produce a systematic classification of psychosis; on the other hand, compilatory theory does not clearly present the author’s own position. The enormous range of sources are merely included within the ever expanding portrait of madness: the pieces collect without anything resembling structural relation or connection. The consequence of this is that the reader rarely gets Kusters’ own perspective: canonical texts – Plato, Descartes, Sartre, Husserl – are cited at length and pass without comment. Many readers will already be familiar with this works, and less familiar with Kusters’ own thinking: ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ is generous in material, less so when it comes to the author’s actual perspective, ideas, or interpretations of these widely-read traditional texts.

With this in mind, Part IV represents a substantial step within the work’s development: as noted above, Kusters remains highly elusive – perhaps difficult – in submitting to a simple characterization of his intentions. In addition, although the Chapters interweave and interconnect in both style and content, Kusters rarely gives any sense that his theory is building toward any conclusion or system. Chapter 14’s reading of Charles Taylor’s work – specifically the opposition between the bordered and the porous self – substantially revises this non-systematic approach. The compilatory method remains – Taylor’s thinking is merely another example – but Taylor’s thinking on reenchantment radically reorients the purpose of the book. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ clearly signals its disinterest in contributing to a classificatory theory of madness, and Chapter 14 is consistent with this insofar as, at this late stage, it suddenly becomes clear that Kusters is writing a book about enchantment.

The portrait of madness Kusters presents is so unsystematic and incoherent – I believe, deliberately so – it’s difficult to think that his intention is to present anything like a new understanding of madness. Instead, ‘madness’ – and all the processes and experiences which come along with it – is a placename for reenchantment. Kusters collects and compares a huge range of oppositions between normal and abnormal experiences: madness represents an opportunity to be led out of our compartmentalized, limited, singular selves into a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Becoming mad opens the self to a massively enriched and enhanced relationship with worldly phenomena, as well as new possibilities for different and rewarding interactions with everything around about.

Kusters introduces Taylor’s porous self – open and in dialogue with the world outside – as a comparative example with madness, and in this regard, makes explicit the analogy between going mad and reenchantment. However, Kusters does not suggest that this is the comparison which should frame the work. Like Taylor, Kusters sees the contemporary world as a difficult and unwelcoming world, unwilling to accept the insights (even the existence) of the mad enchanters.  Yet the advantages of living as a Taylorian porous self are numerous and many are shared with the madman: the world becomes infused with numerous and diverse meanings (531); greater intimacy with one’s feelings (534-5); greater receptivity (547), and so on.

Despite the apparent proximity of identity between the mad and the enchanted, Kusters does not dwell on this, nor does he explicitly outline what I understand to be the essential affinity described between the processes of madness and of reenchantment. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ frequently returns to its disinterest in classification, systematicity and structure; it is possible, however, that this lack of focus may prevent the reader from recognizing some of the greater themes and purposes of the book. I suggest, in light of this, that interpreting Kusters’ thinking on madness as a longer meditation on the possibilities of what might be ‘mad enchantment’ may grant some thematic coherence to the work without sacrificing the stated desire for chaos, contradiction and confusion.

‘A Philosophy of Madness’ presents the reader with some difficulties. Although Kusters’ work is at home in the anti-psychiatric tradition – and Kusters asserts his devotion to the anti-psychiatric field vocally and repeatedly – this opposition is never substantiated. Kusters does not engage, at any length, with psychiatric literature or the history of psychiatry; he writes that his previous work – the as yet untranslated ‘Pure Madness’ – produced a comparison between his own experience of psychosis and the psychiatric reports written on him. There is no confrontation with the medical tradition, with medical professionals, the history of medicine and its relation with psychiatry, or with psychiatric institutions. Such a confrontation would give greater clarity to Kusters’ understanding of psychiatry, what it is, what its aims are, its limitations, and so on; the reader might also get a clearer picture of Kusters’ consideration of the possibilities and dangers associated with liberating the mad from the domain of psychiatry in order to reintern them within philosophy. Perhaps the matter – namely, of psychiatry as an institution, historical phenomenon, contemporary political entity and all those who work within it – is considered settled. Perhaps the translation of ‘Pure Madness’ will grant the English reader greater access to Kusters’ engagement with psychiatry, but until then, the detail is lacking.

In addition, Kusters does not make any engagement with the contemporary young but fast growing field of critical disability studies. Like the anti-psychiatry movement, scholars and thinkers in this field owe a substantial debt to Foucault’s work on institutions as well as a deep suspicion of those who want the ‘cure’ the sick and mad; furthermore, analyses of chronic pain , psychopathy, long-term illnesses and so on share a great many of the concerns and ideas raised in Kusters thinking; finally, many scholars – like Kusters – turn to the phenomenological tradition in order to understand the spatio-temporal qualities of being disabled. Kusters decision not to find points of dialogue with this field represents a missed opportunity.

Finally, Kusters’ decisions with regard to the structure are problematic. The overview presented above is accurate with regard to the theoretical content of the book; however, through a series of ‘Overtures’, ‘Intermezzos’ and interstitial passages apparently reflecting Kusters’ own mental state. The Overture and Intermezzos largely function as introductory and concluding remarks, describing the plan for the work and the relation between different sections. Kusters prose is highly expressive, ironic and rhetorical; for different readers, this may be amusing, witty, or a little bit irritating. But it is the interstitial passages, found especially in the early parts of the book, which are difficult to read. It appears that they function as literal representations of the paranoid fears of a person experiencing psychopathy.

Besides questions of structure, the Intermezzos also contribute an extremely strange first personal account, in which the writer – perhaps Kusters himself, perhaps not – describes, in direct prose, his everyday life in Amsterdam, meeting up with friends, driving around, spending time alone. The writing is frenzied, sometimes fearful, sometimes ecstatic, often difficult to understand or make sense of. It’s difficult to say what the fragments are – Kusters doesn’t introduce or reflect upon them. Most significant, and troubling, however, is that they are occasionally shockingly racist. While reflecting on languages, the author muses “Yiddish is a kind of basic Esperanto, just like Jews are the people without a country and without an identity” (119). This thought isn’t introduced – there’s no context – nor interpreted or analysed – there’s no explanation. It’s not clear what its purpose, meaning or significance is. Why are the Jews a people without a country? What does it mean to be a people? What is it to have a country? Does lacking a country mean lacking an identity? No context, no analysis. A few lines later, writing from the perspective of ‘the Jews’, Kusters writes “We watch over the system behind the system. We’re the backup, the fourth empire” (Ibid.,). Again, no context or explanation; merely, the introduction of classical anti-Semitism as a passing phrase.

A few pages on, Kusters writes “The ones who always do it right are the Holocaust deniers. And they’re still at it. As soon as you start tampering with Auschwitz, they throw you in the madhouse. But that’s where the Enlightened Ones live, those who haven’t been able to keep their big mouths shut. Of course there was no Holocaust!”. Kusters doesn’t direct these racist remarks toward any other ethnic minorities, nor does he return to them at any other point. Does Kusters mean to be ironic, or funny? Should these remarks frame Kusters’ opposition to institutions, or even the book a as a whole? Should they be ignored? It’s not at all clear what purpose these passages serve, if any.

Kusters’ compilatory method is perhaps the defining feature of ‘A Philosophy of Madness’. It’s possible – perhaps preferable – to understand the decision not to subject any of the his interlocutors to sustained or detailed analysis as being consistent with his stated opposition to systematicity and classification. Perhaps this is the right decision: for readers less familiar with the canonical works of European philosophy, this book functions as a useful introduction to texts from Plato, Descartes, Husserl, Sartre and more. Kusters sets his course firmly in the direction of madness, and this colossal book – just short of 800 pages, in all – is by no means a strict, disciplined work of theory. Instead, it’s pure, philosophical chaos.

The reader should not approach ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ with the expectation of finding a contribution to our understanding of what it feels like to experience psychosis, or periods of mental ill health; nor, a close reading or interpretation of a number of texts from the phenomenological tradition, mysticism or the fictional and real writings of ‘the mad’. Instead, Kusters’ presents the reader with a mass of text which, without ever coming together in any moment, points the reader toward possibilities: possibilities for reflection and reconsideration on one’s place in the world. Madness might be ecstatic, joyous, terrifying, upsetting and scary; it might be a normal way to live in a strange world. It might also be an opportunity to approach one’s life and the people in it with a new sense of enchantment. An off-kilter perspective, to be sure, but one filled with madness and magic.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. University of Chicago Press.

Kusters, Wouter. 2020. A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking. MIT Press.

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