Degeneration and the Cultural Birth of Schizophrenia

A seminar by Philip Thomas, psychiatrist, philosopher, author of The Dialectics of Schizophrenia and co-author of Postpsychiatry: Mental Health in a Postmodern World.

Seminar 4 in the Newcastle Philosophical Society’s series “Schizophrenia –100 Years On
Saturday 21 May 2011, 2pm, The Cedar Room
(Upstairs at the Dog and Parrot, 52 Clayton Street West, Newcastle, NE1 4EX).

Abstract: Although the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler invented the word ‘schizophrenia’ in 1911, it is the work of the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin that gave birth to the concept as it is widely understood in contemporary psychiatry. In this paper I want to examine the cultural concern with degeneration that was an important feature of late nineteenth century European thought in science and the humanities, and which lies at the heart of the Kraepelinian concept of schizophrenia. I will try to show that Kraepelin’s preoccupation with degeneration extended beyond the confines of his scientific work into other areas of his life, most notably his political views. I will argue that there is an affinity between late nineteenth century scientific theories about madness, and contemporary ones. A hundred years on, scientific discourse about madness may have moved away from degeneration to ‘broken brains’ and cognitive errors and dysfunction, but these theories are just as much cultural tropes as was degeneration. The main consequence of these theories for those identified as mad is that their status as human beings is reduced as they are transformed into Others. It is significant that the one notable exception to this – the philosophy of R.D. Laing and some of his followers – rejected the notion that science could provide a complete account of human experience in madness.

Bio: Philip Thomas is Professor of Philosophy, Diversity and Mental Health at the Centre for Ethnicity and Health in the University of Central Lancashire. He is also chair of Sharing Voices Bradford, a community development project working with Bradford’s Black and Minority Ethnic communities. After working as a full-time consultant psychiatrist in the NHS for over twenty years, he left clinical practice in 2004 to focus on writing and academic work. His academic interests include philosophy (post-structuralism and critical theory), and their application to psychiatry, especially social and cultural psychiatry, psychology and medicine. He is also interested in the moral and ethical problems of representation in medicine and literature as well as the practical value of narrative in ‘recovery’ from psychosis. He has developed alliances with survivors of psychiatry, service users and community groups, locally, nationally and internationally, and is well known for the column he wrote with his colleage Pat Bracken in Open Mind magazine, called Postpsychiatry. He is a founder member and co-chair of the Critical Psychiatry Network in Britain. He has published well over 100 scholarly papers. His first book was The Dialectics of Schizophrenia, published in 1997. His second book Voices of Reason, Voices of Insanity, written with Ivan Leudar and published in 2000, examined the different meanings attached to the experience of hearing voices over 2,500 years of Western culture. His third book Postpsychiatry: Mental Health in a Postmodern World, co-authored with Pat Bracken was published in 2005.

Admission is free and all are welcome.


Annie · May 17, 2011 at 9:10 am

I would love to come but dont think the venue is accessible

Centre for Medical Humanities · May 17, 2011 at 9:15 am

Thanks Annie for your comment. If you would like to get in touch with the series convenor, Anthony Morgan, to discuss the venue his email address is

Dr Michael Black · November 16, 2011 at 7:41 am

Message for Dr. Philip Thomas, please pass on: My name is Dr Michael Black PhD Cantab,, and we haven’t met since the Asylum Conference in Yorkshire in 2005, but I remember you. This is just to let you know that my two volumes of mental health memoirs, Angels, Cleopatra And Psychosis, and Leonardo, Romancia And Ra, both published by Chipmunkapublishing, are both now available on, so check them out. I’m very proud of them. They’re as much about religious experience as they are about psychosis or psychiatry. Write Amazon reviews of them if you want to! I’d appreciate it. Thanks, Michael

NTWSU&C meeting, minutes, agenda and bonus news on a lecture « Launchpad: By and for mental health service users · May 17, 2011 at 8:11 am

[…] , and it’s taking place this Saturday, the 21st at 2pm. More details here. […]

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