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Culture and Psychopathology

The Anthropology of Mental Illness

Georgi Onchev

The book sets itself the ambitious task of exploring the relationship between human culture and the phenomenon of mental illness, that which has embarrassed, fascinated, and challenged educated minds throughout the centuries. Various manifestations of this phenomenon are examined in specific cultural contexts, presented with notable competence, and illustrated with memorable descriptions of clinical cases. (…) The book and its author have many merits—the capacity to present a highly specialized subject in an intelligible, absorbing, and simultaneously profound manner; respectable erudition and academic self-discipline; and the notable skill of handling different domains of knowledge, among others. The most remarkable quality, however, is the author’s concern both for the reader—who is carefully led into quite unknown and still frightening territory—as well as for his protagonists, the mentally ill. All told, I believe that this book will be of interest not just to students of psychiatry, psychology, and anthropology, but also to a broader circle of readers who are excited by the wretched and admirable destiny of being human.

Haralan Alexandrov

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4 Psychopathology: Essence and Manifestation


Individuality is the world as her own.

G. Hegel

Psychopathology refers to both teaching about mental illness in general, and the entity of manifestations which may signify mental illness or psychological distress. In essence, these manifestations are experiences and behaviors. Symptoms of psychopathology occur, in fact, experientially, while motor and behavioral manifestations are its external expressions—also serving as the only outer markers of abnormal experience accessible for observation, as markers like laboratory findings or physical signs are lacking. Regardless of innumerable didactic descriptions, misunderstandings about psychopathology, even among professionals, generally arise from the notion that it represents some ontological reality with material signs. Since antiquity, a given phenomenon has usually denoted the appearance of things, as contrasted to their underlying meaning (lathomenon).10 In the phenomenology of Heidegger, Husserl, and Jaspers, however, the term phenomenon is used for an inner, subjective experience. Jaspers104 (Fig. 2) defines the experience as a phenomenon of the psyche, its genuine “objective fact”, and not as the subjective shadow of another objectively observable occurrence. In contemporary psychiatry, there is instead a risk of new reductionism with attempts to reduce psychopathological phenomena to the biochemical level, neglecting their experiential aspect. The problem with epistemology in psychopathology stems from the objective-subjective rationale from the 19th-century positivist approach to the natural sciences being applied to the psyche. In psychopathology, experience is the objective phenomenon, while the position of the clinician assessing it remains subjective.

Fig. 2: Karl...

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