First published Fri Nov 30, 2001; substantive revision Mon Feb 22, 2010Psychiatry involves theories of the mind, theories of the causes of mental disorders, classification schemes for those disorders, research about the disorders, proven treatments and research into new treatments, and a number of professions whose job it is to work with or on behalf of people with mental disorders. The philosophical study of psychiatry discusses conceptual, ethical, metaphysical, social, and epistemological issues that arise in all these aspects of psychiatry. Central to this study is the nature of mental illness.
The central philosophical debate over mental illness is not about its existence, but rather over how to define it, and whether it can be given a scientific or objective definition, or whether normative and subjective elements are essential to our concept of mental illness. One desideratum for a successful definition of mental illness is that it will settle debates over particular purported mental illnesses.
The connection between philosophical issues in the study and treatment of mental illness and these other areas of philosophy is in many cases obvious, as in the question of when and how people with mental disorders are responsible for their actions is connected with the insanity defense in law, and the more general debate over the justification of punishment. The philosophical investigation of the nature of mental illness is therefore relevant to many other areas of philosophy. While there is no sharp divide between the philosophical discussion of the nature of mental illness and the wider philosophical discussion of psychiatry, we can focus on four major issues that have preoccupied the philosophical literature.