Psychiatric classification and diagnosis. Delusions and confabulations

Paradigmi (1):99-112 (2011)
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In psychiatry some disorders of cognition are distinguished from instances of normal cognitive functioning and from other disorders in virtue of their surface features rather than in virtue of the underlying mechanisms responsible for their occurrence. Aetiological considerations often cannot play a significant classificatory and diagnostic role, because there is no sufficient knowledge or consensus about the causal history of many psychiatric disorders. Moreover, it is not always possible to uniquely identify a pathological behaviour as the symptom of a certain disorder, as disorders that are likely to differ both in their causal histories and in their overall manifestations may give rise to very similar patterns of behaviour. Consider delusions as an example. It wouldn’t be correct to define delusions as those beliefs people form as a result of a neurobiological deficit and a hypothesis-evaluation deficit (as some versions of the two-factor theory of delusions suggest), because for some delusions no neurobiological deficit may be found, and reasoning biases and motivational factors may be contributors to the formation of the delusion (e.g. McKay et al., 2005). Moreover, it would be a mistake to define delusions as symptoms of schizophrenia alone, because they occur also in other disorders, including dementia, amnesia, and delusional disorders. Thus, aetiological considerations may appear in the description and analysis of delusions, but do not feature prominently in their definition. In this paper I argue that the surface features used as criteria for the classification and diagnosis of disorders of cognition are often epistemic in character. I shall offer two examples: confabulations and delusions are defined as beliefs or narratives that fail to meet standards of accuracy and justification. Although classifications and diagnoses based on features of people’s observable behaviour are necessary at these early stages of neuropsychiatric research, given the variety of conditions in which certain phenomena appear, I shall attempt to show that current epistemic accounts of confabulations and delusions have limitations. Epistemic criteria can guide both research and clinical practice, but fail to provide sufficient conditions for the identification of delusions and confabulations, and fail to demarcate pathological from non-pathological narratives or beliefs. Another limitation of current epistemic accounts – which I shall not address here – is the excessive focus on epistemic faults of confabulations and delusions at the expense of their epistemically neutral or advantageous features (see Bortolotti and Cox, 2009). This may lead to a misconception of delusions and confabulations, and to an oversimplification in the assessment of the needs of people who require clinical treatment for their psychotic symptoms.
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