The Philosopher's Medicine of the Mind: Kant's Account of Mental Illness and the Normativity of Thinking

In Christopher Yeomans (ed.), Dimensions of Normativity: Kant on Morality, Legality, and Humanity. New York, NY, USA: pp. 189-206 (2020)
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Kant’s conception of mental illness is unlikely to satisfy contemporary readers. His classifications of mental illness are often fluid and ambiguous, and he seems to attribute to human beings at least some responsibility for preventing mental illness. In spite of these apparent disadvantages, I argue that Kant’s account of mental illness can be illuminating to his views about the normative dimensions of human cognition. In contrast to current understandings of mental illness, Kant’s account is what I refer to as “non-pathological.” That is, most mental illnesses are for Kant continuous with normally functioning cognition. Someone with a healthy reason can easily fall into mental illness and someone with mental illness can (perhaps not as easily) re-establish healthy reason. By accepting a non-pathological definition of mental illness, it follows for Kant that humans have more agency and responsibility regarding their mental health than current views allow, which explains why several of his writings aim to prescribe a “diet of the mind” (2:271). Contrary to popular readings of Kant as a champion of reason’s power, Kant’s conception of mental illness shows that he recognizes how fragile human reason can be.

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Krista Thomason
Swarthmore College


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