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Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz

He is a psychiatrist and philosopher.


Thomas Szasz is one of the most radical thinkers in America and his insights into sickness, deviance and the use of power, religious, medical or political, are crucial to a real understanding of modern society and especially deviance.


Thomas Szasz holds a rigid ideological stance that is based on complete freedom of behavior for all humans and no government regulation of personal conduce that does not harm others. He emphasizes responsibility in personal conduct and thinks all deviants must be punished if they break the law, including use of the death penalty. He rejects any attempt by bureaucratic institutions, such as government, professional psychiatry, the church, to repress human lawful and personal human freedom. His career as a writer has been to illustrate how powerful institutions in society, beginning with the church, have consistently repressed human freedom. This repression is designed to preserve the status of the elite, and to validate the rules of conduct and social organization that form the collective conscience and are the foundation to their power.


Here is a link to his work and one to an interview with him.





Here is a link to an article that is critical of Szasz, just to be fair. This critical article is very good at summarizing his philosophy, however.




Here is what he says, in very brief detail.


  1. Medicine has replaced religion as a coercive force in society.


  1. Illness is the modern version of sin, and like sin is to be removed from society by people with special knowledge as to how to determine illness and what to do about it.


  1. His particular problem is with what is called “institutional psychiatry,” the branch of psychiatry that is rooted in the policy of finding and helping the mentally ill, regardless of their lack of interest in being helped and the use of involuntary hospitalization of those so defined as sick.


  1. Only those mental disorders caused by disease, injury, drugs or birth defect are legitimate mental illnesses. Problems of the mind are not medical in his view and in most cases involve social judgments based on morality that are enshrined into “health.”


  1. In most cases those who are involuntarily hospitalized have not committed a crime; their confinement is based on the belief that their version of reality is dangerous.


  1. He believes that unless someone is harming others, behaviors that are self destructive or bother others are not the matter of law or medicine.


  1. He is adamant about personal responsibility and believes that drug use and sales and all sexual relations between adults should be beyond the reach of the criminal law. He says we own our minds and bodies and government, religion and science have no right to impose rules on our private affairs.


He is important in the study of deviance because he wants to limit what is says is the historic movement from religious persecution of heretics to the medical persecution of those who choose to reject what he calls the “dominant ethic,” which today is best characterized as “fitting in” or “getting along.”


Anger is an example of a normal feeling that is made deviant.

Smiling is almost a requirement of social interaction

All of this is arbitrary and is not evidence of any illness or deviance.

Being nice has shifted from being a folkway to being a sign of heath.


Those who are always angry or never smile are sometimes brought to the attention of medical authorities, and sometimes involuntarily hospitalized and drugged. Their anger, and its social basis, are not validated. Szasz says generations of battered women were treated with drugs for their depression and anger, when all they needed was a divorce.



Such deviance is just the violation of social convention (folkways), and institutions such as religion or medicine claim the right to control such violations. The government then grants to these institutions the power to coerce behavior.

Most importantly, Szasz is a critic of those who would seek to impose a definition of “normalcy” that is either based on religion, which he views as irrational, or which limits personal freedom.  For Szasz, if what one does harms no one, it should be ignored in the criminal law and should be viewed as an issue of personal liberty, despite how much is bothers the majority of society.  He is also critical of a view that legitimizes illness as a way to avoid responsibility, such as the insanity defense.  Further, he is critical of western civilization because is embraces a ethic of helplessness and weakness, as exemplified in the dicta “blessed are the meek;” “blessed are the children.”   He says powerful interests, such as the church or institutional psychiatry, have used these  dicta throughout history to take power and control people’s lives.  His masterpiece is his book on witchcraft, The Manufacture of Madness — a difficult book to read and fully understand, but an exemplar of great sociology.


The Manufacture of Madness

His book The Manufacture of Madness http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1971/v27-4-bookreview6.htm   illustrated how the witch hunts of the Roman Inquisition http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Inquisition became institutional psychiatry once religion was supplanted by science as the most legitimate form of authority (rational-legal authority replaced traditional authority).


Here is a humorous way to illustrate the arbitrary way in which deviant status is imposed and how social authority acts to enforce a “ reasonable” methodology for judging reality, deviance, and science.


He says the esoteric methods used to identify witches have been replaced by equally esoteric methods of identifying the mentally ill, and that burning at the stake has been replaced by involuntary hospitalization, forced drug therapy and the straightjacket. You may want to re-read the link about psychopaths to see how arbitrary psychiatry can be. It may be somewhat comforting to move from repression and death of deviant to hospital care and understanding, but for Szasz there is not difference – the deviant is not free and is forced to change under penalty of confinement.


It is hard to defend Szasz’s views on mental illness given the science that now exists concerning the causes of mental disorder. However, Szasz also presents a sociological history that illustrated the social construction or reality, the importance of ideology, and the interests that benefit from that reality. Further, Szasz’s view are highly relevant to this class because he was the first to understand the process of the medicalization of deviance and its inherent danger in absolving deviants of any moral or legal fail

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