The Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party: A Study in the Philosophy of Psychosis


The following brings together a number of my recent concerns & speculations. It’s a blogpost, so I don’t develop the arguments I make, investigate the literature, or examine the numerous objections that my remarks could occasion. I feel confident that, were the occasion to arise, I could. Of course.


Serious-Looking Ways of Worldmaking

 1. We use tools to make things; we use words to make worlds.

1.1 Physics is talk about the world; metaphysics is talk about talk about the world.

1.1.1 The present work is, therefore. metametaphysical; that is, talk about talk about talk about the world. Any other metaphysical project is either poetry or madness – or both. It is a common habit nowadays to talk of physics as if it described the physical world. While such an equivalence was valid until at least the early 20th century, there has been an increasing divergence between everyday talk about the things around us on a macroscopic level and the various seemingly counterintuitive notions of quantum mechanics and general relativity (not to mention weirder and more wonderful innovations). We could either read 1.1 above as restricting metaphysics to a critique of physics (a too-common failing of ‘analytical metaphysics’) or reformulate it as “Everyday speech is talk about the world; metaphysics is talk about talk about the world“. I’m going for a bit of both, but that’s ‘cos I’m an ornery bastard.

1.1.2 Nelson Goodman. A bit of a disappointment, but still of immense interest. The basic premise of irrealism is exciting, but I feel that Goodman’s handling of it lacks the rigour available to contemporary analytical metaphysicians, and primarily the semantic and modal analysis of possible worlds . Whether we can do better remains to be seen. The notion of ‘world-versions‘ is interesting: this or that view expresses a version of ‘the world’, and that some of these versions are uncongenial to the kind of reductionism that was prevalent when I was first studying philosophy (Goodman asks how one might reduce, for instance, Joyce’s or Constable’s views to physics). My objection is that, while world-versions might allow a partial understanding of the pluralistic theses exposed below, they still reside on an implicit appeal to some ‘actual’ world of which these world-versions are … um … versions. Goodman notably criticised this very understanding, insisting that “We are not speaking in terms of multiple possible alternatives to a single actual world but of multiple actual worlds.” However, this irrealism still allows that all (or many) worlds could be ‘equally real’ in the sense later espoused by David Lewis. I will argue that all worlds are indeed equally real insofar as they are equally unreal – they are, in a word, narrative constructs. Nonetheless, I would imagine that Goodman would agree with and approve of the developments I give below.

1.1.3 My earlier remarks that we can, at most, postulate an apparent flux of experience of a seeming flux of happening reproduce the dichotomy (explored by Goodman) between phenomenalism and physicalism. My intention is to dissolve this distinction into different ways of talking about our own and each others’ experience – briefly, to allow that other minds are distinct idiolectal narratives constructed on the basis of dialectally and sociolectally available models. I’ll give the metaphysical bases underlying this point here, but develop the more specific psycholinguistic implications in a later post.


Mister Badger considers the world.

2. Our apprehension of the world is semiotic; that is, our perception of the world and of the things therein is mediated by signs.

2.1 It is an implicit or explicit premise of all philosophy that there is some relation between the language we use and the things and occurrences around us. This relation is at times so unclear as to appear obscure to the untrained eye – for instance, in the first part of the first proposition of his Tractatus, Wittgenstein says:

1 The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.1.1 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts

Here, Wittgenstein is clearly stating that ‘the world’ is composed not of things, but of “facts”. Apart from the early Wittgenstein, both Russell and Carnap were proponents of ‘logical atomism‘ – the thesis that the world is in some way constituted of basic facts that could be taken as logically atomic to more complex facts. But what are such ‘facts’? Setting aside any discussion of the philosophy of facts, facts are ‘truths about the world’: it is a fact that some thing has some quality, or is some sort of thing; it is a fact that some event occurred; it is a fact that some state obtains (or, of course, the negation of these expressions). Whatever else they may be, facts are thus linguistic entities: x is F; x is some kind of S; x occurred; or F is exemplified (or not etc. etc.). The notion of ‘truth’ is central here: evidently, the linguistic expression that corresponds to a fact needs to be true (or needs to have some degree of truth). Furthermore, Wittgenstein is suggesting that the world is the totality of these linguistic expressions (or whatever strange ‘fact-entities’ they stand for). And before you get your ontological knickers in a twist, a proposition is either a linguistic expression or a mere red herring. I’m not going to bother defending that last assertion – you can either take it and continue or leave it and remain immured in your self-created ontological hell.

The notion that the world is composed of, or its composition can be given by, a collection of linguistic entities requires some comment, much of which is covered by the Tractatus and suchlike works (what of nonsense expressions, like “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”, or counterfactuals, or as-yet unuttered combinations of words?). We still need to examine the notions both of ‘world’ and of ‘language’ (not to mention ‘truth‘), but the central idea remains: that language establishes or stands in some relation to the elements of the world. In a more everyday sense, the view is that language stands in some kind of relation with the masses of matter that surround us; with the space and time those masses of matter occupy; and with the qualities of, and things that happen to, those masses of matter. Other, stranger entities, such as ‘matters of fact’, ‘ideas’,  or (God help us) ‘monads’ can be bracketed out for present intentions as being too damn’ silly for words because they’re merely words.

General and universal metaphysics attempts to give some overall relation between language and the world. As we’ll certainly see below, this is probably an ill-thought out and hasty generalisation, but let’s for the moment take it that language or some part thereof stands in relation to ‘the world’ as the totality of what there is, whatever there is. Language represents the world to and for us. Thus, language stands as some kind of ‘sign’ not only of what constitutes the world (as I remarked above), but also -and more importantly – of the structure of the world (see below).

2.2 Let’s take this intuitively as reflecting a realism about the world. We can, I think, distinguish three modes of such realism:

2.2.1 Naive realism is the view that the structure of language reflects and reproduces the structure of the world. (“What?”)

If we consider this semiotically, language is here seen as standing in an iconic relation to the world. An icon represents its putative object by some relation of similarity – thus, a map represents the territory; a picture represents it subject; a photograph represents a person. So, in naive realism, language is seen as being some kind of ‘picture’ of the world – basically, it “shows it as it is”. This is the realism of the “person in the street”. To most people, language merely reproduces the relations obtaining among the ‘real things’ that populate and constitute the world – stars, explosions, people, orgies, rocks, tables, slices of pizza, and so forth.

More significantly, people take it that the structure of language – that is, in English at least, the subject-verb-object construction – reproduces the structure of ‘facts’. Thus, some thing does, or is in some relation with, some other thing. This pre-carves the world into bits that do (or are) things to or for other bits. Besides being the basic premise of semiotics, it’s at the root of Descartes’ error – that there is some thing (“I”) that does some thing (“think”), and that that thing “I” is that thing.

I’ve given elsewhere my objections to this naive view of reality – if I recall aright, I gave a “minimal ontological thesis” that “there is an apparent flux of experience of a seeming flux of happening”, but you can see that even this reproduces the subject-verb-object structure. Whether we can even think outside this structure is a moot and probably nonsensical point.

To sum up: naive realism answers the question “What“: “What is this?”; “What is happening?”; “What is in the world?” We need it to deal with the pragmatic requirements of everyday life, but it’s a bit of a Toytown basis for a metaphysics. Or, as we shall see, for natural science.

[If we follow Peirce’s semiotic categories, naive realism holds that, taken as a representation of ‘the world’, language stands as a rhematic iconic legisign – a kind of sign Peirce typifies by “A diagram, apart from its factual individuality”]

2.2.2 Sophisticated realism holds that the structure of language is a clue to the structure of the world. (“How?”)

While naive realism takes it that language reproduces the form of the world, sophisticated realism – that is, the kind of realism that motivates much of natural science – takes language as an index to the structure of the world. An index represents its actual object by some relation of contiguity or causality – a weathercock indicating the direction of the wind, Friday’s footprint to Crusoe, or a rash indicating the presence of a disease. As far as the relation between language and the world is concerned, this tends to a ‘causal’ explanation – our language evolved as it did not because it reproduces the form of the world, but because it bears some motivated relation to it. While such things as tables and chairs might not figure in the ‘ultimate furniture of the world’, they exist as organised collections of fundamental particles (or as organised emergents thereon), and while the objects and events of our ‘everyday language’ might not correspond on a fundamental level to fermions and bosons, the relation is similar to that obtaining between a rash and the virus causing it. To quote Quine:

”The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.”

Evidently, sophisticated realism is a more scientifically valid understanding of the relations obtaining between language and the world, and as such allows a better understanding of “how” the world is structured from this or that perspective (physics, biology, even – to a degree – the human sciences, though see below). However, when taken as an indication of what lies beyond or before language, it falls victim to the same problem as does naive realism: it’s limited to and by the subject-verb-object structure imposed by language. It could well be, as some understandings of quantum mechanics would suggest, that our – natural – language is incapable of expressing the fundamental nature of the world, and that we can’t build any kind of bridging explanations between the mathematical formulations and ordinary language. Furthermore, and given that mathematics rests on the same logical foundations as natural language, it could well be the case that our mathematics provides an unsatisfactory account of the structure of the world. This might well seem a controversial statement to many eyes, but we should at least bear it in mind.

[With respect to Peirce’s categories, sophisticated realism holds that, taken in relation to ‘the world’, language stands as a rhematic indexical legisign – a kind of sign Peirce typifies by “A demonstrative pronoun”. In other words, it points and gibbers…]

2.2.3 Narrative or symbolic realism is the belief that the meaning of language somehow reflects some ‘meaning’ in the world. (“Why?”)

In Peirce’s categorisation of signs, a symbol is a sign that represents its putative object by some convention or interpretive habit. In itself, language is a symbolic system (the word “horse” doesn’t look like or indicate any particular horse), and so its representation of the world is necessarily symbolic. It tells us about the world because we habitually employ it when talking about “the ‘real things’ that populate and constitute the world – stars, explosions, people, orgies, rocks, tables, slices of pizza, and so forth”. As a perspective on the world, symbolic or narrative realism generally attempts to answer the “Why” of things, and seeks for explanation. Insofar as it can be explained, the world has meaning.

I won’t bother to further develop my description of symbolic or narrative realism here as I’ve already done it elsewhere, but I will use it as a jumping-off point for the next bit of this lucubration: a brief investigation of the notion of “worlds”.

[For the sake of compositional elegance, I’ll hazard that, as a symbol of the world, language stands as a rhematic symbolic legisign – ironically, a class Peirce typifies by “a common noun”. However, as a narrative construction the world could perhaps be seen as a proposition – a dicent symbolic legisign]


3. I know I live in this world; I just don’t know which world “this world” is.

Narrative realism, if taken to its conclusion, would imply that all worlds that are narratively self-consistent have equal reality. To all intents and purposes, this is just David Lewis’ view. Worlds that are internally inconsistent are either partially inconsistent and operating on some kind of metanarrative (as in ‘magical realism’), or are entirely inconsistent and therefore impossible. It could be the case that there is a world in which there are even primes greater than two, or four-sided triangles (thus vindicating Meinong), but there can be no world in which there are no four-sided triangles in which there are four-sided triangles. The probabilistic hierarchy of possible worlds proceeds as follows:

  • physical possibility. This is generally based on the primacy and perhaps uniqueness of one and only one world – “this” world – and holds that the only possible world is that which is consistent with a certain set of ground-rules that the speaker takes as being fundamental to this one-and-only world;
  • metaphysical possibility, which holds that those worlds are real that we can imagine and describe, and are internally (narratively) consistent;
  • logical possibility: those worlds are real that respect the rules of a given logical system

Certain interpretations of quantum mechanics purportedly invalidate basic logical laws, such as the distributive law. If this were the case, there could be difficulties for the naive defender of physical possibility, as the logical laws governing “this” world when it is taken as the world of our experience would be contradicted by the logical laws governing “this” world when it is taken as a set of quantum phenomena. This is a very brief and certainly incomplete refutation of the view that there is one, unique, self-identical world, but it has the merit of showing that such refutation is at least possible (I love the ironically convoluted self-referential jiggery-pokery of serious metaphysics. And these guys aren’t even dropping shrooms. Of course, the uncertainty over what precisely a person is referring to when she uses a particular expression in a specific situation is handled by Quine’s indeterminacy thesis and the resulting discussions, but here we’re considering the universalist, monist metaphysical thesis that there is one, unique world that stands as the object of assertions such as “This is the one and only real world!”).

There can be no world in which the law of non-contradiction ¬(p ∧ ¬p) holds and in which it is the case that (p ∧ ¬p). Without going into the alethic logic of possible worlds, it is evident that such a world would be an impossible world and, as such, would invalidate any reasonable notion of narrative consistency.

What all this does stand to show is that, while I am entirely right to gesture or point at what is around me and say “I know I am in this world”, on the metaphysical level, and unless I’ve specified the precise subuniverse of discourse my statement ranges over, my statement doesn’t actually pick out any particular world, but rather ranges over a nested family of worlds (more on this below). Now, it’s perfectly sensical to talk about unique quantities of butter, shouts, and people when saying “There’s some butter in the fridge” or “There’s a noise in the toilet” or “Mrs Jones is choking the cat”. This is meaning kept in check. But as soon as we start making grandiloquent gestures of the “This is the real world!” kind, we’re doing metaphysics and should shut the fuck up until we’ve at least read the Tractatus. While my phenomenal experience appears ordered in such a way that I can indeed say “I know I am in this world”, in a public sense I can never be quite sure which world I’m talking about unless I make the kind of very precise specifications that would lead to my family killing me before supper was over. Far better to dissolve such generalised metaphysical speculations.

The above gives a few ideas of how and why one should accept at least a minimal understanding of how certain nested families of worlds might be equally ‘real’ in the metaphysical sense. When one factors in such things as the problem of induction, it’s easy enough to extend the limits of what worlds are real to a certain family of contiguous metaphysically possible worlds, and from that to all metaphysically possible worlds and why not the logically possible worlds while we’re at it. All worlds are equally real, because no one world can be definitively given as the real world. This hasty sketch would certainly require rigorous development before submission for the APA Award, but luckily this is a blog so I don’t have to bother. Let it stand.

Now, it is evidently stark raving bonkers to hold that the world in which I am an incredibly charming gentleman philosopher of a certain age and the world in which I am a small pink cupcake are both equally real. My wife would kill me. But logic is a wonderful thing in the hands of the officially insane: if all worlds are equally real, it follows that all worlds are equally unreal. Full narrative realism is insanity, but narrative antirealism is merely a flash way of saying “Metaphysics ends up by disappearing up its own arsehole, let’s call it a day and roll a spliff”.


Mrs B’s present-day reaction to philosophy.

4. One man’s ontological commitment is another man’s incredulous stare.

On reading the aforegoing remarks, my wife did indeed give me the wifely equivalent of the incredulous stare (which involved being beaten around the head with a herring, but each marriage has its own traditions). I should perhaps make a few conjoined remarks:

  • the above remarks are metametaphysical, and should be taken before all else as operating on and over the traditional concerns of metaphysics as a philosophical activity;
  • my interest in metaphysics is closer to what most people would consider to be an aesthetic preoccupation. My present concern for metaphysics reflects precisely the same mindset as did my initial preoccupation with meaning at the time I wrote my poetry;
  • I am psychotic. My mind is a strange, beautiful fireworks display. While many of the elements I discuss above might seem bizarre or outré to more normal minds, this is how my mind works and – perhaps – my exposition might give an insight into the more general functioning of delusional psychosis.

The antirealist ontology I sketched out in the preceding section allows that a statement such as “This is the real world!” might indicate a nested family of worlds. Evidently, and in everyday terms, when we speak this way we’re not postulating a sequence of reproductions of one world with various minor modifications, but various ways the world could be. Now, the last statement – basically, “possible worlds are ways the world could be” – is fine for the purposes of late-night college bull sessions. But, as we’ve seen, we can’t give a sufficiently clear metaphysical definition of which world it is that could be other ways – the world we’re indicating already subsumes a number of different possibilities.

The thesis of nested families of worlds is, I think, sufficient for the everyday purposes of idle speculation and of both the physical and social sciences. One can consider a given family either from a naively or from a sophisticatedly realist viewpoint, accept it for pragmatic ends, and draw a line under metaphysical speculation. Nested families of worlds are just a way in which we describe … well, oh fuck, nested families of worlds that are the real world really even though they’re not from the philosophical point of … to hell with it, let’s have tea. More on quietism below.

From the philosophical point of…, the difficulties inherent in specifying and setting a limit to the worlds that could be the object of our deixis render a realist understanding of my thesis entirely undesirable to the realist. This is probably an argument against realism. It’s far better to consider all possible worlds as narratives about (firstly) what could be the object, the origin, or the sense of our apparent flux of experience of a seeming flux of happening and (secondly) how language makes those worlds. Holding that such narratives concern real worlds requires us to adopt a strong counterintuitive thesis (that there are an unlimited number of realistic narratives about real worlds); compared to this, the alternative thesis (that there are an unlimited number of fictional narratives about possible worlds) is weakly counterintuitive. The idea that we can have no access to mind-independent reality is contested but reasonable; while we can talk about what lies outside language, such talk is always limited by the structure of language; and to say that our language is limited to what can be said is a self-evident truism. I would argue that these conjoined statements set a limit beyond which philosophical speculation becomes mere poetry; if one wishes nevertheless to push beyond them one should do so for merely aesthetic reasons. Any other motivation – be it spiritual or scientific – leads to madness.

“Leads to madness.” This is the point at which a metametaphysical discussion encounters the phenomenology of psychosis. While we can see that nested families of worlds can quite easily account for the emergent structure of the macroscopic on the microscopic when discussing ‘physical reality’, they become less tractable when dealing with ‘social reality’ and – in some cases at least – almost entirely intractable when dealing with ‘psychological reality’.  On the individual level, we are confronted by the world in which our apparent experience is occurring. For reasons that are opaque to me as an individual, most people seem perfectly comfortable with the idea that the world of their experience is the unique world. They can act and be acted upon in a way that seems to be sufficiently in accordance to what is around them and – more substantially – who is around them. They are perfectly able to function with the people around them without being immobilised by uncertainty about whether those people are inhabiting this or that world.

For instance, John is much enamoured of Mary, but is uncertain whether Mary returns his sentiments. Finding himself examining an unusual flower alone with her in the summerhouse, he is uncertain whether the immediate proximity of their faces is or is not an invitation to kiss her. Here, John is faced between a choice between two worlds – two narratives, if you will. In the first, Mary’s proximity is merely a matter of shared interest in the flower; in the second, her proximity is an invitation to intimacy. And then there is the third option – that both worlds obtain. The normally-constituted seem to have only minor difficulties with such problems – though there’s always Prufrock. I believe that in such situations the delusional psychotic is fundamentally unable to distinguish which of the numerous possible worlds available to and desired by him corresponds to the possible worlds available to and desired by his interlocutor. If taken to an extreme, this can lead to extravagant violations of what the majority would hold to be a ‘normal’ interpretation of reality. When such interpretations concern himself, the attribution of attitude can lead to grandiosity or to paranoia.

This latter point requires a fuller development, and I will indeed return to it. For the moment, suffice it to say that the delusional psychotic might well live at the intersection of what, to him, are concentrically-probabilistic circles of possible worlds all of which have a degree of reality. I know that this is true of myself, if we might for once allow the results of introspection. The implications of this deserve a post of their own.


Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

5. Philosophy doesn’t answer questions, it teaches us how to ask them. Good philosophy then proceeds to dissolve those questions.

The question of what constitutes the metaphysical reality of the world around us dissolves into the question of how we establish the narrative precedence of one world-version over another, and this is further dissolved by considering what our pragmatic or discursive ends might be. We achieve a kind of philosophical quietism when we realise that we just can’t answer questions concerning what lies before or beyond language, and this quietism should allow us to push questions of the ultimate reality of things into the realm of poetry. They are mere fictions, and any reading of them should bear in mind their mythical, metaphorical, or poetic import rather than using them as a basis for any pragmatic course of action. This is evidently the case when dealing with spiritual or supernatural experience and with the vagaries of social interaction; while it might seem less evident when dealing with the various bridging explanations given between physical science and everyday experience, it holds just as much.

We can answer “What?” by talking about how things seem and we can answer “How?” by talking about how things come about, and we can even allow a degree of universal import to the answers we give (allowing that we’ve defined the universe over which our discourse ranges). But we can only ask “Why?” about particular human actions and interactions. “Why did Mr Jones punch Mr Smith on the nose?” is a valid question. “Why does red look that way?” is not.

It could well be that delusional psychosis is the inability to stop asking “Why?” and to stop brooding on possible answers. Whether this realisation can offer any peace to the psychotic depends on the therapeutic value of philosophy when taken in conjunction with appropriate antipsychotic medication. We shall see.


Yeah, right…


7 thoughts on “The Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party: A Study in the Philosophy of Psychosis

  1. Pingback: That post about feelings (metaphysical speculations) | There could be badgers…

  2. Pingback: Mister Badger discusses psychosis, idealism, semiotics, and realism. | There could be badgers…

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