Rediscovering psychopathology: the epistemology and phenomenology of the psychiatric object

Schizophr Bull. 2013 Mar;39(2):270-7. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbs153. Epub 2012 Dec 23.


Questions concerning both the ontology and epistemology of the "psychiatric object" (symptoms and signs) should be at the forefront of current concerns of psychiatry as a clinical neuroscience. We argue that neglect of these issues is a crucial source of the stagnation of psychiatric research. In honor of the centenary of Karl Jaspers' book, General Psychopathology, we offer a critique of the contemporary "operationalist" epistemology, a critique that is consistent with Jaspers' views. Symptoms and signs cannot be properly understood or identified apart from an appreciation of the nature of consciousness or subjectivity, which in turn cannot be treated as a collection of thing-like, mutually independent objects, accessible to context-free, "atheoretical" definitions or unproblematic forms of measurement (as is often assumed in structured interviewing). Adequate and faithful distinctions in the phenomenal or experiential realm are therefore a fundamental prerequisite for classification, treatment, and research. This requires a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating (among other things) insights provided by psychology, phenomenological philosophy, and the philosophy of mind.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Consciousness
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Knowledge
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Psychiatry / history*
  • Psychopathology / history
  • Psychopathology / methods*