Wednesday 1 January 2020

The Myth of ‘Thomas Szasz’: A Centenary Celebration – and Demythologisation. Jeffrey Schaler & Anthony Stadlen conduct Inner Circle Seminar 258 (14 June 2020)

The Myth of Thomas Szasz

A Centenary Celebration – and Demythologisation
(Thomas S. Szasz: 15 April 1920 – 8 September 2012)

Jeffrey Schaler   Anthony Stadlen
with assistance from
Tomi Gomory  Keith Hoeller  Richard Vatz
conduct by Zoom
Inner Circle Seminar No. 258
Sunday 14 June 2020
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Thomas Szasz   Anthony Stadlen   Jeffrey Schaler
Manhattan, 2003

Photograph copyright
Not to be used without permission
Thomas Szasz
s 90th-birthday seminar

Inner Circle Seminar No. 153
London, 13 June 2010

Photograph copyright
Not to be used without permission

With this seminar we celebrate the centenary of Thomas Szasz (born 15 April 1920). Today is ten years and a day after the astounding Inner Circle Seminar No. 153, the last of the three that Thomas Szasz conducted. It was in London, at the Portman Hotel, on 13 June 2010, for his 90th birthday. 90 people came, including him: the dialogue an incandescence of 90 birthday candles. We gave him a copy of Magna Carta signed by all present, to honour his love of justice and freedom.

The title of that seminar was The Myth of Mental Illness 50 Years On. But now, 60 years on, a sober assessment is that vanishingly few psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts or existential therapists, even among those who have heard of him, understand why, for more than half a century, Thomas Szasz tirelessly insisted that mental illness is a myth. They tend to say that he started with a valid criticism of psychiatry, but then took it much too far, in such a way as to lose any support they might have given him. They often confess that they are puzzled that this brilliant man could adopt a position that seems, to them, offensive to logic and ethics. They protest that this position implies both a distressing lack of compassion for the suffering ‘mentally ill’ and, from a philosophical perspective, a schizoid, dehumanising Cartesian dualism.

In this seminar, such views of Szasz will not be disparaged or ridiculed. On the contrary, they will be regarded as, prima facie, entirely understandable and reasonable ways of responding to his very unusual and original thesis. This is the best starting-point for beginning to understand the revolutionary thing that Szasz was saying. People have to start from where they are. However, this seminar is based on the conviction that those who are prepared carefully to examine their ways of understanding Szasz may well come to the revelation that these are in truth ways of misunderstanding: a misunderstanding so profound as to amount to a myth, of a Thomas Szasz’ who never existed. We can be grateful for this myth, because only through demythologising and demystifying it shall we begin to discover what Thomas Szasz was really saying.

His very first paper, a straightforward medical account of how a man who had been given the last rites because of his extreme congestive heart failure was apparently saved by simply increasing his water intake from 1.5 to 6 litres a day, and his second, a psychosomatic study of the role of hostility in peptic ulcer, were published in 1947, 73 years ago. Ten years later, in 1957, his first book Pain and Pleasure: A Study of Bodily Feelings duels with dualism and points forward to The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), while his key paper ‘Commitment of the mentally ill’ announces his lifelong struggle against compulsory psychiatry. His last publication known to me is the paper Varieties of psychiatric criticism which he sent me unformatted in an email on 16 August 2012 twenty-three days before his death. Kierkegaard said purity of heart is to will one thing. Szasz’s ‘one thing’ was justice, whether for pope, prince, slave, or ‘mental patient’. Here at the end of his life the 92-year-old Szasz contemplates with passionate dispassionate lack of illusion: psychiatry, ‘antipsychiatry’, ‘Laingian’ psychiatry, ‘Critical Psychiatry’. He condemns them all.

But we shall see how this shaking of the foundations and clearing of the rubble is only the prelude to something profoundly positive. Szasz loved the insufficiently explored potential of true psychotherapy (care for the soul); of decent democracy; and of the accusatorial, adversarial, non-inquisitorial method in law and in a possible new discipline which would replace psychiatry.

Already, as a teenager in Hungary before the second world war, Thomas Szasz had no illusions about either ‘mental illness’ or ‘mental hospitals’. He had concluded that these terms were euphemisms, motivated category mistakes, mystifications intended to invalidate inconvenient or embarrassing people and to justify their incarceration and compulsory ‘treatment’ in psychiatric prisons. As an immigrant to the United States, he developed this position in hundreds of papers and in thirty-five books, including The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) and Law, Liberty and Psychiatry (1963), many of which we have studied in Inner Circle Seminars. We have been privileged to have Szasz himself conduct three of these seminars, including the one already mentioned, for his ninetieth birthday in 2010.

People have denounced Szasz ever since they began vaguely to register that he was serious when he said he did not believe in ‘mental illness’ or in the so-called ‘commitment’ of the so-called ‘mentally ill’. Psychiatrists say he ‘walked away from’ suffering; psychoanalysts say he was unconscious of the ‘unconscious’; existential therapists say he was a ‘Cartesian dualist’; and all say he discounted the psychological problems of ‘schizophrenics’ and the real threat to society of dangerous ‘mental patients’.
However, these criticisms are not, to put it mildly, soundly based in study of Szasz’s writings. The critics usually have little idea of what Szasz was actually saying or of where he was ‘coming from’. (It must be said that this is true not only of virtually all his adversaries but of virtually all his self-styled admirers and advocates as well.)
Where he was ‘coming from’ is what we shall further explore and expound in today’s seminar. This does not mean this is a matter of relativism or ‘subjective truth’. On the contrary, where Szasz was coming from was precisely an insistence on the truth of his analysis of the concept of ‘mental illness’.
This seminar complements our Inner Circle Seminars on Laing and Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964) and on Heidegger’s and Boss’s Zollikon Seminars (1959-1969). Szasz’s 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness was the first work referenced in the Laing and Esterson book. All five workers were, during the crucial decade of the 1960s, radically questioning the pseudo-medical concepts of ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’, and in particular the concept of ‘schizophrenia’though Heidegger and Boss clung to the view that psychotherapy was part of medicine.

This is what ‘professionals’, at least as much as ‘lay’ people, find hard to understand. They often seem to think this is all merely a matter of using politically correct language. They argue, for example, that they themselves do not use the ‘stigmatising’ term ‘mental illness’; or, even if they do, they do not believe in ‘pathologising’ patients or clients. They have, they say, a ‘biopsychosocial’ model of ‘mental health’. They do not see that Szasz’s is a fundamental critique of the concepts of ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental health’ as inseparable components of a mystifying and invalidating metaphor. The attempt to cling to the clinical-psychiatric approach while signalling that one has in some unspecified way progressed beyond it was exemplified when President Obama spoke of ‘mental health illnesses’.

The most advanced psychiatric conferences perpetuate this confusion. Well-meaning, hardworking professionals show charts of the waiting times from ‘time of referral’ for ‘service users’ who are said to be ‘experiencing psychosis’ or a ‘mental health crisis’. They report the provision of ‘secure service’ for certain of those so-called ‘service users’: i.e., locking them up and forcibly ‘treating’ them. It is striking that even Open Dialogue advocates often use the same passive jargon of ‘referral’ by others and the attribution that the ‘referred’ person is ‘experiencing psychosis’ rather than having ‘psychosis’ attributed by others.

You may not agree with this assessment, but the heart of these seminars is dialogue, and you will be listened to (and no doubt argued with!) with respect and courtesy if you maintain, to adapt the words of one professor of psychiatry, that Szasz was popular as a sixties kind of guy, an anti-establishment rebel where the facts he distorted were not a problem for the political force of his claims; any smidgin of value he could have had is long eclipsed, and, except as a trip down memory lane, I can see no reason whatsoever why he deserves a [seminar] like this, even a mixed one with opposing views. Dr. Szasz is simply no longer worth it.’

Five close friends and colleagues of Thomas Szasz will participate in today’s seminar: Anthony Stadlen (conductor), Jeffrey Schaler (co-conductor), Tomi Gomory, Keith Hoeller, Richard Vatz.

Jeffrey A. Schaler is an existential psychoanalyst in private practice since 1975; former Professor of Justice, Law, and Society at American University; author of Addiction is a Choice (2000); editor of Szasz under Fire: The Psychiatric Abolitionist Faces his Critics (2004), and co-editor of Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and His Ideas (2017). He produced and owns www.szasz.comHis website is He received the Thomas S. Szasz Award in 1999 and the Thomas Szasz Award of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights in 2002. Professor Schaler conducted Inner Circle Seminar No. 132, Addiction is a Choice, on 12 October 2008, one of the best attended of all the seminars so far. He co-conducted Inner Circle Seminar No. 188, Thomas Szasz: In Memoriam, on 3 March 2013 and Inner Circle Seminar No. 234, Thomas Szasz: 65 Years of Writing: 1947-2012 on 12 March 2017.

Tomi Gomory is Associate Professor at Florida State University College of Social Work. He is co-author of Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs (2013). He is also a researcher, and author and co-author of many papers, in a number of fields, including evidence-based medicine and its limitations when applied to mental health’; madness and mental illness’; social work and its relevance to mental health’ provision in Hungary; and coercion in the social services.

Keith Hoeller will join us from Seattle, USA, where he was Professor of Philosophy for many years. He edited the Review of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy from 1978. He received the Thomas S. Szasz Award in 2002. He is one of the very few authorities on both Szasz and Heidegger. He edited Thomas Szasz: Moral Philosopher of Psychiatry (1997), translated Heidegger’s  Elucidation of Hölderlins Poetry (2001), and contributed a chapter on Szasz to Existential Therapy (ed. Barnett, L. and Madison, G., 2012).

Richard Vatz is tenured full Professor of Rhetoric and Communication at Towson University wherein he has served for 45 years. He received the Thomas S. Szasz Award in 1993. He received many awards from Towson University. He is co-author of Thomas Szasz: Primary Values and Major Contentions (1983), co-editor of Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and His Ideas (2017), and author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model (new edition, 2019)He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and blogs.

Your contribution to the dialogue will be warmly welcomed.

To mark Thomas Szaszs centenary a list of some of the better known psychiatric prisoners can be seen here:

Locked Up: ‘Patients’ and their Gaolers. For the centenary of Thomas Szasz (15 April 2020)

This will be an online seminar, using ZOOM.

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £132, others £165, some bursaries; payment must be made in advance by bank transfer; a ZOOM invitation and instructions will then be sent; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857  iPhone: 07809 433 250
E-mail:  or:
For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and universities.

No comments: