Mad, sick, healthy, fragile – the philosophy of experience

A while ago, I came upon a column in a newspaper in which the writer was worried about the fact that personal experience seems to be replacing facts in public discussions. The writer referred ironically to spontaneous commentators in web discussions as “experts in experience”. Experience was primarily grounded in personal opinion. In my doctoral thesis, in which I examine the concepts of ethics, social philosophy and psychiatry, I discuss issues such as the many ways in which the concept of experience can be understood and how it has been viewed in the past.

Gaining a deeper understanding of human experience forms my motivation for and the long-term purpose of my research. This involves phenomena related to social segregation and e.g. therapy practices, as well as in the categorisation of mental health problems. I am particularly interested in how the ideas of what constitutes a mad, sick, healthy or free subject has been formed based on a person’s own experiences of him-/herself and what kinds of active measures and skills the subjects bring to bear on themselves. This is essential to charting ideas on how a person’s experience of him-/herself as a social, active or e.g. external subject have been formed and have changed.

The purpose of philosophy is to question assumptions and principles. Ethically charged issues are also directly raised by research that focuses on the concept of experience: When we talk about experience, whose experience are we actually discussing? How can an individual’s experience and scientific research be related to each other? How can we introduce alternatives to our normative assumptions about experience and suggest more humane ways of examining the boundaries between health and sickness? How can we capture and conceptualise a moment that is not connected by a shared language or conceptual logic?

I received an invitation from the Mental Health Association Helmi to give a speech in Lapinlahti’s former mental hospital in the spring of 2016, on the history of insanity and the experiential nature of mental health and disorders. Because hundreds of interested members of the public attended the event, a repeat event was arranged – which attracted an even larger audience.  I have been asked on several occasions during the spring why this topic is currently so interesting. Perhaps the taboos and stigma related to mental health issues have to some extent been dispelled. Many thinkers in the history of philosophy have believed that the potential for mental illness is an ever-present possibility which concerns us all, relating to the question of human existence in general rather than presenting a clear dividing line between the normal and the pathological.

In my presentations, I have taken liberties with academic philosophy and read aloud descriptions by mental health patients that illustrate the key points at which mental health breaks down. These descriptions have been created on the basis of the subjects’ own wishes, trust and cooperation. My idea has been to capture a lived experience from the perspective of its own logic rather than medical explanations or categorisation according to diagnostic criteria. Complete silence has fallen over the auditorium at such moments. In the lectures and afterwards, I have engaged in discussions in which I have been asked: “Why haven’t I heard this before?” and “Is this kind of perspective on experience still used in treatment processes?” I think that philosophy should also involve researching and forming a conceptual framework that captures experiences at the ‘blurred points’ where analytical classifications no longer serve us.

Looking back on the lectures, I have come to the conclusion that historical research of classifications may help to distance the audience from its own context, by drawing attention to the different ways in which issues have sometimes been grouped together and interrelated. The historical perspective can, at times, make the assumptions underpinning explanatory models seem rather strange. As personal and unique as each experience is, the perspective of experience can offer the possibility to identify with another person and perhaps reduce the shame connected to one’s own sickness, or help us understand how a family member, or a patient, has experienced and formed a picture of their own situation.

Compared to various ways of defining the meaning of experience in public discussions, it is interesting that in the philosophical tradition the concept of experience has not been related purely to subjectivity or an unscientific approach – on the contrary. Since ancient times, experience has been related to the issue of scientific knowledge – indeed, modern empirical science takes experience as its starting point. Even when considering how subjectivity, i.e. one’s experience of oneself, forms, research must explore ideas of how knowledge of a person and his/her health or sickness arises. As an issue, the experience of falling mentally ill is not separate from social practices or from the question of what kinds of characteristics are considered sick or normal and what kinds of treatment processes have been deemed appropriate.

An ethical tradition based on situatedness and human experience begins with everyday encounters with people – reacting to such situations is not really based on specific moral norms or codes, but on the more complex, internalised modes of thinking and actions applied in such situations. My research examines issues such as the question of how scientific assumptions and theoretical concepts of subjectivity are viewed in treatment practices – in interpersonal relationships – and how people are viewed as subjects of scientific knowledge and methods. However, I do not intend to define what we can experience, provide a ‘freeze-frame view’ of an experience, or view people as objects of knowledge. In my research, I have paid special attention to ways of using the concept of experience that not only enable the distancing of the subject from difficult experiences, but also offer a critical perspective of the phenomena under examination.



Sanna Tirkkonen

A PhD student in Social and Moral philosophy. Sanna’s doctoral thesis explores the intersections between ethics, social philosophy and the philosophy of psychiatry. Her research investigates the various ways in which experiences can be expressed and explores ideas on ethical capabilities. Tirkkonen is interested in how ethical behaviour arises during encounters between people and how scientific knowledge is related to concrete practices and the subject’s experiences of him-/herself. For this reason, the research literature also explores themes related to the history of insanity. Tirkkonen studied interaction-related subjects in addition to philosophy at master’s-level, has worked in Paris and has spent a decade working with providers of psychiatric care in a children’s home