Review of Testimony of Experience: Docta Ignorantia and the Philadelphia Association Communities : 2014 : Bruce Scott

by Julia Evans on July 1, 2014

Declaration of Interest: This reviewer was a member of the cartel[ii] where the author tried out his ideas, before writing. This cartel (and the reviewer) is mentioned in the book’s Acknowledgements.

Quotes from ‘Testimony of Experience’ [i]:

The result is that a sanitised version of reality is constructed, but something lies still stirring that defies the logocentrism. (p19)

The problem is one cannot really think one’s way out of one’s problems, and one cannot gain or regain good mental health like one regains good physical health from the application of medicine. That is the great myth that the psycho-technicians want to sell the public: one can get good mental health and one can be cured of mental illness. This leads us to the problematic of health. (p35)

In effect, what madness am I proposing in how I will proceed in trying to decipher interviews of people who have lived in Philadelphia Association community households? I fear I am proposing a foundationless exposition which may be regarded, at the very least from logical/empirical, qualitative and quantitive methodological vantage points, as non-sense. (p43)

“Testimony of Experience” presents over 40-years-worth of the experiences of ex-residents of Philadelphia Association communities. These were set up by R.D. Laing and others in the 1960s as a response to reductive medical and scientific theories of mental suffering. Through a philosophically informed critique of positivistic research methodology and an analysis and deconstruction of interviews with ex-residents of the PA communities, this book asks a question which attempts to regain subjectivity; is there room for wise unknowing, in mental suffering, in a world of certainty?

Included are 14 scripts of interviews with ex-residents. These testimonies are very moving and indicate a very different process to the current standard, Government-recommended model for treatments. The last words of David, who had had previous admissions into NHS psychiatric care: I feel as though I have utterly transcended the situation that I was in when I went into the house. This is also partly due to my own efforts since I came out of the house, but that made it possible for me to get onto that foothold. So the house has taken me out of the NHS care altogether.

The next chapters are titled: The unveiling and re-veiling of a research schema and ‘Docta Ignorantia’, Approaching an analysis of the interviews : The honesty of the perplexed and the honesty of perplexity, Analysis of interviews : ‘Meno’, Montaigne and ‘Docta Ignorantia’ : Coda. Quote: (p163) I am with Feyerabend (1975) and his idea of proceeding counter-intuitively (against the logical-positivist position), to be very wary of building a system or taxonomy (qualitative or quantitative) of what works and what does not work in the healing of people who live in a Philadelphia Association community house. I am proposing to out a paradox….  Nicolaus Cusanus shows how ‘finite’ thought is limited and betrays our fundamental capacities of (or for) not-knowing and the infinitude of Being that constantly get sidelined when we place finitude upon the world via our scientistic posturing.

The analysis of the interviews did not take the usual quantative path as no theory building was sought & as no objective, generalisable facts were in place. No model or theory is formed which can be applied in other contexts. Instead, Jacques Lacan’s four discourses (Seminar XVII) were applied to the interviews to distinguish some commonalities. This process produces some interesting comments on the nature of knowledge and its relationships to ‘being’ within the three groupings. What emerges is not a static model but shows the place of un-knowing. This is then related to Docta Ignoranta & to wise unknowing as in Lacan’s four discourses. Aristotle’s idea of praxis is also epitomised: carrying out an activity for the sake of doing it, not for a product at the end of a process.

(p217) This leads from R D Laing’s question: ‘Is it possible to be a human being anymore?’ to Plato (Theaetetus) : all we can do is go about our daily life in the knowledge (of not knowing) that we can never put a full stop to the sentence that is human life. However, a further argument is, and Lacan is quoted, that this not-knowing is a terror that has to be faced head on or we become mad as a result of some delusion of our own omnipotence.

The Philadelphia Association (PA) houses have survived, and are surviving under constant brutal attack, primarily on their efficacy and productivity in relation to curing people and their financial viability.

Some of the results, given in ‘Testimony of Experience’ follow:

– the PA houses try to allow an individual’s subjectivity to flourish without the demands of ideological opposition and totalisation.

– the covering-over and domination of the symbolic by Government-sanctioned discourses (DSM-5, IAPT, NICE, etc) prevents human beings from contributing to meaning-making; one’s individuality cannot ever be subsumed under such a totalising discourse as the evidence-based approach which is used widely in the UK’s mental health establishments & governmental projects.

– Evidence-based approach may be profitable in terms of neoliberal capitalistic concerns – being a productive and social human being – but such a system defies alternate ways of being, and does not itself question its own system so is alienating and imprisoning.

– suffering may be a legitimate way to discover meaning, but this takes time and patience, which is allowed within a PA house.

– Struggling to understand a new language is a form of suffering, but if the process is halted prematurely, aborting the suffering attached to learning, one will not learn or discover further.

– in PA community houses residents are allowed to encounter their own meaning and their own language and the meaning of others and others’ language.

– the PA and its houses open up a space where people can dwell and let their own subjectivity flourish, leading to their own cure.

– with regard to Government-measured happiness, it is not an object manipulated within PA houses. Instead a process leading through mystery and perplexity is shown. House therapists do not suffocate this process but allow it to happen. Residents are led to be able to know what is possible and not possible; a path back to an increasingly forgotten art of living.

In the text, these processes, always respectful of the subjectivity of the person, are contrasted with the results of current UK Government approaches and thinking.

The last paragraph sums up what has been achieved: (p227) We can only invite people to walk, and let them walk freely. The people interviewed were invited to walk; some found their feet, some better than others. To sum up what the ex-residents of PA houses convey: the importance of struggle, ordinariness, patience, the gift of being able to testify freely and Docta Ignoranta.

How this message gets heard within our current political climate and gets acted on, is I suspect a further book. The evidence from the 14 ex-residents, is a very good starting point and I hope this viewpoint gets widely disseminated.

[i] Published by PCCS Books Ltd : 2014 : ISBN 978 1 906254 64 3

[ii] The cartel was registered with the New Lacanian School,,  from 2011 to 2013. Posts from this cartel are available at D. ‘The Symbolic in the 21st Century’ working group (LW WG) category (See right hand column) : or here