The Deconstructive Owl of Minerva – reviewed by Rampaul Chamba

‘The Deconstructive Owl of Minerva: An Examination of Schizophrenia through Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Postmodernism’ by Lillian Burke (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) 0069191_the-deconstructive-owl-of-minerva_300Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. From the 2nd century BCE onwards, the Romans equated her with the Greek goddess Athena, the virgin goddess of music, poetry, and medicine. She was often depicted with her sacred creature, an owl, named as the ‘owl of Minerva’ to symbolize her connection with wisdom. Lillian Burke’s title refers to Hegel’s remark in his Philosophy of Right, where he stated: ‘When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering‘[1]. Hegel is claiming that philosophy understands historical conditions as it passes away, as knowledge cannot be acquired prospectively, only retrospectively. The book’s central theses and key claims, expressed in simple terms as possible, are as follows:



  1. 1. A much wider interpretation than offered by biology and genetics, is required to explain the schizoid way of being.
  2. 2. The experience of language is common to both ‘schizophrenics’ and ‘non-schizophrenics’ and relations to the ‘other’ vary in degrees of intensity rather than difference. The intensity of this way of being-in-the-world is mainly a struggle with the phenomenon of language.
  3. 3. There is a need to appreciate the significance of the ‘other’ in the linguistic field across the disciplines of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary theory to demonstrate the negative influence of the objectifying ‘other’ on the subject. While everyone’s identity is fragmented through language, it is the schizophrenic experience which defies conventions of rationality which generates its ‘otherness’ in society. Schizophrenia is a heightened awareness of the mastery of language and an expression of trauma of consciousness upon entering the symbolic order (Lacan) whereby the notion and reality of the ‘other’ is created. Schizophrenia is a linguistic condition: ‘the ultimate expression of the fragmentary effect of language and the hidden desires of authentic subjectivity’ (p. 3).
  4. 4. Although there have been studies on the correlations between psychosis and culture, Hegel and Lacan, and schizophrenia and literature, the originality of this book lies in the application of Hegel’s phenomenology and Lacan’s psychoanalysis to the concept of schizophrenia, both as a psychiatric condition and as manifest in culture.

The key points above are organised under six Chapter headings. Chapter 1 (Scientific and Psychoanalytic Background to Schizophrenia) emphasizes how the study of schizophrenia as a linguistic struggle has burgeoned in psychiatric research which justifies an inter-disciplinary analysis of schizophrenia as having complex relations with language.

The second chapter (G. W. F. Hegel) uses Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Mind to emphasise the development of the self-conscious mind and the influence of society, history, and experience on its development in the battle between the master and slave.

The theories of Jacques Derrida are also related to Hegel’s philosophy. Jacques Lacan is the focus of Chapter 3, especially his works Écritsand The Language of the Self. This chapter, too, addresses the development of the self-conscious mind and the influence of society, history, and experience on its development in the desire of the real self to express itself through actions and the structure of language.

Chapter 4 turns to Postmodernism. The theorists, Jameson, Deleuze, Guattarai, and Lyotard and their theories of fragmentation, stream of consciousness, deconstruction of the self and language are used to illuminate the author’s philosophical approach to schizophrenia developed through literary, postmodern, psychological, and linguistic theory.

The penultimate Chapter 5 (An Interdisciplinary Examination) dwells on the theme of recognition for contemplating schizophrenia, how the narrative parameters of schizophrenia mirror the narrative parameters of postmodernism, and the internal dialogue with the ‘other’ in the experience of schizophrenia.

Chapter 6 summarizes key strands in the book. The author has also included a number of figures (pictures and diagrams) in the Appendices which help to illuminate points made in the text.

My initial zest for reviewing this book was surpassed by a gradual realisation of its complexities. Reading this book has been intellectually edifying and humbling. I found it difficult to read and even more difficult to understand but I shall return to it many times. There is much dense material to unpack and comprehend and the book has motivated me to understand the theorists referred to in various chapters much better. The difficulties I experienced, as might others, may reflect the strengths of the book. Whether one agrees with the central thesis and claims made or not, I am persuaded that this is a work of exceptional originality. I am not aware of any text which has undertaken such an ambitious undertaking using some of the most challenging and controversial commentators to theorise and elucidate the experience of schizophrenia. For this reason alone, the text deserves to be discussed and debated with rigour so that the implications of the author’s claims and its originality may be fully and critically appreciated.

Burke does not follow academic convention in stating the intended audience of her book, or which constituency might find the book to be most relevant to their professional (or personal) interests. Nor does the author suggest that a good prior understanding of Hegel, Lacan, and many other abstruse ideas and theorists, is likely to aid comprehension. This seeming indifference to the reader may encourage many people interested in schizophrenia to grapple with its contents but only the seriously engaged will read every word and ponder every point. This is, in itself, not a weakness, but rather testimony to the book’s capacity to ensnare the reader and encourage them to bite off more than they can chew. At the risk of compromising her (un)intended style, this challenge to comprehension could have been eased by providing an exposition of theorists’ ideas and key concepts before launching into an analysis of their application to the schizophrenic experience. Virtually no definitions of complex concepts are provided. The addition of a list of definitions to an otherwise extensive Appendices would add value to this book.

There appear to be a few strange inconsistencies. In the Introduction, Burke states that: ‘… I will illustrate the causes and consequences of delegating the diagnosed schizophrenic as the ‘other’ of society’ (p. 2, my italics); ‘… it is my aim to demonstrate that, through this inter-disciplinary approach, a more thorough understanding of the causes and effects of schizophrenia can be obtained….’ (p. 3., my italics). A few pages later, however, Burke states: ‘… I have researched the symptoms and their relationship to language as opposed to examining the causes of the condition’ (p. 9, my italics). This self-proscription to go no further than the ’causes of the condition’ seems perverse and misplaced. It raises the question as to what precisely Burke means by causation, given that she seems to reinstate the binary opposition between social vs. bio-medical causes of schizophrenia; that is, the very binary opposition she is keen to deconstruct in subsequent chapters.

This fuzziness about her own epistemological standpoint in relation to her own deconstruction of sociological, philosophical, and bio-medical boundaries reappears in her comments about treatment: ‘Through an examination of postmodern culture…[I shall formulate] a hypothesis for how treatment of the condition can best be approached’ (p. 2, my italics). But later, ‘As I am working in the humanities and not as a clinician, I can propose philosophical approaches to the treatment of schizophrenic symptoms, but not a treatment regime’ (p. 8-9; my italics). If my attention to these paradoxes hold any credence, questions about what exactly the author means by causation and treatment may provoke more fundamental questions about what kind of work does the author propose to be doing here, has she succeeded in accomplishing that goal, and/or has the process of writing itself yielded an unintended outcome, which she leaves to the reader to figure out. In other words, is this book a work of description, explanation, or both. Furthermore, why does Burke make these seemingly contradictory statements and appear to dread traversing social, cultural, and clinical disciplinary boundaries given her otherwise epic multi-disciplinary interrogation of epistemological (and ontological) boundaries in understanding the schizophrenic experience in the rest of the book.

There is one other anomaly which may be particularly striking to those who espouse the mental health ‘service user/carer’ voice. Burke demonstrates that it is possible to write an engaging book about schizophrenic experiences by deploying some of the most iconic theorists from an inter-disciplinary field: “the notion itself, its complexity and its tremendous chorus whose voices rise up to know the truth” (p. 1). In fact, the book contains no ‘voices rising up to know the truth’ because no voices from schizophrenics, the very people whose experiences are given meaning and intelligibility through Hegel, Lacan, and others, are included in the book. Despite Burke’s appropriation of Hegel’s famous aphorism about the ‘Owl of Minerva’ to highlight a retrospective understanding of schizophrenia, people who wish to voice the experiences of schizophrenia and other mental health conditions, are likely to argue that any such retrospective understanding must include the actual voices of whom we write and speak about.

Is this a glaring and unforgivable omission? If so, does it undermine the credibility and legitimacy of what Burke has done, or claims to have achieved in her book? Can a book which claims to write about marginalised and distressing experiences, or the ‘truth of schizophrenia’, claim to have succeeded in that task, if the voices of ‘experts by experience’ are absent? For consideration of answers to these questions and many other issues posed by the author, I recommend this book. Others interested in theorising the relationship between language and mental health and those who like skipping across disciplinary boundaries may be especially intrigued.

Reviewed by Rampaul Chamba, who is currently writing about epidemiologists’ and activists’ explanations for ethnic disparities in admission to secondary mental health services, and diagnoses of schizophrenia, among Black African Caribbean people in the UK. He has a background in health inequalities research and has contributed to mental health initiatives across government, mainstream, and voluntary organisations. Correspondence to Rampaul Chamba.

Works cited [1] G. W. F. Hegel (2001 [1821])  Philosophy of Right, Translated by S.W Dyde , Kitchner: Batoche Books.

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