‘A Philosophy of Madness’ Book Forum: Part Two

Emma McCabe reviews A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking (The MIT Press, 2020) by Wouter Kusters (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier).

This is Part Two of a Book Forum on A Philosophy of Madness. The Forum consists of four reviews and a reflection from the author.

For Part One by Jeremy Spandler, click here.

For Part Three by Becki Smith, click here.

For Part Four by Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, click here.

For Part Five by Wouter Kusters, click here.

Wouter Kusters’ A Philosophy of Madness pursues the question of a philosophy of psychosis whilst simultaneously presenting an evocative case for the psychosis of philosophy. In Kusters’ analysis, philosophy and psychosis become inextricably bound through mutually reinforcing madness, as his philosophy of psychosis gives way to philosophy as psychosis and to psychosis as immersive and experiential philosophy. At this threshold, where philosophy and madness coalesce, an existential and phenomenological analysis of psychosis begins to emerge through Kusters’ own psychotic episodes. Through personal experience, Kusters argues for a reflective praxis of philosophy and psychosis, ruminating on the mystical nature of madness and the creative dynamics of the paradoxes in which he finds himself.

Kusters’ contribution to the Medical Humanities is unmistakable. The format of the text reflects the expansive and chaotic nature of psychosis, bringing together psychiatry, philosophy, autobiography, and theology, among other disciplines, to convene on the topic of madness. As such, the book interrogates many fields of thought as it works out the intricacies of madness, constructing an overarching philosophical framework that allows for the complexities of psychotic experience. By constructing a philosophy of madness outwith clinical diagnostic models, Kusters provides nuance and insight into a highly individualised experience, and further calls into question the pathological categories which Western psycho-medicines impose upon human behaviour. In doing so, Kusters admirably attempts to liberate madness from its clinical paradigm, bringing the Arts & Humanities to bear on psychiatric theory, as madness begins to find expression through boundless modes of mysticism.

Dalí, S. 1931. The Persistence of Memory. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The text is arranged fourfold, with each section pertaining to one of the Greek elements (earth, water, fire, and air). These elements stand as metaphors for the content of each chapter. Throughout the text, Kusters demonstrates the creative synergy of madness, as subjective/objective boundaries breakdown and give way to the reorientation of space, time, self, and God. The preface of the text outlines the relationship between philosophy and madness, and Kusters’ relationship to them both. Definitions of madness encompass various states of ill-health and derangement, ranging from non-specified patterns of irrationality to more recognisable psycho-medical diagnoses such as mania, psychosis, substance use, and depression, etc. At first, one might be forgiven for questioning the compatibility of madness and philosophy. The Oxford English Dictionary associates the term ‘mad’ with notions of insanity, citing 16th-century uses of the term as synonymous with ‘insane’ (mad, adj. : Oxford English Dictionary, 2021). This stems from the Latinate insānus, meaning to be unsound in body and/or mind (insane, n: Oxford English Dictionary, 2021). Philosophy on the other hand, as the pursuit of wisdom, is often associated with logic and causal thinking, which, as a discipline, can be traced back to ancient scholarship. The two may seem at odds, but as Shoshana Felman notes, “[t]he question of madness is nothing less than the question of thought itself: the question of madness, in other words, is that which turns the essence of thought, precisely, into a question” (Felman, 1975, p.206). In A Philosophy of Madness, Kusters similarly follows thought into madness and madness into thought, as paranoia becomes both the catalyst and medium for metaphysical philosophy, leading the reader further away from empiricism and rationalism and closer to the apophatic (unsayable) knowledge of mysticism. Observing the relationship between the Greek noesis, meaning to think, and paranoia, which “simply means that you have noia, plus whatever exists next to and around the noia: the para-noia” (Kusters, 2020, p.119), Kusters argues for a mystical (un)knowing by means of “para-noesis, [or] paranoia, [in which] we find ourselves in the mysterious, baroque area that encircles the noia” (ibid., p.120).

Church, Frederic Edwin. 1865. Aurora Borealis. The Smithsonian American Art Gallery, Washington D.C.

In the second chapter, Kusters’ madperson becomes the mystic, both in pursuit of and pursued by some sort of experiential truth. In his quest for this truth, Kusters’ madperson—or, rather, Kusters as the madperson (and the maddened mystical philosopher)—pursues meaning to the very limits of language and into the apophatic realm of God. At this limit, he crosses over an abysmal threshold in which the nothingness of God becomes clear and all encompassing. But unlike Nietzsche’s madperson, Kusters does not mourn the absence of God. Instead, Kusters situates madness outside the dichotomies of faith/disbelief and presence/absence, citing, “perhaps the real “crazy people” are far beyond Nietzsche’s lamentations. Perhaps they have pushed their way through that point in the mirror where “above” and “below” come together, and they have erected a new world on the other side—cold, nocturnally dark” (ibid., p.141). This nocturnal world provides illumination by what Kusters calls “black light”, a term inspired by self-given descriptions of individuals who have experienced madness as a change in light. Unlike logos or logic, which rely fundamentally on word and reason, Kusters’ black light inspires the person to see “the miracle of existence” (ibid., p.150). These miracles oscillate between the divine and the demonic for the madperson, who has lost the rhythm of everyday life, asleep to the bright and wakened world of the sun. Interestingly, at this  juncture, philosophy, literature, and religion fasten together, linguistically interweaving through Kusters’ lunar dreamscape by means of metaphor and poetry. This poetic interlace  signals the creative and infinite heterogeneity of apophatic expression, demonstrating William Franke’s conviction “that any verbal expression of the unsayable cannot but share in the gratuitous, creative nature of literary expression, or, in other words, that philosophy at this point necessarily becomes literary” (Franke, 2014, p. 4).This, I argue, is where Kusters’  madperson most parallels the apophatic mystic, both of whom cannot translate the impossibility of God nor individual experience into literal language.

Caravaggio. 1602. The Sacrifice of Isaac. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Kusters’ madperson shares similar traits with Søren Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, whose steadfast belief in the strength of the absurd places him beyond human comprehension. In retelling Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac, Kierkegaard writes, “[h]e [Abraham] believed on the strength of the absurd, for all human calculation had long since been suspended…to be able to lose one’s understanding and with it the whole of the finite world whose stockbroker it is, and then on the strength of the absurd get exactly the same finitude back again, that leaves me aghast” (Kierkegaard, 1985, p.39). Abraham, posed with the dilemma to obey God and kill his son or disobey God and save his son, finds himself in a paradox of faith by which he, as a single individual, transgresses universal law.  This position, outside of what Kierkegaard terms the universal, i.e., the Hegelian system, situates Abraham beyond language and ethics, which are expressions and conditions of the universal. If Abraham kills his son, he is a murderer in the eyes of the system, but in doing so, he acts on personal virtue as a Knight of Faith and fulfils his duty to God. This dilemma is unthinkable and without mediation, “for it is indeed this love of Isaac that is in its paradoxical opposition to [Abraham’s] love of God that makes his act a sacrifice” (ibid., p.88). As such, Abraham is at a loss to make himself understood. His faith cannot be reconciled with either the laws or language of the universal and therefore his anguish remains forever his own. Likewise, Kusters’ madperson stands in opposition to the system, desynchronising and detaching from that which would keep him bound to it. Although Kusters’ definition of the system aligns more with conspiratorial views of government, both Kierkegaard and Kusters share a common presupposition—that madness and/or faith escape mediation, and as such, are unassailable. At this threshold of faith and madness, language comes into confrontation with itself and brings finite being to the very limits of its own existence, pointing to something beyond. In this beyond, language cannot hold, and we are left with an incomprehensible absence that can never be fully grasped. Instead, this absence haunts the language of existence like a spectre, an apparition of the chaotic infinite which remains perpetually beyond the remit of all worldly description. Here, language fails the madperson and the Knight of Faith, becoming self-reflexive and perpetually annular. Coming full circle, the thread of language thus doubles back on itself, looping round like a snake eating its own tail.

Pelecanos, Theodoros, 1478. Ouroboros. Fol. 279 of Codex Parisinus graecus 2327. A copy of a lost manuscript of an early medieval tract which was attributed to Synosius (Synesius) of Cyrene (d. 412).

If one could sum up the entirety of this book pictorially as a symbol, it would be the “ouroboros” or the letter “O”. In this circular dimension, paradoxes abound, and logic falls short of breaking the circuit of madness. Insofar as the text absconds from traditional philosophy and its conventions of logic, it comes close in its aims to William Franke’s A Philosophy of the Unsayable and Andrew Hass’ Auden’s O, both of which are also concerned with the history of apophatic thought and the discoidal union of philosophy, literature, and religion. Whilst Kusters does well to incorporate neoplatonic and medieval ideas of apophaticism into his argument, more consideration of current apophatic and postmodern scholars would help to stress the immediacy and importance of his claims. Scholars such as Franke and Hass (mentioned) would further help in providing clarification for some of the more complex threads of argument and situate Kusters’ research within current academic discourse. Toward that end, considerations of the gendered history of madness would further serve to enrich and expand the ground already covered by this text. Here, Catherine Keller, Karma Lochrie, and Amy Hollywood would be beneficial in elucidating women’s contributions to apophatic theory, especially as they pertain to mysticism, madness, melancholy, and process theology. Thankfully, there is already much said and even more to be said about the unsayable. The peculiar dimension of apophatic discourse means it has no discernible beginning or end and thus we find ourselves at a new beginning each time. As Keller notes, this beginning, or rather, be-ginnan (old Teutonic, to cut up or to open), gapes wide with possibility (Keller, 2003, p.xv). In this beginning, we lose language as soon as we find it, always saying and unsaying in the vacuous epicycle. The opening caused by the beginning is therefore bottomless, but as Hass states “it is precisely because of this deep and fathomless zeroing that something other gains its possibility. The new is made available out of the nothing that centres the O, the Other, beyond, or within, what has been given” (Hass, 2013, p.17).

Overall, Kusters’ A Philosophy of Madness is a provocative but rewarding read that will appeal to both academic and non-academic audiences alike. By questioning the role that madness plays in philosophy, Kusters presents a new way of thinking about madness, especially as it relates to apophatic mysticism. The author’s candour and autobiographical accounts of psychosis make a compelling case for the central argument and accounts for Kusters’ positionality to the text. As such, it is a must read for students in the Medical Humanities, and those with particular interests in philosophy and religion.


Felman, S., 1975. “Madness and Philosophy or Literature’s Reason”. Yale French Studies, (52), pp. 206-228.

Franke, W. 2014. A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Notre Dame, Indianna: University of Notre Dame Press.

Hass A. 2013. Auden’s O. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hollywood, Amy. 2016. Acute Melancholy and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, & the Study of Religion. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Keller, C. 2003. Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kierkegaard, S. Trans. Hannay A. 1985. Fear and Trembling. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Kusters, W. Trans. Forest-Flier N. 2020. A Philosophy of Madness. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Lochrie, Karma. 1991. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philidelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Oed.com. 2021. mad, adj. : Oxford English Dictionary. [online] Available at: <https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/112000?rskey=Q3AT3J&result=5#eid> [Accessed 22 June 2021].

Oed.com. 2021. insane, adj. (and n.) : Oxford English Dictionary. [online] Available at: <https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/96605?redirectedFrom=INSANE#eid> [Accessed 22 June 2021].

Emma McCabe is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Stirling, co-supervised by the University of Glasgow. She is part of the Critical Religion Programme at Stirling and has developed a keen interest in apophatic discourse, particularly as it pertains to gender, early modern medicine, drama, religion, and science. Her doctoral work is funded by the Scottish Graduate School of Arts & Humanities, for which she is also a doctoral representative for the Theology, Religion & Divinity Discipline+ Training Catalyst. Recently, she was awarded a University of California Holstein Dissertation Fellowship for 2021/2022.

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