Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 23–30 | Cite as

‘Missing persons’: technical terminology as a barrier in psychiatry

  • Ciaran Clarke
Review Article


Several fields contributing to psychiatric advances, such as psychology, biology, and the humanities, have not yet met to produce a cohesive and integrated picture of human function and dysfunction, strength and vulnerability, etc., despite advances in their own areas. The failure may have its roots in a disagreement on what we mean by the human person and his or her relationship with the world, for which the incommensurate language of these disciplines may be partly to blame. Turns taken by western philosophy over the past 400 years may help to explain this. Language is such an important tool for psychiatrists, that examination of it may afford an insight into the reasons for divisions in the field. This paper aims to examine and compare psychologies (and hence psychiatries) derived from modern western philosophy, with similar concepts in other cultures, through the study of developments in terminology, in terms of the simplest facts about what it means to be human. Terminology used in mental health in western cultures is examined, with particular consideration of the term “self” as it has come to be used in a technical sense. Analogous terms from non-English speaking European languages, and some non-western cultures are studied. Western philosophy and psychology have evolved a meaning for the term “self” which is quite different from equivalent terms in non-western cultures. It is a moot point whether or not the development in western psychiatry of what are now technical terms to describe normal human experience has become needlessly obscure and ambiguous. It is not evident that this “new” language represents a genuine advance in understanding; it distances mental health professionals from those who are not familiar with it; and it makes transcultural dialogue difficult.


Psychological theory Terminology Medical philosophy Humanities 



The help of Meng Ren, Dr. Pat Gorevan, and Dr. Nishas Shirsat is gratefully acknowledged.

Conflict of interest



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Barringtons HospitalLimerickIreland

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