Retreat from the Social: a review of Hegel’s Theory of Madness by Daniel Berthold-Bond, Suny Press, 1995

I read some Hegel in a reading group a few years ago and was bowled over by it. So I was excited to find a book that analyses Hegel’s ideas about the nature of madness, and wanted to review it even though it was written 20 years ago.

Hegel may not have been the first to have made this point, but for me his writing brings home, more clearly than any other thinker, the intrinsically social nature of human thought and existence. For Hegel, we come to be the fully formed and self-conscious beings that we are through our interaction with the external world, an interaction that we make sense of through the concepts (language) we inherit from our social community. Only when we recognise the independent existence of something outside of ourselves do we begin to fully comprehend our own individual existence. We recognise ourselves as ourselves only in as much as we stand face to face with the world, and especially with other beings like us. And we derive the tools for this learning from the society we are born into.

Hegel’s great book the Phenomenology of Spirit traces the journey of human consciousness from a kind of ‘state of nature’ in which we can barely differentiate ourselves from the world around us, to the mature, rational human consciousness of the modern era that recognises itself simultaneously as a self-determining individual and as a part of the collective human ‘spirit.’ In Phenomenology of Spirit, the journey takes place in part through history, with successive historical periods producing ever more evolved forms of consciousness, but it is also to some extent a journey that each individual embarks on from infancy to adulthood. The social and historical circumstances into which someone is born may determine the ultimate state of rationality they can reach, but for everyone there is development from an infantile state of undifferentiated self-absorption and dependency to a self-reflective state in which the individual is able to differentiate between the self and his or her world.

Hegel was a rationalist and an optimist. He was writing in the first half of the 19th century, when the French revolution, industrialisation and the beginnings of modern science held out the promise that people could radically transform their natural and political environment for the better. Widespread disillusionment with modernity, of the sort Nietzsche expressed later in the century, had not yet set in. Despite his criticisms of the French revolutionary Terror, and of the poverty inherent in the emergent capitalist system, Hegel was enthusiastic and optimistic about the process of development of human thought. Hegel is aware, however, that the path of this development is not easy. It is riddled with contradiction and dissatisfaction. It is only through overcoming these obstacles that humankind can reach its full potential, and come to exist in a state of harmony with the world.

Daniel Berthold-Bond’s book, Hegel’s Theory of Madness was published in 1995, and summarises Hegel’s views on madness as set out in various works. Essentially, Hegel views madness as a return to a pre-rational state of being. The self tries to cut itself off from the social world of shared meaning and rationality, and entrenches itself in a private internal world, the “life of feeling” (Hegel, 1978, section 408). This retreat is a response to the inevitable sense of alienation that the self encounters as it tries to grapple with the ‘otherness’ of the world. For Hegel, therefore, madness is a possibility that is inherent in the development of consciousness, because of the pain and frustration involved in its evolution towards a fuller, more developed state.

Berthold-Bond brings out the similarities between Hegel’s view of madness as a retreat to a pre-rational state, and Freud’s concept of the ‘unconscious.’ Both are realms dominated by instincts and feelings, in which the norms of rational thought are forgotten and discarded. For Hegel and Freud, withdrawal into this mode of thought is pathological and undesirable. In contrast, for Nietzsche, the world of private feeling is the more genuine state of being, and the civilised world of conventions only represses the unique creativity of the human spirit.

Freud also believed that the repression of instincts necessary for harmonious social existence, meant that humanity was doomed to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. For Hegel, although the path of the development of consciousness is challenging, the endpoint is a state of greater fulfilment, in which drives and feelings remain present but are successfully sublimated. For Hegel, each successive mode of rational thought incorporates but surpasses its previous forms, and hence the characteristics derived from our basic biological nature are not repressed as Freud and Nietzsche would have it, but become more socially integrated.

Thus Hegel presents madness as a state of social withdrawal from an alienating environment, which plays an integral part in his overall description of the trajectory of human thought. Hegel has little to say about the causes of madness in individuals – that is why some individuals should succumb to this state while others do not – but much to say about why madness should exist in the first place. The contradictions and challenges inherent in the evolution of thought create a constant desire for a simpler world of internal unity and certainty. Madness is therefore in Berthold-Bonds words “a logically necessary potentiality of spirit” (Berthold-Bond, p 50).

Rather puzzlingly, in the last chapter Berthold-Bond equates this view with the idea that madness is a bodily disease, and so contrasts Hegel’s theory of madness to the views of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault. He characterises the latter as ‘labelling’ theorists, and appears to believe they both viewed madness as a phenomena that is entirely socially constructed. It is the notion of madness as a disease that is socially constructed, according to these thinkers, however, not the phenomena itself. Szasz referred to the various states that are labelled as mental illness as ‘problems of living,’ but he paid little attention to their phenomenology, and Foucault too was interested in the history of the silencing of madness, rather than its content.

As now, there were contrasting views on the nature of madness in Hegel’s time, with empiricists and somatists arguing for the bodily nature of the condition, psychics arguing for the autonomous existence of the psyche and Romantics, presaging Nietzsche, seeing madness as a return to a privileged state of nature. As might be expected from a philosopher of unity, Hegel did not come down on any one side of these debates, but tried to incorporate elements from all. He was keen to stress the interdependence of body and mind and that nature, or the body, is the “presupposition” of the mind (Hegel, 1970, Introduction). He referred to madness as a “disease of body and mind alike” (Hegel, 1978, section 408), and drew comparisons between the way the mind becomes deranged in madness and what he saw as the essential nature of bodily disease.

It is difficult to reconcile Hegel’s ‘ontology’ of madness as Berthold- Bond calls it, and a simple disease theory of mental disorder, however. A withdrawal from the alienating world of otherness, with which we must struggle to develop our full human identity, is an understandable reaction, a meaningful, if in Hegel’s view, self-defeating response. Indeed, in many ways, Hegel’s views prefigure the phenomenology of madness that R.D. Laing presents in The Divided Self. For Laing too, madness was a meaningful response to the ‘ontological insecurity’ or anxiety produced by interaction with other people. Madness occurs when there is a failure to integrate the social self with the private internal self, leading the ‘real’ self to split off into the world of fantasy, increasingly disconnected from the external world. Laing certainly did not see this view as compatible with the idea that madness is a bodily ‘disease’ in the way we normally use and understand that term.

Hegel’s view of the treatment of madness is also hardly consistent with a straightforwardly medical approach. Although he did not disapprove of physiological interventions entirely, he was convinced that only psychological strategies could address the fundamental basis of madness. The ‘therapist’ must engage with the remnants of shared rationality that persist despite the retreat into madness, and lead the person gently back into contact with the “real world” (Hegel, 1978, section 408).

Hegel’s ideas on therapeutics were strongly influenced by Pinel’s ‘moral treatment,’ and anticipate modern movements such as the Soteria model of the treatment of psychosis ( His idea of the essentially asocial nature of madness seems to me to make good sense for the most severe problems, at least. It also provides a philosophical basis for a truly humanistic approach to helping those who, for whatever complex combination of reasons, sink into a state of mental estrangement.

With thanks to Meade McCloughan for advice on aspects of Hegel’s work and ideas.


Berthold-Bond, D. 1995, Hegel’s Theory of Madness State University of New York Press, New York.

Foucault, M. 1965, Madness and Civilisation Random House Inc., New York.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1970, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature (Tr A.V. Miller) Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1978, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind (part III Encyclopaedia) (Tr W. Wallace) Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1979, Phenomenology of Spirit (Tr A.V. Miller) Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Laing, R. D. 1965, The Divided Self Pelican Books.

Szasz, T. 1970, Ideology and Insanity; essays on the psychiatric dehumanization of man. Anchor Books, New York.

12 thoughts on “Retreat from the Social: a review of Hegel’s Theory of Madness by Daniel Berthold-Bond, Suny Press, 1995

  1. Pingback: Retreat From the Social: a Review of Hegel’s Theory of Madness - Mad In America

  2. The ‘therapist’ must engage with the remnants of shared rationality that persist despite the retreat into madness, and lead the person gently back into contact with the “real world” (Hegel, 1978, section 408).

    ‘Gently’ does it, for a moment I must have a foot in both worlds but always convey my belief in the safety of moving into the ‘real world’.

  3. Pingback: El retiro hegeliano | FENOPATOLOGICA

  4. Nothing new. Schizophrenic states can be described as alienated, withdrawn, autistic, and with archaic thought processes, which are characterized my seemingly irrational symbolic language. Psychology of the Unconscious, by Jung is quite a good read on the subject. This all is related to libido economy, for withdrawn states were early termed self-erotic or narcissistic. Reich talks about non-muscular flight, in search of refuge in the ego, which occurs when muscular flight is not possible in traumatic, stressful situtations. I find it frustrating that psychoanalysis is never mentioned, when in my view no other therory parallels its accomplishments.

  5. I come across this blog, in discussing the issue of anti-psychotic drugs to treat schizophrenia and related psychosis with a friend. Both my friend and I are 55 year old males diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in middle age.

    I find your most recent article to be reeking of academic and common sense truth of what it means to be a human being.

    Both of us (my friend and I) are very successful in academics in earlier life with of course the social challenges that go along with a life spent in mechanical cognition moreover than social cognition activities in flesh and blood life.

    My short lived so-called psychotic break comes in my early twenties as is common after folks with extremely high measures of standard IQ, reach around 14 or 15 years of school and related social stresses that with a School House of 2000 or so closely packed human primates is an inevitable reality; particularly for those viewed as way out of the norm, in terms of developing the most important human evolving social animal intelligence of physical/emotional intelligence in overall social cognition, in successful living and thriving as a social animal who is ‘normal’ will naturally do with flesh and blood practice, practice, practice; not unlike hawks who practice flying who rarely fall out of the sky or monkeys who swing from trees who rarely fall out of trees.

    Practice is required in all stuff animal to keep from falling down as a general metaphor of existence, too.

    Well Yes, use or lose it applies, as in all stuff specifically human animal, ranging from quadriceps to the emotional human heart that connects with the emotional contagion of affective empathy and learns cognitive empathy by days, months, years and decades of real life trial and error human flesh and blood verbal and nonverbal reciprocal social communication, in PRACTICE.

    Spend a life winning academic rewards by using mechanical cognition for a decade and a half, or so, in this way of life of sitting still, prescribed by human abstract written language, collective intelligence, and complex cultures that house millions of folks in one city as opposed to human being’s naturally evolving capacity for connecting to 150 to 200 sets of other eyes and what ‘we’ get is pure insanity for an extremely empathic species of primate that is still evolving to innately, instinctually and intuitively live in relatively small tribes to move invisibly with mind and body balance in nature to escape predators and capture prey; not unlike our other hairier cousins of which the Bonobo is the closest and overall a much more, in effect and AFFECT, loving and caring species than what human beings manifest now in global cultures, overall.

    Standard IQ, is more or less a developing product of 10 to 12 thousand years of post agrarian culture.

    Humanity’s IQ, as innately, instinctually and intuitively gifted by practicing flesh and blood life, is as old as life itself.

    The ability to succeed in school, is a trap of cultures attempting to make machines out of humans where ‘we’ walk with repressed and oppressed emotions on tight concrete sidewalks that are most definitely required literally and as a metaphor to control large populations of human beings that are simply not evolving to live in groups of humans that large without strict controls in repressing and oppressing innate, instinctual and intuitive human animal behavior.

    The reason for my so-called psychotic break in the third year of college is simple and common sense. I have a very difficult time gaining social acceptance as a person with literally ‘retarded’ (slow) social cognition; Having no idea then that physical and emotional intelligence is the most important type of intelligence and most everything else I am championing in school is to make me a productive cog in a complex society to keep it working well enough to work; with all the other cogs.

    I finally get the heart brain horsepower to get the social stuff figured out with all the straight A’s to get accepted enough to meet that most important need of human being for survival in acceptance by the tribe at hand for the instinct that tells us this is a do or die scenario for our overall survival as a socially cooperative animal.

    The Junior College I go to is small and local, retaining a few of those accepting social friendships of people who have gotten use to my social/physical/emotional ‘retarded’ intelligence.

    The bigger college is a new challenge where I have no old friendships without the excellent tools of social cognition the other social animals have practiced without the top of the class grades I have on my resume, to effectively and affectively make friends with a new group of social animals at school.

    So yeah, I continue to practice my straight A’s and have no idea how to make friends, become weaker in social cognition skills, as yes, lose it or lose it continues to apply, and eventually I become colder inside and more like a text book than a human being, so one day a surge of social energy comes; yeah probably epigenetic induced change in neuro-chemicals and neuro-hormones to save my Grinch weak heart of emotions, expressed emotions as spirit, and a soul that is then trapped in a head, way out of the physical and emotional intelligence of emotional regulation and sensory integration that makes mind and body balance a reality in flesh and blood life.

    My human innate, instinct, and intuition of life as old as it exists as life itself, finally overrides 12 thousand years of travel away from what we even are as humanity or as social animal in general.

    That part of me says F culture; go to the beach; escape this S, before it kills you.

    So yeah, the part of me that is beyond this ego construct of what cultures says I must think and do for survival FEELS ME ahead to escape.

    So then, at age 21, I just start walking the beach; my footprints grow longer, until there is no more human culture in view of humans or condos behind me; and that nature that has always lives in me arises again; and I am reborn as human again; hoping and grasping a straw to survive as what I feel is me but cannot put into human words, adequately then.

    I honestly feel like I am GOD; but no; NOT THAT CRAP IN SUNDAY SCHOOL about some dude that is an only son of GOD. I feel like I am a part of everything and not a separate COG in a machine.

    And honestly, as a Gillberg Criteria type Asperger’s person with an Hyperlexic language delay until age four that my Psychiatrist takes note of and eventually part of why he bumps me into the U.S. diagnostic criteria PDDNOS part of the Autism Spectrum then; when I am age three I look across the river front where i live then; and feel this Universal Nature of GOD inside me, outside me, above so below, and all around me.

    I feel I have been here with no beginning and no end; as yeah, well, after all, with my ‘Big Bang’ brain now, if that is the case for an origin of all that is; there can be no break in the chain of events from beginning to now that results in my existence now; so yeah, everything I need to feel about GOD for 100% faith in GOD, I feel then, and now, without any words, church or school at all.

    And yeah, attempting to relate this to psychiatrists after I spend a somewhat manic three days pondering all of this in my escape away from insane culture, is a big mistake, as that is a textbook definition of psychosis when folks find out they are part of GOD and the same who attempt to tell someone about it in the psychiatric profession, when they have a big smile on their face and bliss of peace coming to this innate, instinctual, and and intuitive awakening and enlightenment in life; that is no big deal in Eastern Philosophies and will be rated as totally normal over there.

    But no, not in a culture where humans are viewed as textbooks instead of real flesh and blood feeling beings, with a whole history of insane culture and social stresses and abuse as dark wind behind their back.

    All of they can see of me, then, is deluded psychotic words that I am part of this whole dam thing of all that is that is GOD.

    And so yeah, they they try to force drugs on me; and eventually a community leader who can vouch for who I am before this break into common sense, gets me out of a place of drugs that quickly makes me into a Zombie who cannot function at all.

    I am just a few days away from getting sent to a State Asylum before that; and instead do escape drug free, eventually receive three college degrees, go on to a successful 25 year career with government service with all my Autism Spectrum challenges in tow.

    And then I am continue to get moved up the Peter Principle ladder of success, until one day my newly found social abilities no longer are great enough to meet social demands to fill the bill of reciprocal social communication efficiency at work, and that severe and chronic fight or flight stress eventually leads to 19 medical disorders, including the worst pain known to mankind, type two Trigeminal Neuralgia during all waking hours for close to 66 months, where the pain is actually assessed as literally worse than crucifixion in medical literature for that disorder, and in my case this dentist drill like face pain with no novocaine is in my right eye and ear making effective use of hearing and seeing almost impossible with pain.

    And yes, other stress exacerbated issues include Dysautonomia, Sjogren’s Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Severe Degenerative Arthritis and Stenosis in my Spine, PTSD, Severe Depression, Anhedonia, Severe Anxiety; all intertwined with the experience of years of chronic human stress, and more specifically SOCIAL STRESS.

    And YES, modern science now illustrates well that Chronic Stress over years will destroy all major body systems and can lead to a premature death.

    Anyway, the good news is I am healthy, stronger, and happier, and more productive than ever before, in what I do now in creative, artistic, social cognition activities of life; including an approaching four thousand miles in dance walk everywhere I go in public now, with my wife who loves to shop, over the span of two years of recovery from 66 months of shut-in illness stuck in a bedroom, more or less.

    The point is I am human now, living in an Insane Asylum of all of culture, as it currently exists in the deep Red State south; but hell no; no longer trapped, as for all practical intents and purposes I am NEO, Buddha, Jesus, Lao TZU, or any other indigenous human being that never falls into or escapes this Insane Asylum served up as culture on a platter from birth.

    The only thing that truly saves my human heart, spirit and soul, is incredible illness that no doctors can do anything for with any kind of drug for pain, allowing me and giving me no choice but to escape modern westernized culture.

    As with all other animals, I innately, instinctually and intuitively find the cure through mind and body balance.

    And I am here to ‘tale’ you now in words of Light and Truth; that i ain’t insane baby; and modern westernized culture, overall, is, truly Insane living mostly, in the DARK OF DEATH in Life; wittingly or not.

    And seriously, with half the nation on some kind of pain killer in the U.S., about a third of school age children assessed as type two pre-diabetic, and sky rocketing prescriptions of psychotropic drugs to fix a human who is living dead in life, with incredible somatic pains and emotional numbness as a result of repressing and having their human emotions oppressed by others; emotions becoming those somatic pains; why should anyone doubt this; but never the less they do.

    ‘They’ live in a real matrix, and perhaps one day they too, will save their selves in terms of all natural human heart, expressing that heart, as WELL in a balanced mind and body soul with emotional regulation, sensory integration; and much better cognitive executive functioning in focus and short term memory working like a finely tuned Human Ferrari as flesh and blood FEELING AGAIN.

    Anyway, answers to life are in disappearing human footprints on sands of all natural beach life.

    And no, I am no one special; most everyone else who has brought this message to the rest of the tribe has either been described as insane or a mythological man or woman GOD.

    So I relate it in every poetic way I can; and in all the multi-media ways that modern technology assists in as greatest artistic creative view of what human being can do.

    And every once in a while, i lay it all out like this, in more or less logical terms; when no one is really listening but folks like you, who seem to have a little more insight than the average COG in the machine of textbooks and school.

    This is truly a beautiful life for those who finally ‘hear’ it, ‘see’ it and most importantly FEEL IT.

    So sad that some human beings truly never even live, and are worried about what happens after they die.

    And we call ourselves the apex predator; Apex Blind Apes is closer to the truth. A run of the mill Bonobo understands and most importably FEELLS life in moving connecting and creating better than most CEO’s and Leaders of so-called free nations. Perhaps Obama is an exception; am still studying him; Smiles.

    And don’t worry, this is just a quick and wordy visit, I will not come in the future to drown your blog with words like this in the future.

    As Part of my Autism Spectrum Hyperlexic form of Gillberg Criteria Asperger’s syndrome, I read 10 to 15 times faster than the average human being and as a life long pianist with horrible dysgraphic handwriting , I have the fortune of typing around 130 words a minutes, when properly focused; so this is just a sigh for me.

    Extremely High IQ can be a gift or curse. I keep the gift and spit out the curse.

    Smiles, and have a nice day friend. I come here innately, instinctually and intuitively, and I shut the door here now, in a continuing Heart expressing Spirit of Unconditional Tough and Passionate Love as Human Soul, with mind and body balance in harmony and FEELING CONNECTION with the rest of Nature AKA GOD.

    It is what people like me through history have always done, walking through villages, towns, and cities, clothed in hidden and expressive eyes of GOD OF ALL THAT IS..:)

    AND YEAH, AGAIN I am ‘smart’ enough to feel that GOD exists with 100% faith as God is me and GOD is YOU AND GOD IS us; SOME folks think they know it; some folks think they don’t know it; and there is feeling it 100%, with no doubts at all.

    Imagine life with zero illusory fears and zero illusory anxiety; able to do amazing things that none of your peers can do. I evidence that my friend and share this heaven of now with the world, online.

    The philosophers of old are the real wise men as well as the philosophers of new with the same basic human Universal ALL Natural experience of living in balance with the rest of Nature as evolving now AKA God..:)

    Anyway, your blog here helps inspire these words of analysis my friend, and I thank you for that as a lifelong friend, whether or not I ever see your face or speak to you again; as that is just the natural evolving human WAY OF BEING now, when no longer separate from the the rest of THAT..:)

  6. Thank you for bringing this to me.

    “Hegel has little to say about the causes of madness in individuals – that is why some individuals should succumb to this state while others do not”

    Another way to view madness is as reaction to social alienation. This reaction being one of introspection and regression which results in the person going too deep in the mind and becoming overwhelmed by its content.

    Anyone that has more than one offspring can testify that you do not get a blank slate. You are pre-programed before you arrive here. Could all these patients talking about thoughts being put in their minds be trying to rationalize a time of programing. We are even programed to.self program. “You have got to learn from your mistakes”. Well not everyone got that program.

    The programing may be good or not but the more you understand how you are programed the less robotic you are.

  7. Pingback: Philosophy Blog 7: So what is mental disorder? Part 1 Reasoning and meaning | Joanna Moncrieff

  8. Pingback: Online Philosophy in Public Spaces Grimsby: “Is there such a thing as madness?” – Thursday 25th November 7:30 – 9:30pm – Philosophy in Public Spaces Grimsby

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