Philosophy & Madness: A Discussion with Wouter Kusters on his new book

Wouter Kusters is a Dutch philosopher and linguist from the Netherlands. He is best known for his books, ‘Pure Madness, A Quest for the Psychotic Experience’ and ‘A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking.’ The latter was translated into English in 2020 and published by MIT press and forms the basis of the interview cited below. Wouter underwent two experiences of what is commonly called ‘psychosis’, which he explores and explains through the lenses of philosophy, spirituality and mysticism. 

The interview with Dr. Kusters was conducted by James Barnes and comes from the Madness in the UK website. It begins:

“JB: Hi Wouter. Thanks so much for agreeing to this discussion. The first thing to say is that I thought your book was deeply fascinating, and I think very important. The book, as I understand it, is the culmination of a very personal journey into the belly of ‘madness,’ in which you grapple with the most basic questions of existence, and also in some sense a description of that very journey. I wonder if you could begin by saying something about the journey that you went on and how it relates to the book? 

WK: Firstly, to be clear, my journey into and through the surreal landscapes of madness was not planned, it has never been part of a research project or a guided expedition, and I did not undertake it in the clothes and mindset of an observing psychologist or analysing psychiatrist. In fact, I never really wanted to go there, and did not know of the place beforehand. However, after having been there twice, it has continued to provide spiritual, intellectual and practical fascination.

When I was a student, I had other plans. After high school, I studied linguistics and hoped to explore and engage with the world and find satisfaction and meaning in it, by just, you know, the usual practices, pleasures and fantasies of a young student. Then, this path was suddenly interrupted by an acute psychotic episode, for which I ended up in the isolation cell and endured a two-month period of obligatory confinement in a psychiatric hospital. Of course, the why-question of this psychosis was asked then, and a mix of factors — like a troubling love relationship and too much experimenting with the strong (LSD) and light (THC) psychedelics available at that time — gave provisional answers that felt sufficient for that moment. Moreover, the tentacles of the medical mental health system in the Netherlands were not at that time so all pervasive as they are today, so that I could just pick up my study again, and apart from the weekly talking sessions with a psychotherapist, I was not haunted or bothered by the prognostic spells and risk calculations of a psychiatric regime that rules by DSM discourse and psychoactive drugs.  

After the publication of this book, I took part in numerous workshops, meetings and conferences around mental health and psychiatry in the Netherlands, and the question of “what is psychosis” kept my attention. So, I decided to shift my career, stopping my academic research in linguistics, and putting all my intellectual cards down on the study of philosophy, starting from scratch, studying all the classics and modern philosophy, always with this special focus in the back of my mind: ‘What does the view of this or that philosopher on reality, on the mind, on the world imply for psychotic reality, the psychotic mind and the psychotic world?’ I was a quite fanatic student of all kinds of literature encircling such issues, but then, unexpectedly, in the hot summer of 2007, just after having submitted my bachelor thesis, ‘The experience of time during psychosis’, I became psychotic again, again ending up in the isolation cell, with two months of subsequent confinement on the psychiatric ward.  

It was as if all my knowledge about, and philosophical encircling around, the heart of madness suddenly broke a limit, gravitated to a central core, and then exploded into freeing fragments radiating outwards towards an infinity of madness, which was both abysmal as well as ecstatic at the same time. One of the odd things that happened that summer of 2007 was that the nurses and the psychiatrist already knew me from my books. I was a so-called ‘expert-by-experience,’ living it out once again. One of the psychiatrists had even written a review of Pure Madness around that time, and some of the nurses brought copies for me to sign. For me, that was beyond strange. I knew exactly what psychosis was — I was right in the middle of it — and yet I couldn’t pull myself out. The psychosis presented itself to me as an inescapable truth and reality …”

You can read more from here.

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