The purpose of Liah Greenfeld's Mind, Madness and Modernity (2013) is to make evident that

*culture is an empirical reality of the first order in human life, what makes us human and defines human experience.

*madness in its new form—the big three of contemporary psychiatry—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression—was brought about by nationalism, the cultural framework of modernity, our secular, egalitarian, essentially humanistic and democratic world, insisting on the dignity and creativity of man and the value of human life. The other side of the coin, proof that benefits have costs.

Her life has been devoted to the scientific explanation of human social reality, a kind of meta-Marx, taking the psychological road, not the messy political economic one that consumed Marx's life.

Madness and nationalism play off each other, a two-way street. Nationalism implies man as an autonomous egalitarian agent. It implies popular sovereignty and thus democracy as a logical end. (Vs Russian Orthodox and the Muslim Khalifate where nationalism and religion are fused). Really just the latest version of tribal consciousness, with a legal system. It fuels madness, which in turn has fueled nationalism's most destructive passions, in the 20th c and now 21st c, threatening apocalypse even as I write.

It costs western governments more than heart disease and cancer. It accounts for 90% of suicides which are increasing. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 25-34 year olds, third for ages 15-24. It is more disturbing for family/ friends than cancer. In 2004, depression, schizophrenia, etc affected 20% of Americans at some time in their lives. The US is #1 globally in production of madness.*

Greenfeld, 'the most iconoclastic of contemporary sociologists', Professor of Political Science, Sociology and Anthropology(!) at Boston University, has staked out a new paradigm for studying madness, connecting the mind and its symbolic environment:

*The mental process on the individual and collective levels (mind and culture) are really one (mind is culture, culture is mind), discerning the very mechanisms of causal chains in human affairs.

*Whatever aspect of human reality we study (economy, politics, religion, family) the causes and effect are always symbolic, i.e., cultural, but the mechanisms of causality are psychological—they occur on difference levels of our personal realities. Animals (other than a few domesticated grey parrots) can only use signs. (Alion cub sees human with a camera then a gun. Only the latter registers as a danger sign.)

Greenfeld also looks at how mental disease has shaped modern culture, from Shakespeare to Marx, celebrated by Romanticism (vying with its rival Enlightenment rationalism), which engenders madness which further fuels Romanticism. And reason is no cure, but rather part of the disease which led to Romanticism in the first place. The epidemic of chronic mental illness is an endictment of modern society.

Where to begin?

Greenfeld traces the birth of the idea of the nation to 16th c England. This idea, she argues, was brought about by the historical accident of the Wars of the Roses which just happened to take place as England was becoming more secular, less feudal and which created a vacuum in the upper strata of English feudal society leading to an unprecedented amount of upward social mobility. Such upward mobility was a new, bewildering (anomic) event, yet a positive experience for many. It required some new justification because it could not be made sense of within the framework of their previous—feudal—consciousness.

At that time, the word nation meant the elite. The new English definition of the English people as a nation (the word people was, at that time, defined as the lower classes), elevated the entire population to the dignity of the elite. With this definition, our distinctly modern world was brought into being. Nationalism, fundamentally, is the equation of the people with the nation. It destroyed the traditional social hierarchy, promising a new egalitarian identity as a citizen with a claim to a national identity.

It makes dignity the experience of every member of a nation. Once one experiences dignity, it cannot be given up. The fundamental equality of national membership also implies an open and inclusive social stratification which encourages all people to mobilize and to play the active political and cultural role formerly played only by the elites. All this proved too much to handle, and the result was madness, the English malady, later dubbed the Gaelic malady, French, and finally Americanitis, in each successive wave of industrialization.

To solve the modernity puzzle requires a new paradigm. What we have now is scientism, the lowest-common-denominator of the mind-body duality. Not only is there no god, no spirit, no soul. It seems we don't have anything at all worth studying about humans other than the physical body, which includes a complex brain producing 'thoughts' which are not really that important to science as they have no material existence, so they can be ignored. But at our own peril.

Greenfeld dismisses this reductionist solution to the mind-body problem. Thoughts are important, in fact, the most important thing about humans, the only thing we know we have (thank you Descartes!). A science that can't account for them is not a human science at all. As for objectivity, impartial observations of reality, that is nonsense, as all human activity is symbolic (nonmaterial), all human knowledge and expression is subjective, processed by not just the physical body, but the mind. Oh, and atheism is a belief, an assumption, too.

So first we must accept that there is something unaccounted for. The brain is not just another organ in the body. It is where all the thoughts come from. These conscious thoughts are as real as the neural activity with which they are correlated. The mind, soul, spirit, whatever. Symbolic culture transforms and expands the biological mind, making it a far more complex and dynamic entity that reforms and reconfigures itself, ever emerging anew in relation to changing environmental events. Greenfeld is not big on the soul or spirit (my favorite version is by Socrates: the soul is the chariot driver pulling one dark and one light horse (passion vs reason, spirit)), but recognizing the mind as transcending the body-brain is a good beginning.

Levels of reality, structure of consciousness

Following Aristotle, Greenfeld regards reality heuristically on three levels: the physical organic layer, the organic layer of life, the symbolic layer of culture with the mind superadded. Each has its own logic. Higher level biological and symbolic systems are logically consistent with biological and physical laws but autonomous. Both upper layers have emergent properties, irreducible to the lower layer. Shakespeare's Love is not love makes perfect sense on the cultural level. Consciousness is emergent. Greenfeld argues both life and the symbolic processes occur simultaneously on the collective and individual levels, as life, mind and culture. Mind is culture in the brain, individualized culture, culture is collective consciousness.

Operational logics must be appropriate to context. By definition this gives us a measure of 'free will'. The autonomy of human consciousness means it is up to the (acting) self to decide which symbolic tack to take. Culture-based logics are subjectivities. Unlike in lab rats, the will rarely follows Aristotle's law of non-contradiction. Animals have no real choice, no subjectivity. They have no need for the will, self. They only respond to signs with logic, more like machines.

The mind can be seen as three structures. Self/ identity, will, the Descartes thinking I. Malfunction of the acting self (the functional system or structure of the will) means mental illness. Thought freed from the will means disintegration of the individual's mind. Schizophrenia. Our open society places the individual in control of his destiny, motivated by the new ideology of the nation where individuals are responsible for their lives, always trying to get ahead, always dissatisfied, envious of more 'successful' competitors. Totalitarian societies are ironically healthier, as there is little choice, so your limits are clear and you just make the best of situation. This is less stressful.

Consciousness lies at heart of reality. Moral truths are part of the furniture of the universe. Love makes the world go round. It was strongly affected by our open modern culture, as the epidemic of mental illness has shown. Lots of symptoms, empirical data for scientists. It is the key to unlock the scientific study of the nonmaterial reality of the mind. Right up there with gravity and evolution, the basis for a science of humanity.

Irony: the only empirical proof of anything is the proof of existence of mind (Descartes). A dog smelling a bush is a direct experience. There are no beliefs to muddy its perception. So dogs are great puzzle solvers. The same with lab rats, which are better than humans on transitive inference tests. (making logical abstract inferences based on smell). Humans are less smart (via smell) than dogs and lab rat, but can use their minds to solve almost anything logically or intuitively. Dogs and rats don't make mistakes. We perceive only what we are ready (want) to perceive. Not 'what you see is what you get' rather 'what you get (already know) is what you see (want).

Funnily enough, science has not had any luck with cracking the consciousness code. But then Ptolemy got stuck with planets doing funny things, and pre-Darwin, overzealous Christians insisted God just made everything way-back-when, and who needs pesky statistics anyway? The clincher irony is we may never be able to crack the code, just as we still don't really understand gravity or evolution. OK, Darwin sort of cracked the code of life with 'survival of the fittest', Einstein sort of cracked the code of space-time with e = m.c2, but the more we study both, the less we seem to know. Not phased, Greenfeld proposes nationalism and consciousness as pillars of 'sociological mentalism ', her very interdisciplinary science of man, out of the rubble of modern imperialism and its psychological roadkill.

Emotions: hunger vs pining

Animal sensations are primary emotions: pain, pleasure, excitement, fear, hunger/ satiation. Secondary emotions – love, joy, sadness, hate – are almost exclusively human, though wolves live in almost human packs, and affection for a dead mate reveals sorrow experienced as pain. Bears are solitary, and the only real 'love' is mother-baby.* [no predators, no monogamy]. Tertiary emotions: Guilt, shame, envy, pride, selflessness, self-respect, … Don't even mention moods. One can go on indefinitely. Again, 99% human, but with the invention of 'pets' (again, thank you England!) we can humanize especially dogs and cultivate tertiary emotional responses. Secondary and tertiary emotions are products of culture, not functional, rather teleological, historical.*

Sadly for scientism, all these emotions have the same repertoire of physical sensations as animals, so you can't prove you are 'in love' by some special chemical marker. But we can be pretty sure they don't exist in the wild. Temperamental variation is strictly defined within narrow limits. (Your cubs eaten by the new alpha male? Move on.) But cheerful is always healthier. We can only understand life in its environment. So ecology is really the overriding discipline.

In the past we studied mind and culture separately (psychology, social 'sciences'). How wrong! Humans as confused rats? The mind is as much from the brain as this review is a product of my computer. Animals carry the constitution of their society (their computers and reviews) in their genes. Humans are genetically determined, but then chart our society symbolically, constructing our culture ourselves though unconsciously, through the axiom mind = culture. The complexity of our environment is extreme. With culture, human life becomes self-sustaining, independent. Collective consciousness/ unconscious is alive, an organism with its own logic, cloaked in nations.

The infant does not need learning after 3 years. The awakening of the feeling of 'I' at that age is ontology recapitulating phylogeny. Our bodies mature to language, reason, just as in nature man evolved over thousands of centuries. By age 3, you are busy manipulating, through the imagination, information already stored in memories which you created earlier. Up to this point, you were more than a lion cub with limited signs of danger, life, mostly biological. Now, the environment is self-stimulated, created using the symbolic imagination, using mostly symbolic stimuli.

There is no flight of imagination in the lab rat. It has a biological intolerance of physical contradiction. In the human world a thing be and noot be (have and not have some quality) at the same time and usually is. Jesus is man-god. Symbols deny the law of non-contradiction. When symbols are reduced to signs (definitions, rules traffic lights), we feel their dead weight.

Einstein: as far as laws of mathematics refer to reality they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they don't refer to reality. We must navigate between numerous interdependent yet autonomous symbolic systems.


Greenfeld grew up in the Soviet Union, her grandparents devoted long-suffering communists, her parents devoted dissidents. She seems to have inherited the best of both. I would not want to think that the problem underneath it all [her grandparents' Marxists beliefs] was mental disease, that the mighty historical force we thought ruled our destinies was madness.** But she discovered that, indeed, Marx got his alienation theory, not from Hegel, but from the then-current talk of the new science of psychology and Paris's alienists, when Marx formulated his theory in 1843-4 in Paris (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1932)).

And she found evidence to rehabilitate Marx from his baleful legacy of economism and totalitarianism. In his early writings, human spirit rather than social institutions preoccupied Marx most. Re Hegel, in letter to father 1843, he equated 'activity of history' with 'that of the mind'. Life as the expression of an intellectual activity develops in all directions, science, art, private matters. The nature of the mind is just as necessary, concrete and firmly based as the nature of the body. Later consciousness is reduced to conscious awareness of material mostly economic reality, and ideas had no history, no development but were epiphenomena of their carriers' class positions.**

Marx struggled with an identity problem. A Jewish convert to German nationalism, so a de facto anti-semite. He felt a national inferiority wrt the French republican model society. It looks like he had a nervous collapse. He went to the country on a doctor's advice. Revived, he self-defined as a philosopher. His earliest published work On the Jewish question. His thoughts about alienation and his ambitious scientific project piled up in the unpublished Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts: being determines consciousness. The science of Man, human science, should be one of the natural sciences, man as an organism with a mind. ... Hegel's Phenomenology of the Mind is consistent naturalism, constituting at the same time the unifying truth of both. Only naturalism is capable of comprehending the act of world history.** He was influenced by the alienists and their patients, the talk of Paris in 1843. In 1844, he describes alienation as what today is textbook schizophrenia.


1/ of man from product. Treating one's own creation as objective reality.

2/ from fellow men and social nature. Sense of isolation as in autism.

3/ self-alienation. The I-problem. Experience of one's self or parts of one's self as alien forces no long at one's own command.

(Note how today the 'dialectic of capital' at work parallels and mimics the personal mind illnesses as we enter some new fuzzy totalitarianism.)

Private property is how everyone sees himself wrt others. A barrier dividing us built by exploitation of each other, in competition with each other. What labor does to the worker's mind: it produces intelligence—but for the worker idiocy, cretinism. [sic] Nationalism works in tandem with economic forces, producing a distorted individualism leading to self-alienation. Communism (even 'despotic' Marx stresses) tying individuals into one whole will transcend human self-estrangement. Society is the consummated oneness in the substance of man and nature, the true resurrection of nature, the naturalism of man and the humanism of nature both brought to fulfillment.

Marx recognizes that society and the individual are a dialectical unity, that subjective thought is experienced society present for itself. Thinking and being distinct but at the same time in unity. In communism man appropriates his total essence in a total manner, that is to say, as a whole man.

Communism is not primarily economic organization but the alienation of capitalism is best revealed 'behind the factory walls'. And money is the root of all evil, so banish money. Marx critiques psychology for not looking into industry the open book of man's essential powers. A psychology [that ignores this] remains a closed book, cannot become a genuine, comprehensive and real science.** Marx was inspired by the rise of madness and the new psychology which itself came into being to deal with the mental crisis resulting from nationalism and capitalism.

Shakespeare, Romantics

The Romantics romanticized mental illness as an expression of human essence, not a disabling disorder to cure, but a precious potential. Schelling's Philosophy of Nature postulates the ego as creator of its own objective reality and of the world soul as the creator of nature. Nature's spirit made visible. Mind and matter are one, the soul/spirit is the most developed natural phenomenon. Disunity between mind and nature leads to disease, the abuse of freedom.

New words were needed to meet new concepts. Modern reality arrived in the rest of the world as a translation from English. From 1600, we have shame with the the same understanding, same values as the first readers of the King James Bible, Shakespeare. Shakespeare did not mention God much (though lots of Greek gods). He saw immortality in one's work, children. Mind was not in the dictionary in 1500. It became a synonym of soul in Shakespeare, though he still used soul more frequently than mind. We aspire, i.e., to rise higher. Bettering, success.

Happiness is a new, existential state of mind. You get contentment from successes. Hap, as in happenstance or 'happy go lucky', once meant good luck. Now happiness is a state of being. It's a pure good and can be pursued. An achievement. Another inalienable right. There is no word for 'happiness' where the world is ruled by transcendental forces, kismet. There is no longing for a state of mind in bliss. We can only know if we were happy i.e., blessed by gods, after we die, standing at the Pearly Gates.

Pride (identity disturbance). Ambition (will disturbance). Passion was suffering (in Shakespeare too mostly), but now any intense emotion. Burning in hell is better than losing one's place gained on Earth. The only defense against threats of thwarted ambition was love. The capacity for third-order emotions was already in primitive man. In the past, there were freaks, exceptions, e.g., Abelard and Eloise. Now it is the democratic ideal.

The original eros, ecstatic self-transcendent desire, was not for the masses. The new romantic love is the central expression of sovereignty of the self. The ultimate passion. Romeo and Juliet. In a world of constant change, love is unchanging. Uncontrollable, not fickle, oblivious of social norms. Falling in love solves your identity problem. You find your self in another person. Shakespeare uses oxymorons to mock Romeo's love of Rosaline: bright smoke, heavy lightness, loving hate, cold fire. You must answer the call of love! Life without love is suddenly meaningless. Life with love is tragic, love sickness. A dialectical inversion making death acceptable if life is to be redeemed through love. Dangerous stuff.

Romeo is a triumphant affirmation of the new order and its self-sufficiency, though his senseless death could be hinting at the darker side of the new passions. Shakespeare was actually a bit of a prude, despite the bawdy jokes and crossdressing. Sonnet 154 is about love as the marriage of minds. Sonnet 129 on fickle love is over-the-top Puritan:

Employed no sooner but despised straight.

Past reason hunted. And no sooner had,

Past reason hated. As a swallow'd bait.

A bliss in proof and prov'd a very woe.

Before a joy propos'd. Behind a dream.

Beware equating erotic desire and sexual attraction or a spiritual being is reduced to a reptile.

All Shakespeare's great late tragedies are portraits of mental illness of the new age. Macbeth delusional, Lear demented, Othello paranoiac, Hamlet schizophrenic. Greenfeld makes a strong case. Shakespeare very likely went to Bedlam, the new scientific hospital for the strange new illness, inmates not at all like the traditional idiots, rather potentially killers and a terrible burden on families and society. Hamlet loves Ophelia but comes to her undressed, already deranged, disgusted by his mother's loveless remarriage. His will paralyzed. Lear's derangement was triggered by moving, no centered self identity. Vs Toms o'Bedlam, Edgar in disguise. Ordinary madness.

Shakespeare wrote to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. His genius for understanding the new civilization taking shape meant that doctors in the US would read him, even in the 21st c, for understanding this disease, which is no better understood than as depicted by Shakespeare, and which had increased many times over since its beginning in Shakespeare's time.

Madness lies at the root of modern English poetry, Romanticism and Marxism, but, worse, modern violent crime and our psychopathic politics. Violence before the age of nationalism was rational, natural. And very common. Animals take what they see and defend their actions by brute force or trickery. So did humans in the good old days. Genghis Khan wiped out entire populations which resisted his conquest, but not as a sadist. (There was no word for this till the 18th c.)

Murder was committed as a duty to family or society, never for the perverse joy of killing. This new-fangled rationality is 'value rationality', divorced from natural causes like starvation or tribal rivalry. By the 16th c, madness had changed the very nature of violent crime, increasing the irrational element, making actions expressive, rather than instrumental, undertaken for the sheer pleasure in inflicting suffering, which makes individual responsibility—the pivot of modern law—irrelevant to its understanding and prevention. Think: Hitler, Netanyahu ...


Madness throws a wrench into the legal machines, undermines the legitimacy of the penal system. The only real cure is prevention, medication, and radical change to the system of education. From very early, children should be taught about the nature of modern society. That the national values of freedom, equality, choice have a psychological price.

We have to control our own social self-construction, so we must know ourselves. Self awareness, self analysis of likes/dislikes, how to separate interests imposed from the outside from those from within. General education should be the focus. History, philosophy literature, civics. Not a blind emphasis on technical subjects and profession training with badly misunderstood priorities.*** A focus on economic growth will not help the West beat China when 20% of our nations are suffering from mentally illness. Lucia de Lammermoor (the proverbial fat lady) has sung her magnificent, mad aria. Hegel's owl is airbound. Modern society is exceedingly complex and our inability to cope makes us mad.

The other conclusion is that we need a science of Man, starting with comparative civilizations, looking at why the East still has much lower mental illness than the West in an age of globalization. Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, the spiritual heritage of the East, no doubt have some answers. Sadly, she ignores Islam where people have lived well adjusted lives. The new illness infects everyone in our Cosmopolitan Empire. I'm pretty sure she's against the nasty nationalism of Jews. It would be great if she spoke out, but we all know how easily careers are ruined now. 

Close to half of Americans suffer pervasive anomie, deep dissatisfaction with themselves, the English, then Gaelic, then French, then American malady, Americanitis. Secular nationalism makes us individuals, ideologues, citizen-activists in finding our identity, creating our successes. The array of choices, the remoteness of the connection between ideology and personal experience, overwhelm many and prevent healthy identity formation, paralyzing the will.

Activism becomes murder and torture. The schizophrenic delusion: the loss of understanding of the symbolic nature of human social reality and the confusion between symbols and their referents. (Kill all running dog lackeys!) The symbols themselves become objective reality, fetishes.+ In upheavals, which attract those already mentally ill, people are killed for their symbolic meaning, not for any actions. Collectivistic nationalisms (French, Russian, Nazi revolutions) encourage violent collective action. American nationalism has been ruthless, genocidal from the start.

There is no objectivity with self-consciousness, Descartes' I. But Greenfeld comes close. Despite the tragic outcome of Marx's theory in her own life, she still sees not only the trees, but many forests. In fact she could be channeling Marx. Giving him a second chance, the first time having got lost in messy politics and ugly economics, forgetting his mission to found a science of Man, experienced society present for itself, where politics and economics play a secondary role to Man's real purpose (Sorry, Darwin. We think, therefore we have a purpose!), the flowering of culture.


*pp603, 612, 81.

**pp618, 452, 455, 457.


+Marx borrowed that term from psychology too.

 See also

Harnessing human nature to save the world

Harnessing human nature Part ii: Your siblings shape your genes. For life.

Harnessing human nature Part iv: Scientific astrology

Harnessing Nature to save the world: A theory of soil



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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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