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Schizophrenia and Common Sense: A Phenomenological Perspective

Part of the Studies in Brain and Mind book series (SIBM,volume 12)


The purpose of this article is to develop a phenomenological understanding of schizophrenia and to affirm the existence of a corporeal self that is necessary for our “being-in-the-world” and for our common sense. This corporeal sense of self could be lost in specific psychiatric disorders. In fact, adopting an embodied approach and applying phenomenological concepts to neuroscientific, psychiatric and medical studies allows us to fully understand the complexity of the human being, a being completely rooted in his/her body and in the world. After briefly describing the role of Leib in the phenomenological tradition, I will compare the typical symptoms of schizophrenia and those of melancholic depression. Then, I will show that the symptoms that characterize schizophrenia, such as the weakness of the sense of self, the disruption of corporeal functions and the isolation of the subject from the world, could be synonymous with a disorder of an embodied self, something that psychiatrists like Thomas Fuchs and Giovanni Stanghellini have defined as a “disembodiment”. This progressive alienation of the self involves structural loss in the most important perceptual, cognitive and affective fields of human life: for this reason, a phenomenological analysis seems to be useful to the scientific approach in order to clarify how this tacit bodily structure of the self is lost and how our bodily self is central to our common understanding of reality.


  • Leib
  • Disembodiment
  • Husserl
  • Merleau-Ponty
  • Pre-reflexivity

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  1. 1.

    Neuroscience and other approaches, such as enactivism, have also begun to conceive the subject and cognition as an essential intertwining of the organism and environment and to emphasize the role of the tacit and implicit dimension. See, for instance: Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991), Lakoff and Johnson (1999), Gallagher and Bower (2014).

  2. 2.

    We can find a strong reference to Gestalt theory especially in Merleau-Ponty, who adopts the thesis according to which we do not perceive in sums of sensations, but in structured and organized wholes, because “the whole is not the sum of its parts” (Merleau-Ponty, 1963, p.150). In this way, the French phenomenologist tries to overcome both Idealism and Empiricism, finding a perspective according to which the mind has an active role in perception, as well as the body and the world, which stand in a dialectical relation.

  3. 3.

    We should note that phenomenology has always been characterized as a purely descriptive enterprise, focusing on the eidos of things: to quote Moran, “Phenomenology may be characterized broadly as the descriptive science of consciously lived experiences and the objects of these experiences, described precisely in the manner in which they are experienced” (Moran, 2012, quoted in Sass, 2014, p. 366). Following the thought of Sass, it seems to me that, especially in the analysis of psychiatric pathologies, the descriptive aim could be helpful also in the explanation of such pathologies. In other words, the eidetic description could contribute to the explanation both the genesis and the structure of human experience: genetic and static phenomenologies can work together in the analysis of pathologies (cfr. Sass, 2010).

  4. 4.

    In the face of the early works of Husserl, which did not seem to be addressed in a similar direction and that are generally associated with a pure, absolute and transcendental subject, we can find, especially in Ideas II, a vision of man as a psycho-physical being entirely grounded in the world and in physicality, as well as an image of the subject as essentially corporeal, as a material body, which enjoys a special status over other things in the world: in fact, the subject is a physical animated thing (beseelt), a spirit set in the world of life. In fact, the problem of the body and of the foundation of subjectivity is faced by Husserl in many points, even if there is no text explicitly committed to this specific theme. However, although the Master has broached this subject especially in the unpublished manuscripts, it can be noticed that there was no real split between the oldest and the latter production: on the contrary, from the earliest texts we can find a “bodily” subjectivity. In fact, already in Thing and Space, a text dated 1907, Husserl deals with the theme of the body in relation to perception.

  5. 5.

    We could add the transcendental intersubjectivity to these processes. In fact, according to Fink, the world could be the result of the mundanization of intersubjectivity.

  6. 6.

    Merleau-Ponty outlines how both science and traditional philosophy contributed to the separation and isolation of the various senses, while Husserl, especially in The Thing and Space, admits the relationship between the formation of the physical thing and the constitution of the ego-body and describes the phenomenon of bilateralism of kinesthesia.

  7. 7.

    Cfr. Weiss, 1999.

  8. 8.

    In the history of psychopathology, we can find an interest in phenomenology starting with the work of Jaspers, whose main contribution was Allgemeine Psychopathologie (1912); nevertheless, the renewed phenomenological interest in the field of psychopathology is quite different from Jasper’s thought. In fact, we can distinguish between a descriptive psychopathology, whose purpose is to provide a detailed analysis of the experience of the patient through the phenomenological method (exemplified by Jaspers’ work); a clinical psychopathology (whose main exponent is Kurt Schneider), aimed at identifying the most significant symptoms for a nosographic distinction; and a structural psychopathology (which starts with Minkowski’s work), which corresponds to an essentially gestaltic approach, whose purpose is to know the structures of the subjectivity of experience. In this paper I refer mainly to the latter type of psychopathological analysis (it is not by chance that nowadays this approach has been adopted by Stanghellini, one of the main references of this work).

  9. 9.

    The phenomenon of social attunement implies the capacity to establish emotional and reciprocal relationships with others, and the ability to understand immediately and intuitively others’ mental states as similar to one’s own.

  10. 10.

    According to Aristotle: “Besides the specific sense there is the sensus communis, which is not a sixth sense but a generic power of sensation as such which provides unity for the sensitive soul in its particular manifestations. The ear dos not see; however, the man who hears also sees, and some qualities are presented through more than one sense…We also perceive that we are perceiving through sensus communis” (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edward, New York, Collier Macmillan 1967, vol. 7, p.3).

  11. 11.

    I mean, for instance, the studies by Meltzoff and Moore (1977), or Moll and Meltzoff (2010)). According to Meltzoff, a corporeal attunenement is the constitutive ground for social understanding from its first step (sharing perspective) to the more complex level of understanding. In other words, our pre-reflective and corporeal sense of self is immediately linked to intersubjectivity and it allows us to have both proprioception and the perception of alterity.

  12. 12.

    This is very similar to Husserl’s passive synthesis and Merleau-Ponty’s operative intentionality.

  13. 13.

    As noted by Stanghellini (2006) schizophrenic subjects experience a troubled or alienated sense of self (typical assertions are “I don’t feel myself”; “I am losing contact with myself” or “I feel as if I were belonging to another planet”). Accordingly, there is a loss of first person perspective and a loss of immersion in the world (another common statement is “I live only in my head”).

  14. 14.

    In other words, the schizophrenic subject assumes an eccentric position in respect to common sense: in fact, s/he often chooses to take an eccentric stand in the face of commonly shared assumptions (situation that is called “antagonomia”) and s/he feels a sense of radical uniqueness (“idionomia”) Cfr. Stanghellini and Ballerini, 2007.

  15. 15.

    Persons vulnerable to schizophrenia often have an attitude of distrust toward conventional knowledge, and they refuse conventional values and beliefs. Stanghellini (2000) describes the case of E.C., a 17-years-old boy with psychosis who speaks of his refusal of conventional values and beliefs, which he identifies with his parents’ teaching. This deliberate attempt to disengage from common sense is not very common, nonetheless it illustrates the possibility that a schizophrenic condition can evolve from a passive loss of common sense to a voluntary bracketing of the intuitive, intersubjective attunement.

  16. 16.

    Schizophrenic patients describe how every actions—even the simplest—require conscious attention (cfr. Sass, 1992).

  17. 17.

    In some cases the person afflicted with melancholy depression may even arrive to deny his own existence and that of others, which appear like ghosts: there is a sort of desynchronizing with the world.

  18. 18.

    Thomas Fuchs has developed this perspective following the works of Varela and Maturana and combining phenomenology with ecological theory and neuroscience. According to this view, our organism develops together with the environment, in a reciprocal interaction (the notion of autopoiesis): consequently, also psychopathological research should take into account the embodied and embedded nature of subjectivity.

  19. 19.

    M. Sheets-Johnstone, for instance, emphasizes the importance of movement exploration in order to create a body-memory which is essentially kinaesthetic: dance is a paradigmatic example of this kind of process. In the same way, Fuchs and De Hann focus on the usefulness of body-therapies and on the link between body and moods: in this view, a therapy based on movement and corporeity could improve the process of interactional understanding and proprioception.

  20. 20.

    Even if the D.I.R. model is aimed to the therapy of autistic patients, I think that my modified version (D.I.R.E.) could be useful in the treatment of schizophrenia too, not only because it takes into account corporeality, which seems to be the main disrupted dimension of this pathology, but also because autism, conceived as the loss of social attunement, could be read as a feature of schizophrenia (see Ballerini, 2002).


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I am grateful to Professor Thomas Fuchs and the anonymous reviewers for their fruitful comments.

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Correspondence to Valeria Bizzari .

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Bizzari, V. (2018). Schizophrenia and Common Sense: A Phenomenological Perspective. In: Hipólito, I., Gonçalves, J., Pereira, J. (eds) Schizophrenia and Common Sense. Studies in Brain and Mind, vol 12. Springer, Cham.

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