Positive and Negative Signals: A Conceptual History

  • G. E. Berrios


The terms “positive” and “negative”, used to categorize the symptoms of schizophrenia, have “burst in the horizon as a recurrent comet” (Zubin 1985). More popular, perhaps, amongst researchers than clinicians, they have thrived almost beyond the reach of evaluation. Unimpressed by fashion, the conceptual historian must ask:
  1. 1.

    What do these terms contribute (that others do not) to the understanding of the symptoms of schizophrenia? In the past, it must be remembered, other (less successful) pairs of words have been used for the same purpose: primary versus secondary, first rank versus second rank, florid versus deficit, active versus passive, etc.

  2. 2.

    What would be lost if the terms “positive” and “negative” were replaced, say, by some meaningless initials?

  3. 3.

    Are the categories “positive” and “negative” symptom-specific to schizophrenia? Would understanding of other mental disorders be improved by their use? If so, could this extra-understanding be specified? and

  4. 4.

    Is their popularity due only to scientific reasons? In this regard, scientific or “internal” reasons (i.e. those pertaining to the facts of observation), must be distinguished from “external factors” (extra-scientific, non-cognitive, social, etc.) which reflect the power structures controlling fashion in the psychiatric community. Terms may become fashionable not because they add anything to knowledge, but because they are favoured by forceful individuals or by “invisible Colleges” controlling funds, research and publications (Blashfield 1982; Latour 1988).



Nineteenth Century Negative Symptom Positive Symptom Mental Function Retrograde Amnesia 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • G. E. Berrios
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of Cambridge, Addenbrooke’s Hospital (Level 4)CambridgeUK

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