Schopenhauer’s theory of madness as a defect of memory, while unquestionably dated, nonetheless retains significant intuitive appeal and is at least reconcilable with modern understandings of mental function and insanity.1 If accepted as a working theory in conjunction with a more modern understanding of the operation of the brain, the theory leads to a conception of insanity as a failure of understanding of consequences. In turn, this conception may help explain precisely why the insane are not considered responsible for their actions, and may suggest that the insane cannot be said to have acted at all.
Modern cognitive theory suggests that memory is structured primarily around stories. Thus, rather than remembering a sequence of events, we impute to those events some causal structure that enables us to understand and therefore remember the events. Unfortunately, this usually results in significant distortion of the events in our memory as we fill in standard imagery in the place of actual occurrences.2 One conclusion that seems well supported by these observations is that our memory, as we usually think of it, is intimately bound up with our understanding of causation and consequences. Presumably, a defect of memory, which Schopenhauer claims is at the root of all insanity, could thus impair a natural sense of consequences. Conversely, a failure to understand consequences could easily result in just the kind of fragmented and unrecognizable memory that Schopenhauer discusses.
The more standard categorizations of insanity, especially as described by Macniven, can be reconciled with this view. Macniven specifically attributes to manic-depressive psychosis a tenden...
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...RESPONSIBILITY, supra note 1, at 75–85.
7 H.L.A. Hart, Ascription of Responsibility (1949), in FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY, supra note 1, at 143–148.
8 See, e.g., A.I. Melden, Action (1956), in FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY, supra note 1, at 149–160. Melden proposes a conception of action that, like Hart’s, takes into account a broad set of circumstances surrounding any physical movement or act of will. Unlike Hart, Melden sees these circumstances not as a tool of judgment and ascription, but rather as inherently giving the action a particular meaning.
9 See Barbara Wootton, Crime, Responsibility, and Prevention, in CRIME AND THE CRIMINAL LAW (1963). In the criminal context, Lady Wootton’s suggestions for combining the functions of mental institution and prison might promote greater mental health of prisoners with mental problems irrelevant to their crimes.
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