The Clinical Significance of Anomalous Experiences in the Explanation of Monothematic Delusion

Paul Jonathan Pitt Noordhof, Ema Louise Sullivan-Bissett

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Monothematic delusions involve a single theme, and often occur in the absence of a more general delusional belief system. They are cognitively atypical insofar as they are said to be held in the absence of evidence, are resistant to correction, and have bizarre contents. Empiricism about delusions has it that anomalous experience is causally implicated in their formation, whilst rationalism has it that delusions result from top down malfunctions from which anomalous experiences can follow. Within empiricism, two approaches to the nature of the abnormality/abnormalities involved have been touted by philosophers and psychologists. One-factor approaches have it that monothematic delusions are a normal response to anomalous experiences whilst two-factor approaches seek to identify a clinically abnormal pattern of reasoning in addition to anomalous experience to explain the resultant delusion. In this paper we defend a one-factor approach. We begin by making clear what we mean by atypical, abnormal, and factor. We then identify the phenomenon of interest (monothematic delusion) and overview one and two-factor empiricism about its formation. We critically evaluate the cases for various second factors, and find them all wanting. In light of this we turn to our one-factor account, identifying two ways in which ‘normal response’ may be understood, and how this bears on the discussion of one-factor theories up until this point. We then conjecture that what is at stake is a certain view about the epistemic responsibility of subjects with delusions, and the role of experience, in the context of familiar psychodynamic features. After responding to two objections, we conclude that the onus is on two-factor theorists to show that the one-factor account is inadequate. Until then, the one-factor account ought to be understood as the default position for explaining monothematic delusion formation and retention. We don’t rule out the possibility that, for particular subjects with delusions there may be a second factor at work causally implicated in their delusory beliefs but, until the case for the inadequacy of the single factor is made, the second factor is redundant and fails to pick out the minimum necessary for a monothematic delusion to be present.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10277–10309
Number of pages33
Early online date21 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021

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