Adam Phillip's Going Sane



Picking up Adam Phillips’ new book, Going Sane, for the first time, one’s first reaction may be sceptical; not the sort of scepticism that Phillips exhibits admirably throughout most of the book—endlessly questioning the assumptions behind beliefs and ideas, and even the assumptions behind his own questions—but skepticism towards its very premise (perhaps the only thing Phillips doesn’t call into question.) That is to say, what exactly is the value in writing a book about sanity? Phillips’ point is taken about the striking lack of prior literature dealing with the issue—but perhaps that’s because there’s no need to? Sanity generally only becomes an issue in life when it is really in doubt, when someone is seriously mentally ill, posing a palpable threat to themselves or others. Outside of such unfortunate situations, one could argue the words “sanity” and “madness”  have, and deserve, no real currency. As long as we are not causing harm to ourselves or others, what does it matter?

However, it becomes clear as one reads the book that Phillips’ interest in sanity is not a pedantic quest for a solid definition of an elusive term. For him, it’s a way of exploring how we live our lives, and how we might better be able to live them. As he puts it,

Discussions of sanity and madness are always discussions about what people want people to be and to like. Like any moral discourse, these discussions involve competing claims about what people should be capable of being.

Taken as a means of “moral discourse”, the sanity question becomes both extremely relevant and interesting. And when one becomes familiar with Phillips’ style, it seems inevitable that he would approach the subject in this way. As mentioned above, Phillips is, in the best sense of the word, a sceptic, and coming up with an absolute definition of sanity would, for him, be neither true nor useful—and what’s more, potentially dangerous. Citing Orwell’s 1984, he argues

sanity and its definitions would not be so manipulable if they could be more freely and openly considered, if there were plans and guidelines for sanity that could be compared and contrasted.

Phillips’ great strength—and weakness—is this utilitarian and relativist take on things. For him, ideas are only true insofar as they are useful—or perhaps even further: it doesn’t matter if they’re true so long as they are useful. The following sentence, while specific to sexuality, neatly illustrates this belief:

Instead of asking whether everything (or just some things) is sexual we should be asking, more pragmatically, how would our lives be better—more interesting, more amusing, more exciting—if we describe them as sexual? (1)

The attractive thing about this approach is that it posits intellectual inquiry as something essentially functional; not an academic pastime quarantined off from the rest of life (as it can often appear to many people), but something that can actively improve our lives. The problematic thing is that it simultaneously dismisses the possibility of any final or conclusive truth. Consequently, Going Sane can occasionally feel less like an argument and more like a series of thinking-out-loud rambles, filled with tentative revisions, contradictions and deconstructions more than anything else.

How we should live our lives is undoubtedly a worthwhile area for a writer to explore. But the question remains: is a discussion of sanity and madness, and Phillps’ precepts of relativism and utilitarianism (and background in psychoanalysis), the best way to do so?

This essay will look at the merits and drawbacks of Phillips’ approach and his consequent proposals as to what sanity should be. If what follows tends towards the antithetical—or the tentative, or the partial, or or even the confused—it is only in keeping with what is being discussed—a book whose topic, as Phillips admits, is “an antithetical word” that “keeps alive our more haunting conflicts and confusions”.



One doesn’t need to read an Adam Phillips book to realise that black-and-white dualities like madness and sanity, or even good and evil, don’t exist in the real world—at least not in the pure, undiluted terms that they do conceptually. They say there’s a thin red line between sanity and insanity, but really the divide is more like a fat grey blur. It’s impossible that two broad concepts could encapsulate all the complexities that make up the spectrum of human behaviour and experience. But, like most broad concepts and black-and-white dualities, that is exactly their purpose: to neatly encapsulate those complexities (however falsely) into something digestible and intelligible.

One could parallel this with the traditional view of sanity itself. As Phillips outlines, conventional sanity is largely a conformity to the status quo, dictated by codes of “order” and “classification”:

Any culture that uses the word equates sanity either straightforwardly…with obedience; or more minimally, with the acknowledgement that there are rules and that they work in certain ways…

Whilst madness is chaos and confusion, sanity is logical and intelligible. It is, in essence, an attempt to make the chaotic complexities of life and humanity—which are inevitably, at least partly, beyond comprehension—appear comprehensible. In other words, traditional sanity tries to make life make sense. Since life will never make total sense, however, this kind of sanity offers a very limited way of looking at the world—it “keeps us in the realm of the already known.”  When life is reduced to this realm, a lot is left out. Talking about the problem of self-knowledge under this construct of sanity, Phillips asks

how does the self-knowing self recognize anything new about the self? To know one’s limits is to limit oneself to the self that one knows.

The remark can apply to all kinds of knowledge as well, and also illustrates Phillips’ aversion to the idea of knowing anything completely. (3)

The deficiencies of this sort of sanity are now popularly recognized; most would agree with D.W. Winnicott’s assertion that “we are poor indeed if we are only sane”—but Phillips seeks to reclaim the word itself from this narrow conception, declaring, “We are poor indeed…if this is our only idea of sanity.”



Phillips describes Winnicott as seeing the old sanity as “something of a cover-up”, and “the Original Chaos theorists” as seeing it as “our only hope for survival”.  (4) In reality, both positions are correct: sanity is at once an illusory construction (“something of a cover-up”) and a necessary construction (“our only hope for survival”). But it is clearly not enough. In trying to redefine sanity as something that might constitute a viable—and less impoverished—philosophy, Phillips must inevitably incorporate a little madness into the mix. In its new definition, says Phillips, sanity “is a container of madness, not a denier of it.”

To incorporate madness into a new vision of sanity, one must inevitably look, as Phillips does, at the two areas where madness is not only accepted, but often idealised— artistic creativity and childhood. Creativity is often described as tapping into, as Winnicott put it, “our primitive selves whence the most intense feelings and even fearfully acute sensations derive”—and consequently associated, in its bypassing of conventional thinking and behaviour, with madness. However, in linking creativity to madness, there is a serious risk of romanticising the latter, as Dr. Glen Adshead, a consultant forensic psychotherapist, pointed out on The South Bank Show:

I think, generally speaking, mental illnesses don’t make people more creative. Sanity—or a healthy mental life—is really about having as many creative options as possible, being able to be as creative and flexible as possible.

The mentally ill, on the other hand,

have less flexibility about how they respond… less capacity to use their talents… less capacity to regulate their moods and their thoughts…less capacity to connect well with other people…It’s a process of loss.

Dr. Adshead’s use of the term “mental illness” (one Phillips rarely uses) is striking. By talking about insanity medically, rather than relatively and philosophically as Phillips tends to do, she reminds us how easy it is to ruminate about the nature of sanity and insanity—when we’re not actually insane. It’s easy to forget that madness is a disease, not a lifestyle choice. While sometimes forgetting it, Phillips does admit that “there is often nothing more miserable and monotonous than being mad.” (5)

There is a similar (though not as offensive) risk of romanticising when it comes to childhood. From Wordsworth to Kavanagh, childhood innocence has long been popular: the idea that when we are young we are fresher and more connected with life, and again, more in touch with “our primitive selves” and those “most intense feelings”. The problem with it, of course, is that it is to a large (and increasing) extent, a myth. As Phillips says, “children are extremely cruel and greedy” , and one is more likely nowadays to find them fighting over Pokemon cards than having the sort of pure and immediate relationship with nature that Kavanagh idealised in poems like “A Christmas Childhood”.

Nevertheless, there is something in Kavanagh’s myth of “the gay garden that was childhood’s”  that is worth holding onto. Perhaps it is best summed up in Albert Einstein’s advice that we “never lose a holy curiousity”. However, to see growing up as a process of disillusionment is only half the story—it’s a process of maturing as well, becoming more independent and responsible. As Phillips says,

We are born insane fantasists who have to learn to temper fantasy with reality. Sanity is the realism required for psychic survival.

This brings us back to the essential conflict: becoming sane (or mature) is both necessary for our survival, and a “cover-up”, a form of disconnection from our life. The trick is trying to find a balance between it, and a certain degree of madness.



It is this balance that Phillips tries to describe in the final chapter of his book; what he calls his “stab at sanity.” Citing Thomas Carlyle, he describes sanity as

a balancing of external and internal influences. Too much external influences, too much conforming to institutions…and we lose heart. Too little and we can feel unmoored from our culture.

Following on from this, he suggests that sanity shouldn’t be “a choice between conformity and self-assertion” or “duty and desire”, but a “repertoire” that incorporates each of these, when appropriate. However, Phillips goes further, suggesting that part of a balanced sanity should be an acceptance of imbalance:

Sanity involves learning to enjoy conflict, and giving up on all myths of harmony, consistency and redemption.

He describes “order and pattern as…a wilfully false cure for inevitable change” and “at best provisional”. This is significant, because, as outlined earlier, the defining characteristic of traditional sanity is order. While Phillips’ “stab at sanity” contains countless ideas about different aspects of sane living, these specific aphorisms aren’t as important as the above key acknowledgements. The most cogent of them follow on from these acknowledgements, such as his idea that relationships are not “the kind of thing that one can be good or bad at…any more than you can be good or bad at having red hair,” and that “the only sane foregone conclusion about any relationship is that it is an experiment”.

As this suggests, Phillips’ idea of sanity is less a set of rules to live by than a warning about the danger and limitation of living by rules. His book points towards a way of living that incorporates rules and order, insofar as they are useful, alongside a more spontaneous, tentative and indeterminate way of living—but it only points towards it, for as he says, “sanity is lived according to acknowledgements, rather than principles; and these acknowledgements can never be formalised.”

If there is a wisdom in Phillips’ writing, it is in his distrust of easy answers or quick-fix ideas. In his own words:

Havoc is always wreaked in fast cures for confusion.


While Phillips’ “stab at sanity” offers some provocative and valuable thoughts on how to live, his decision to explore these issues under the guise of “sanity” is not entirely convincing. When he says “we are poor indeed…if this is our only idea of sanity,” he’s suggesting that we need a more viable notion of sanity to live by. Most people, however, are perfectly content to leave the issue where Winnicott did—“we are poor indeed if we are only sane”—and simply be more than sane. Phillips’ dedication, on the other hand, to reclaim the word, to make it something that we would not need to be more than, is—despite the invaluable thoughts and provocations he offers along the way—ultimately futile. People will continue to think of sanity as the opposite of insanity (a position Phillips argues against throughout the book) and, seeing as any interesting life must incorporate a little insanity, will continue to see sanity as an insufficient ideal to live by.

Given that the most interesting—and, as Phillips might say himself, useful—things in the books deal with questions of how we live in the world, one wonders how much more productive Phillips’ book might have been had he tackled these questions without the baggage of sanity and madness. (6) Does the issue serve as anything more than a hook to draw in the reader and to set the book apart from other “how-we-should-live” books?

Indeed, the last chapter—in which the word “sane” is really only used as shorthand for “a good way to live would be…”—is by far the most fascinating. But one of its weaknesses is that some of its most intriguing points are introduced all of a sudden, without any background argument or support—such as his assertion that the sane should have no desire to be understood, or his final, surprising statement that “humiliating another person is the worst thing we ever do.” He may be right, but the point is just thrown out there, not argued. Without the need to charter the history of sanity, whole chapters could have been devoted to these ideas.

But finally, the greatest weakness of the book is also its greatest strength: Phillips’ relativist stance. While Phillips’ approach is based on the legitimate post-modern precept that there is no one truth, but merely a competing array of narratives (hence Phillips’ pragmatic quest for the most “useful” narrative)—and one of Phillips’ most attractive aphorisms is that “confusion, acknowledged, is a virtue”—still, in some of the muddier passages of the book, where hypotheses are revised, paraphrased, contradicted and deconstructed in fast succession, one can’t help but wonder if this sort of confusion is really useful. It is certainly preferable to false clarity—but wouldn’t some real clarity be best? Do we really need to pick up a book to be confused?

In a review of some of his earlier work, Richard Webster argues that Phillips’ relativism “is, in its way…narrowly prescriptive”:

In this modish relativism it is the very possibility of psychological truth which becomes anathema. The resulting dogma, more sweeping and more dangerous than any it seeks to displace, necessarily absolves the author from any responsibility for discriminating between what is true and what is false, between sense and nonsense.

Webster argues that Phillips’ style, far from opening him up to more possibilities, trivialises his arguments; even “genuine insights” cannot be “recognised…as such” if we “abide by his own doctrines”. Webster holds particular disdain for Phillips’ argument that

psychoanalysis, rather than being right or wrong, should be seen ‘as another good way of speaking about certain things like love and loss and memory, as songs can be.’

However, while Phillips may risk triviality in his post-modern approach, one could argue he does so for the greater cause of trying to make his theory more functional. “Psychological truth”, however absolute, is meaningless if it can’t be put to use in our lives. And the danger in absolutes, as stated earlier, is that they are “so manipulable”—remember 1984.

Even calling his work “theory” may betray his intentions. When asked whether he thought he had succeeded in getting his ideas acrossed, Phillips replied:

I don't have theories, I have sentences. I don't want people to come away thinking, this is what Phillips thinks about X or Y. My wish is not to inform people, but to evoke things in them by the way the writing works. That, I value. Ideally, I want the books to return you to your own thoughts.

Going Sane certainly succeeds in doing this. Although, occasionally, it seems like  a more absolutist approach—with principles, conclusions, and unequivocal assertions—may have been a more effective way of doing it. We’re all old enough not to take every book we read as gospel, after all, and one-sided argument can often be as thought-provoking as equivocation.
So it seems, yet again, that balance is the key—even if it’s the balance between relativism and absolutism.



  1. Impressively, in the past Phillips has even applied this pragmatic scepticism to his own discipline, psychoanalysis, describing it as “only one among many things you might do if you're feeling unwell”, with “aromatherapy, knitting,” and “hang-gliding” as possible alternatives.
  2. One gets the feelings he is far more interested in asking questions than finding answers—and when he does provide answers, they inevitably lead to more questions. In a way, the effect of reading him is less like learning new things than learning you didn’t know as much to begin with—recalling the old idea, “wisest is he who knows he knows nothing”…
  3. Or, as Ray Carney said, “To know who you are, to have decided who you want to be, is to stop living. To be finished in this way is to be finished in every other.”
  4. By Original Chaos theorists he means the likes of psychoanalyst Roger Money-Kyrle, who argued that we are all born “in a state of chaos”, eventually acquiring some degree of sanity. Money-Kyrle admits that “the sane world never wholly absorbs the chaotic one”, but implies that this “firm island of sanity in a sea of chaos” is necessary, lest we be swept away…
  5. Some artistic examples even back this up: Vincent Van Gogh may be the pervasive icon of the mad artist, but his madness—or rather, mental illness—was ultimately a disabling factor, not a liberating one. A certain lack of sanity may have helped him tap into some of those “most intense feelings”, but when it took over, it left him in no state to tap into anything. Perhaps creative activity, when it works, can help those “whose sanity is challenged”, as Dr. Adshead puts it, to control and channel their disturbances. But it’s that talent for channelling that makes an artist—not the disturbances.
  6. One wonders this especially when reading the long first chapter of the book, in which at least 50 pages are wasted saying “sanity is a remarkably unexplored phenomenon” in a myriad of different ways.



lineemail address