Diagnosis and Causal Explanation in Psychiatry

Hane Maung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In clinical medicine, a diagnosis can offer an explanation of a patient's symptoms by specifying the pathology that is causing them. Diagnoses in psychiatry are also sometimes presented in clinical texts as if they pick out pathological processes that cause sets of symptoms. However, current evidence suggests the possibility that many diagnostic categories in psychiatry are highly causally heterogeneous. For example, major depressive disorder may not be associated with a single type of underlying pathological process, but with a range of different causal pathways, each involving complex interactions of various biological, psychological, and social factors. This paper explores the implications of causal heterogeneity for whether psychiatric diagnoses can be said to serve causal explanatory roles in clinical practice. I argue that while they may fall short of picking out a specific cause of the patient's symptoms, they can nonetheless supply different sorts of clinically relevant causal information. In particular, I suggest that some psychiatric diagnoses provide negative information that rules out certain causes, some provide approximate or disjunctive information about the range of possible causal processes, and some provide causal information about the relations between the symptoms themselves.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-24
Number of pages10
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C :Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Early online date20 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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