In recent years, a series of articles by clinicians and researchers have addressed matters that concern the latest developments in phenomenology and so called «descriptive» psychiatry. This fresh interest stems from two facts: (1) taxonomic systems used on a world scale tend to obscure the presence of the afflicted subject; (2) the uso of manuals listing the particular diagnostic criteria for diseases or behavioural deviation frequently displace differentiated psychopathological investigation. This development may result in diagnostic techniques that lose sight of or exceed the particularities and even the therapeutic needs of a patient.

General psychopathology — as grounded in the theories of Jaspers, Gruhle and Schneider — presupposes paying meticulous attention to the mental patient before formulating a diagnostic opinion. Psychopathological concepts regarding empirical matters relating to patients have been defined in terms appropriate to the positive sciences. Delirium, delusions, obsessions, etc. can be determined according to sure-fire criteria. Yet the psychopathologist must rely on his intuition. The transference of his ego into the private world of, say, a psychotic facilitates not only the investigation of particular symptoms, but at the same time the verbal expression and rational assessment of the symptom.

Only through such a phenomenological approach can we arrive at a neutral evaluation of clinical data which will give rise to diagnostic hypotheses. Such understanding cannot easily or arbitrarily be expanded except at the cost of distorting the import of psychopathological findings.

In my view, the significance of the description of the subject is self-evident; description must not be sacrificed by being subsumed under diagnostic propositions. The subject's particularities are thus also respected, since the distortion caused by varying ideologies or schools ot thought is curtailed. At the same time attempts at classification can be used to good account and even complemented.

Jasper's view that all scientific opinions are debatable and therefore must be treated as ephemeral prejudices is fundamental to his project: psychopathology remains a clinical and conceptual tool serving the critical and self-reflective psychiatrist. General psychopathology aims especially at impartially examining phenomena not only as primary manifestations of a psychopathological process, but also as related consequences of therapy. It thereby ensures the most efficient scientific enquiry into aetiology.

Of course, general psychopathology has a limited role and cannot fill all the needs of contemporary psychiatry. It remains, nevertheless, an essential stage of training for the young psychiatrist interested in setting relevant phenomena in context. Further investigation in this exciting field necessarily entails one common factor: respect for the complexity of human nature.

N. Tzavaras
Assoc. Professor of Psychiatry
Head, Psychiatric Department,
Democritean University, Alexandroupolis


  1. Jaspers K. Allgemeine Psychopathologie, 9. Aufl. Springer Verlag, 1973.
  2. Gruble HW. Verstehende Psychologie, 2. Aufl. Thieme Verlag, Stuttgart, 1956.
  3. Scharfetter Chr. Allgemeine Psychopathologie. Thieme Verlag, 1996.
  4. Haug H-J. Die Grundlagen operatioonaliseirter Diagnostik, DNP.11/05.
  5. Andreasen NC. Symptoms, signs and diagnosis of schizophrenia. The Lancet 1995,346 (8973): 477-481.