David Cooper (1931-86) South African-born psychiatrist and his famous works

David Cooper (1931-86) is a South African-born psychiatrist and a leading figure in the anti-psychiatry movement. After graduating with a medical degree from the University of Cape Town, Cooper moved to London. He worked in several hospitals here, including the unit for young schizophrenics called Villa 21. In 1965, he and R.D.Laing, along with several other colleagues, founded the Philadelphia Association, which established the experimental, community psychiatry project at Kingsley Hall with a view toward putting into practice the ideas on psychiatry they had developed in their theoretical works.

Influenced by  Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Cooper, like Laing, held that it was a society that made people mad, particularly its key institution the family. By the same token, he also held that madness was not necessarily an illness so much as an existential journey beyond the confining strictures of society-imposed rules. Cooper always insisted on the need to understand the symptoms of the individual not simply in terms of individual psychology or family dynamics, but also in terms of broader social, institutional, and economic forces, and, for him, Marx was a key starting point in doing so.

He coined the term anti-psychiatry in 1967 to describe his position. In his first book, Psychiatry and anti psychiatry, he argues for a dialectical methodology in studying families. His most important works include The Death of the Family (1971) which tells therapy becomes a matter not of specialized treatment, but rather of the practice of close attention to how people treat one another in everyday life, Grammar of Living (1974), and The Language of Madness (1978) which says madness is both a resistance to and a sign of the repressive nature of the family and madness presents a challenge to the family, which, for Cooper, stands at the basis of capitalism – and capitalism can only cope with psychotic dissent by invalidating the mad. Like Laing’s, Cooper’s work was very much in the spirit of its times, and his work was widely read by students. It also influenced anti-psychoanalysis theorists like Felix Guattari, although he ultimately rejected anti-psychiatry as a failed experiment. But by the end of the 1970s, both traditional psychiatry and critical theory had set aside Cooper’s work as impractical. Consequently, his work has now fallen into neglect.

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