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Prozac As a Way of LifeReview - Prozac As a Way of Life
by Carl Elliott and Tod Chambers (Editors)
University of North Carolina Press, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
May 31st 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 22)

Prozac as a Way of Life is a collection of twelve articles, and a helpful introduction, by contemporary thinkers on the impact of Prozac and other SSRIs on medicine, psychiatry, and American culture.  The most prominent issue is the role of Prozac as a life enhancer as opposed to a drug to alleviate the symptoms of a mental illness. The authors include Peter Kramer, David Healy, Lauren Slater, and Carl Elliott.  Philosophers and bioethicists will probably also know the names of Erik Parens, David DeGrazia, Laurie Zoloth and Tod Chambers.  The book is in three sections, although this division is somewhat artificial since the articles overlap a great deal in themes. 

Unsurprisingly, many of the articles start from Peter Kramer's groundbreaking Listening to Prozac, which is still one of the most philosophical books to ever become a bestseller.  They address the ethics of cosmetic psychopharmacology, which Kramer set out so well in his book, and they generally take a somewhat critical attitude to the non-medical use of Prozac.  Most focus on the use of medication to treat subclinical symptoms of depression, although Slater also brings in the use of SSRIs to treat sexual compulsivity.  The articles are written at a fairly accessible level and should be understandable to non-philosophers.  Several of them focus on cases, especially those originally discussed by Kramer in his book. 

This collection serves a useful purpose in showing the ability of academics to address cultural issues stemming from the growth of the drug industry and the conceptually challenging terrain of modern psychiatry.  The authors are thoughtful and careful, generally avoiding any wild claims about the dangers of the new medications and documenting their empirical assumptions.  Most are written is standard academic prose, with the exception being Slater's, which is very much in the style of her other journalistic work for publications such as Harper's and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, detailing her conversations with others and her personal reactions and reflections to the people she meets.  Slater is an engaging writer and so her contribution is a pleasure to read, although it is more difficult to fit her ideas into other standard debates. 

For those who have been paying attention to the scholarly debates over the cultural place of Prozac, there is little here that is new.  A well-known issue of the Hastings Center Report was devoted to the issue a few years ago, and there is considerable overlap between that publication and this book.  Healy's ideas on antidepressants have appeared in many places already, and Elliott published a book on the topic a couple of years ago.  Erik Parens edited a collection on enhancement, Enhancing Human Traits, a few years ago.  Maybe the most original part of the book is the last one, which contains three papers on "Prozac and the East."  However, they are quite short papers and while they are certainly interesting, it is hard to know what to make of them or how to evaluate how they would fit in with the general topic.  They seem quite personal and idiosyncratic, so while they may stimulate readers to further reflection, they may not push the reader to any particular conclusion.  This is probably a reflection of the nature of sophisticated psychiatric cultural criticism, where it is very difficult to come to definite conclusions since there are no simple connections between one's personal life and societal trends.  The authors in this book are doing difficult work, and while readers may not connect with all the papers, they should find several that are especially provocative. 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Links:

·        The David Healy Affair website

·        Review of Carl Elliott, Better than Well.

·        Hastings Center Report issue on cosmetic psychopharmacology: articles by David Healy, David DeGrazia, Carl Elliott, Peter Kramer, and Jim Edwards.

·        Erik Parens (Editor), Enhancing Human Traits

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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