Urte Laukaityte

When one thinks about philosophy, popular names like Aristotle, Nietzche and Kant come to mind. For someone who is not quite familiar with the subject, it would appear that all a philosopher does is ask: why? Although is not entirely incorrect, Urte Laukaityte, a fifth-year student in philosophy, has proven that philosophy is as interdisciplinary as any other course of study.

Coming from a background in linguistics, Laukaityte always knew she had interdisciplinary interests. Unlike American programs, U.K. universities — where she obtained her undergraduate and masters degrees — tend to guide their students from an early start into the specific subject they wish to pursue throughout their academic career.

Within philosophy, students have a substantial amount of freedom in terms of the topic or area they wish to study. Laukaityte explains, “It is true, to some extent, that technically a philosopher could wake up tomorrow and decide that she’s into Biology and teach herself the subject. It would be a legitimate way of doing philosophy as she would be doing Philosophy of Biology.” Despite the freedom within the field, in order to call it philosophy, one must use the philosophical method. Moreover, it is not only the technique that characterizes philosophy but also the kinds of questions and debates you can look at — a constraint that Laukaityte has had to deal with due to her interdisciplinary approach.

One of Laukaityte’s main interests and the scope of her dissertation is the philosophy of psychiatry. Although this is an area not many academics (whether philosophers or psychiatrists) have paid attention to, it certainly is growing in popularity and for an excellent reason. Researchers have tended to avoid it because of the limited information we have on it; exploiting the field has been historically left for clinicians and physicians who have had to treat these conditions. “However, these kinds of areas where there are so many questions and there is a lot of conceptual and theoretical work to be done is exactly where philosophers are the most useful. They have very specific skills when it comes to thinking through certain matters in very detailed ways,” said Laukaityte. Recently, new research avenues have opened up, giving psychiatry a renewed vitality. According to Laukaityte, there is a new framework that is becoming increasingly more popular called predictive processing. This theory allows for new ways of thinking about psychiatric disorders and the causal mechanisms behind them.

It is no secret that our current psychiatric system isn’t particularly well developed, in that we can’t be fully confident about having the methodology right. Psychiatrists understand that the method chosen to treat conditions isn’t necessarily the best way to treat them. Laukaityte’s dissertation is connected to all these issues, as she attempts to put forward a theoretical but testable hypothesis to account for a number of so far unaccounted for psychiatric phenomena. To name a few, she mentions culture-bound syndromes, psychiatric conditions that seem to exist in some cultures but not others; Transient mental illness, which is a psychiatric condition that appears in a certain period in time but not later or earlier. 

Her multidisciplinary approach to answering this question has been no easy task. It uses the philosophical method, but it includes findings of cognitive science, neuroscience linguistics, anthropology, medical history, psychiatry and areas of inquiry. When sharing some of the challenges she has faced, Laukaityte explains: “The nature of academia in the 21st century is such that it has become important for people to increasingly specialize. Become an expert of a very small part of whichever filed so you can get hired, obtain funding, etc. Philosophers might look at my work and wonder if it’s actually Philosophy; same with other fields. You’re kind of left homeless intellectually. Despite the obstacles, she asserts this type of work is extremely important to do since there is only so much one can do on a microscopic scale. At some point, philosophers have to zoom out and wonder what other questions they are really addressing and how they can integrate them for future thought.

Mesmerism – Using Animal Magnetism.
Photo: Wellcome Library, London.

Laukaityte is a published author and has worked with different publications to get curiosity-stimulating articles to the general public — as philosophy does not tend to reach a particularly wide audience. Worth noting is her work on Mesmerism and Animal Magnetism, published in The Public Domain Review magazine. In the article, she explores the work of German doctor Franz Mesmer in the 18th century the idea that some illnesses were due to blockages of magnetic fluid in people’s bodies. Laukaityte concludes by explaining how the Franklin commission (tasked to investigate Memser’s claims of animal magnetism), pioneered some techniques that are still used in clinical trials. The story is quite intriguing as it involves Benjamin Franklin, the French King and some rather sexual practices that seemed to cure upper-class women of the time (see article here) — Urte also collaborated with Vox to create a short video introduction on the topic, see here

After graduation, Laukaityte hopes to spend some time at McGill University’s Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry where other like-minded people are currently working on topics related to her multidisciplinary interests.

Paulina Gutierrez is an student editorial assistant in the Graduate Division.