The medical and psychological communities take a fairly black-and-white approach to neuroses. Anorexia is an eating disorder. Agoraphobics fear crowds or open spaces. Hypochondriacs believe that real or imagined symptoms are far worse than they really are.
But for Kirsten Jacobson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine, these neuroses aren’t about food. Or crowds. Or symptoms. They’re the result of a fundamentally problematic way of being in the world.
Jacobson argues that these aren’t “mere psychological problems.” They’re disorders of the body in space, and in each case, the afflicted make their world smaller by disengaging from the people, places and situations around them.
“They are, in a way, three species of the same problem,” Jacobson says. “There’s some sort of troubled relationship that agoraphobics, anorectics and hypochondriacs have that expresses itself as a constricted world.”
Her research provides insight into the way in which these disorders could be treated. Her work has been well-received among her peers, especially those philosophers who are also practicing psychologists. They are interested in the way her work addresses the cause of these disorders, rather than just managing symptoms.
“The excitement has largely been around the fact that this way of analyzing these disorders is a departure from the current trend in the medical and psychological communities at large to treat disorders according to a medical model in which the body and the mind are largely treated as machines in need of tuning, whether by medication or behavioral modification,” Jacobson says. “My approach calls for considering people in their existential situations, which means considering how people’s histories, their families, their communities are interwoven in their ‘problem.’”
Jacobson’s research is influenced by the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, both of whom study how humans relate to, shape and are shaped by the space around them. More specifically, her interests lie in the nature of home and dwelling — not necessarily as a place, but as an existential structure — and how that influences interpersonal communication.
Though many think of space as a “rigid, fixed parameter” that exists outside a person — something easily quantifiable — Jacobson argues that space and home are “living” concepts that have consequences for the way we think of ourselves. They are intertwined with the very ways in which we carry out our lives and they are inherently open to development.