Why we call parents ‘parents’

Why do we call our parents Mum, Dad and other similar words? Researchers tend to say that those words come from the sounds babies make, but this isn’t a very satisfactory answer. Probably all societies call parents by names and nicknames that mean they are parents. This is very strange when you think about it. Whenever someone is special we give them a proper name. Parents are very special but we give them common names.

This practice does not seem to change with adulthood or cultural progress. In modern society, a father will typically get upset if you, as his child, called him by his personal name. On the other hand, you will get upset if he did not call your dog Charlie but any other word indicating a dog. ‘I am your father’, he will argue, and draw on his biological knowledge. Whereas you will give a number of cultural reasons why your dog is special.

Traditionally, the relationship between language and reality is viewed from two fundamental perspectives.[i] One sees the mind as a sort of computer that would allow the child to identify her real parents. The other perspective sees it as a sociocultural entity, so that such a reality could not be something the child logically discovers, but something that is created in interaction with others.

This theoretical dichotomy is probably as unhelpful as arguing with your parents over who is special and why. It means that science does not understand words that are central to our sense of reality. Indeed, it is true that parenthood has a biological basis, but it is also true that parenting is a markedly cultural activity. Should we not elucidate this question before attempting to solve any other big mysteries? This has been in my mind ever since I became a parent myself.

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Why science needs to understand language

Today scientists have major disagreements about everything that has to do with human behaviour. They surface, for example, in issues of economics, biology, psychology or psychiatry.1 It is a bit like a chicken and egg question. Some believe that society comes before the individual, while others believe that the individual comes before society; the first believe that biology should be understood culturally, and the second that culture should be understood biologically. It does not take a scientist to perceive that there is something unscientific in this situation. Indeed, what is compelling about science is what seems to be lacking in this case, that is, its ability to sometimes explain, to give you that a-ha moment you get when you solve an ordinary puzzle. This is a pleasant feeling of wholeness, not necessarily certain, but at least lacking in disagreement.2

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Story of an academic article

Let me introduce our project by telling you about our first article. In 2017 the Finnish journal Psykoterapia-lehti published ‘Psykoosi: Sosiaalinen destruktionismi’, which deals with the personal yet abstract nature of mental illness. We were very excited; it was our first academic article. We had originally drafted it in English and were planning a more ambitious version for the international readership, one that would more generally address the theory and practice of psychiatry. The result is now published on this site as well as on the excellent academia.edu, though we first tried the usual publishing route. Here is the cover letter I wrote for it:

Dear Editor:

This article introduces a new, comprehensive view of mental illness as a phenomenon intrinsic to human society. We use first-person accounts to illustrate our case because it is grounded in individual experience, and we address the psychiatric model of Open Dialogue because of the importance of human interactions. The article concludes by proposing a way forward for psychiatry in its relation to the behavioral sciences and philosophy.

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