Wetenschapshistorisch Descartes Colloquium
Daniel Goldberg (East Carolina University): The History of Pain without Lesion in Mid-to-late 19th c. Britain and America: Neurology & Mind-Body Dualism, and Aaron Freeman (UCLA / Descartes Centre Fellow): Charles de Brosses and the French Enlightenment Origins of Fetishism
Date: Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Venue: Sweelinckzaal, Drift 21 Utrecht
Abstract Goldberg: The History of Pain Without Lesion in Mid-to-Late 19th Century Britain and the U.S.: Neurology & Mind-Body Dualism
The central claim of this paper is that mid-to-late 19th century physicians in both Britain and the U.S. generally denied the possibility that pain could exist in the absence of material lesion. The paper advances my line of research regarding pain without lesion and the growth of mind-body dualism in the mid-to-late 19th century West, and engages the ongoing debate regarding the medical status of pain sufferers in both Europe and the U.S. during this period. As to that debate, some interpreters argue that what we might now term ‘chronic pain’ became invisible during this time, whereas others contend that physicians of the time were acutely aware of and sensitive to the suffering of their patients from a variety of pain experiences.
In the paper, I argue that these views are reconcilable in both British and American contexts. On the one hand, there is little evidence for the idea that British and American physicians of the time ignored or trivialized the pain experiences of their patients. Given the Victorian emphasis on suffering and sympathy, such behavior would have been especially taboo, at least with regards to socially privileged patients. On the other hand, the fact that period physicians were aware of and sensitive to their patients’ pain does not imply that the physicians allowed that such pain could exist in the absence of a material (morbid) lesion localizable to a discrete point in the nervous system. While recognizing their patients’ suffering, American physicians followed their British counterparts in repeatedly insisting that if the patient experiences pain, then such a lesion must perforce exist, even if imaging techniques of the time simply did not permit discernment of the lesion itself.
The evidence for this claim draws particularly from sources related to the development of neurology in both Britain and in the U.S. More specifically, I analyze evidence from several of the leading lights of British and American neurology, including John Erichsen, David Ferrier, and William Gowers in the former, and S.W. Mitchell, W.W. Keen, and W.A. Hammond in the latter. Neurology is especially important because of the increasing evidence that strict mind-body dualism, which shaped at a deep level understandings of pain without lesion, is much more a cultural artifact of the Victorian era than of the early modern. Thus, understanding mid-to-late 19th century British and American attitudes towards pain without lesion requires analysis of attitudes, practices and beliefs regarding neurology, mind, and body.
The paper’s reconciliation thesis has several implications. First, it fills a gap in the relevant literature inasmuch as there is little sustained historical analysis comparing attitudes, practices, and beliefs of mid-to-late 19th century British and American physicians regarding pain without lesion. Methodologically, comparison of these contexts is warranted because of the significant professional and cultural exchange between British and American medical science at the time. Second, it contributes to the historiography demonstrating the power and significance of the increasing emphasis on discrete objects of disease and neurological (read: somatic) localization in the mid-to-late 19th century West. Third, it suggests some possible lessons for thinking about the continuing importance of the visible lesion and the role of mind-body dualism in the widespread undertreatment of pain in the West.
Abstract Freeman: Charles de Brosses and the French Enlightenment Origins of Fetishism
In fetishism, which according to natural and conjectural history is the most ancient, widespread, and first of all religions, those who took a stone for a fetish anointed it in order to distinguish it: from this arose the custom of anointing everything in the world endowed with a divine and sacred character . . . They said of Jesus Christ, that he was anointed of the Lord. The Lord said, beware of touching my anointed ones: these are kings, priests, and prophets.
- Denis Diderot, ‘Oindre,’ Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1765).
Since it was first coined by the materialist philosophe Charles de Brosses (1709-1777) in his anonymous and clandestinely published Du culte des dieux fétiches, ou Parallèle de l'ancienne Religion de l'Égypte avec la Religion actuelle de Nigritie (1760), few concepts in European intellectual history have had as storied a career as 'fetishism'. My discussion will present new research on the origin and meaning of religious fetishism in the French Enlightenment, its contested nature and significance for contemporary debates surrounding such topics as idolatry and natural religion, Hermeticism and prisca theologia, and colonialism and slavery.
In his recently completed trilogy on the 'Radical Enlightenment', Jonathan Israel has charted the pan-European contours of Enlightenment materialism from the age of Spinoza and Bayle to the advent of the French Revolution. While neither de Brosses nor Dieux fétiches figure in this monumental history, I believe they also suggest several illuminating links and discontinuities between the materialist metaphysics and critical-historical scholarship of the early Radical Enlightenment, and the Encyclopédistes whom Israel regards as their intellectual inheritors in the second half of the eighteenth century.
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