chapter  Chapter 10
21 Pages

Medical influences

WithL.S. Hearnshaw

It seems at first sight surprising that prior to the nineteenth century medical influences played so small a part in the shaping of psychology. Critical discussion on the nature of the soul and scientific medicine had a common origin in the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Aristotle came from a medical background, and in the Moslem world, which carried on the tradition of ancient thought after the collapse of Rome, leading philosophers, like Avicenna, were also practitioners of medicine. Plato in ancient times, Moses Maimonides in the Middle Ages, and Spinoza more recently adumbrated concepts of mental health and had some grasp of the nature of mental conflict. But their psychotherapeutic insights had comparatively little effect on the mainstream of philosophical psychology. Medicine and psychology went their separate ways. For this there were perhaps two main reasons. Firstly the viewpoint of the philosophers was a static viewpoint in which the central core of the human soul – call it divine reason, spirit, or conscious mind – stood above and apart from the material world. The breakdown of madness was conceived, therefore, as due to intrusions from without, either material intrusions caused by humoral imbalance, or supernatural intrusions caused by celestial or demonic influences. Hence the term ‘alienist’, which persisted as a designations of the psychiatrist well into the nineteenth century. It was taken for granted, therefore, that the phenomena of mental breakdown could throw no light either on the essential nature of the soul or its functioning. Secondly, moreover, what the doctors could offer to psychology was very limited. From the time of Hippocrates they could provide a rough classification of mental illnesses, but they possessed little precise understanding of the bodily organism, and still less of the material basis of mind, and they had nothing much to offer by way of treatment for mental disorders. So psychologists found little to interest them in medical writings. Indeed psychology contributed more to medicine than medicine to psychology.