Body and Mind: A Historical Problem?

“To talk about the mind,” historian Roger Smith suggested in the final keynote of the recent EAHMH conference on the topic of Body and Mind in the History of Medicine and Health, “is to use shorthand for modern western talk about people.” Concluding a fascinating array of papers at this biennial conference of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, Smith directly addressed a theme on which many speakers touched: is the mind-body problem a fundamentally historical one? Certain ways of looking at the natural world suggest we should hold a linear perspective: that knowledge changes in order to explain being. Yet, from another perspective, knowledge and being can be considered to change together. Do modern concepts of ‘self’ based in brain neurobiology or pharmacology actually create new ways of being human?

Despite shifts in scientific thought, Smith reminds us that much everyday language remains dependant on mental, rather than biological, categories. Neuronal concepts of mental functioning might appear to contradict the very notion of free will (just as nineteenth century physiological theories threatened to), but other fields, most notably the legal system, continue to attribute significance and responsibility to mental actions. Thus, it is not simply a criminal act alone, but the motive – and even the emotions of the accused (for example, remorse) – that determine punishment.

Psychiatry has long grappled with the variety of ways in which culture and history shape our concepts of mental health and illness, as indicated in a panel on the classification of mental illness. Rhodri Hayward, for example, discussed the ways in which, in the 1970s, psychiatrists attempted to deal with temporality in the onset of illness. How do we determine whether past events have shaped a present illness, or if the present illness has caused a re-evaluation of the past? Indeed, as Katherine Angel suggested in her discussion of ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’, the frequently used metaphor of a pendulum swinging between biological and psychological models of mental health and illness does not do justice to the complexities of the body-mind debate. Yet the very popularity of such metaphors serve, for many, to reinforce a distinction that suggests only one (the biological) can be “real”, while the psychological is somehow “imaginary”. As the conference indicated in a number of different areas, questions about the body-mind relationship have frequently been raised in medicine, for a variety of reasons and in a variety of historical contexts. Many of these questions have a particular resonance in contemporary society.

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1 Response to “Body and Mind: A Historical Problem?”


  1. 1 Jillian Kent October 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    As a full time counselor and author I couldn’t agree more with Smith’s statement that, “Despite shifts in scientific thought, Smith reminds us that much everyday language remains dependant on mental, rather than biological, categories.” Great post!


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