The Way We Were: The Ascendance of Rationalism

By Hocking, Clare | British Journal of Occupational Therapy, June 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Way We Were: The Ascendance of Rationalism

Hocking, Clare, British Journal of Occupational Therapy

This is the last in a series of three articles that report the findings of a study that explored the history of the ideas that pioneering occupational therapists in the United Kingdom held about physical objects. Based on an analysis of references to objects in occupational therapy literature published between 1938 and 1962, it revealed the profession's rational and Romantic underpinnings.

The first article described the assumptions rooted in Romanticism and the Arts and Crafts Movement philosophies. The second article explored occupational therapists' rational systematising of knowledge. The focus of this final article is how rationalism came to predominate over Romantic ideals, as the realism of using crafts to transform individuals was pitted against the urgent need to rebuild the nation after World War II. Contributing circumstances, particularly the lack of a research method to explore subjective experiences and outcomes, are identified and the consequences in relation to the balance of the profession's current knowledge base are proposed.

Key words: Occupational therapy, history of the profession, philosophy, World War II, activities of daily living, history of ideas methodology.


In the early years of occupational therapy in the United Kingdom, Romantic assumptions about life, human potential and how to live were embedded in the profession, underpinning the use of traditional creative activities for therapeutic benefit (Hocking 2008a). At the same time, occupational therapists organised their knowledge of crafts rationally, applied mechanical principles, and accounted for the patients treated, craft materials used and outcomes achieved (Hocking 2008b). In this third article exploring occupational therapy's philosophical underpinnings, the initial intertwining of rational and Romantic perspectives is illustrated in relation to the prescription, process and outcomes of therapy. Early concerns that led to the questioning of Arts and Crafts values are then identified and the discussion moves to consider the developments within the profession and the external circumstances that heightened the tension between the two philosophies. The progressive loss of Romanticism from occupational therapists' discourse, as rationalism came to the fore, is described. Finally, the consequences of this philosophical shift, the surviving vestiges of Romanticism and the signs of renewal of Romantic ideas are presented.

The research process

As has been described in the previous articles (Hocking 2008a, 2008b), the study was undertaken as a history of the ideas represented in selected occupational therapy literature published in the 25 years from 1938. The data comprised references to objects, including ward furniture and chattels, the things that patients made, craft equipment, therapists' uniforms, patients' possessions, assistive devices, toys, splints, power tools, and industrial machinery and piecework. By examining the manner in which these objects were discussed, the rational and Romantic philosophies underpinning practice were revealed. The goal of the study was to shed light on current practice, through a detailed and sympathetic appreciation of the past. The questions that guided the study were as follows: 'How did the occupational therapists of the time think about the objects that they and their patients used and made?' and 'How did that change and why?'

Intertwining of the Romantic with the rational

In the earliest occupational therapy literature published in the United Kingdom, Romantic and rational perspectives were presented alongside each other. There was no apparent discomfort in marrying the rational, the exercise of specified muscles in specific directions and intensities, with the Romantic art of practice and its wholesome joys. What is evident, however, is a subtle separation: rational thinking was more apparent in descriptions of the purpose and process of therapy, and the capacities that the patient was using, whereas Romantic sensibilities were more commonly expressed in relation to what attracted patients to participate in therapy and its outcomes.

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