A History of Intelligence and "Intellectual Disability": The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe

By Gabbard, D. Christopher | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, May 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

A History of Intelligence and "Intellectual Disability": The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe


Gabbard, D. Christopher, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


C. F. Goodey, A History of Intelligence and "Intellectual Disability": The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe . Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. isbn 978-1- 4094-2021-7 hbk 388 pp. £35.00

The recent publication of C. F. Goodey's A History of Intelligence and "Intellectual Disability" constitutes a major event. Anyone interested in psychology, philosophy, ethics, and English literature, as well as medieval, early modern, and eighteenth-century studies, not to mention disability studies, should take note of it. It is rigorous and painstaking in its analysis while also being measured and provocative in its conclusions. I suggest that this is the most significant book coming out of disability studies in the humanities to focus exclusively on intellectual disability. No other critical disability studies project so thoroughly interrogates our ideas of intellectual disability, with the possible exceptions of Martin Halliwell's Images of Idiocy (2008) and Patrick McDonagh's Idiocy: A Cultural History (2008), both of which are excellent but focus on the nineteenth century onwards. To really understand the subject, Goodey implies, one has to go back to the beginning of Western thought. Because his investigation is so comprehensive, and because it opens new, unexpected, and exciting pathways for thinking about mental disability, it will radically alter the way scholars working on the topic move forward.

A cultural historian, Goodey maintains that the concepts of intelligence and intellectual disability are mutually dependent. We cannot deem ourselves clever without at the same time imagining a group against which to measure our elevated intelligence. And yet, it is not so much intelligence (and its absence) that matters. What does matter is dirt, disorder, and pollution. We preen ourselves about our own (and our species') brilliance, and we fear lack of intelligence in others, not because intelligence in itself matters, but because of the dirt, disorder, and pollution we imagine will be stirred up by those whom we have decided a priori are devoid of intelligence. Hence, scapegoating, stigmatization, ritual avoidance, segregation, and annihilation occur.

Goodey describes claims to (high) intelligence as a mode of bidding for social acceptance or status. This status-bidding mode is just that: an attempt to shore up our self-esteem and to have others affirm this self-assessment. According to Goodey, an intelligence-based bidding mode predominates today. At one time the common status-bidding claim had been the one that an individual was among the elect (recipient of God's special grace). Also once predominant had been the honor-based claim. In other words, election and honor prevailed in the early modern period as the most important status-bidding modes. During the seventeenth century, internal developments within the election and honor systems, together with the partial merger of the two, led by century's end to the ascendance of intelligence as the premier social-bidding mode. Goodey argues that this development was articulated in John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). Goodey not only identifies the claim to intelligence as being today's chief bidding mode (a change in part attributable to Locke), but he also compels us to recognize that intelligence as a bidding mode has no more substance than the previously prevailing ones invoking honor and election. In the book's clearest expression of its intent, Goodey states that neither intelligence nor intellectual disabilities exist as objective realities: "Culture is itself the root of intelligence," he writes. It "is not simply a lens through which we are seeing refracted some otherwise stable component of human nature" (283).

A History asks us to imagine a world beyond intelligence-status bidding and gives us strong motivation for doing so by demonstrating how historically contingent and flimsy are our notions of intelligence and intellectual disability.

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