The Foundations of Psychiatry

By Silvano Arieti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

PSYCHIATRY FROM ANCIENT
TO MODERN TIMES

Henri F. Ellenberger


Introduction

MODERN PSYCHIATRY, like the other branches of science, is continually changing. Today's discovery will soon be made obsolete by tomorrow's discovery. At present certain medical papers mention only the literature of the past five years; the rest is almost as antiquated as Hippocrates. This being the case, one may wonder about the interest of the history of psychiatry and inquire into its meaning.

No science can progress if it lacks a solid theoretical fundament. There is no theory of science without a knowledge of the history of science, and no theory of psychiatry without a knowledge of the history of psychiatry. This becomes evident as soon as one ponders the basic principles of modem psychiatry. Why should we treat mental patients humanely? Is any kind of healing possible without a rational body of knowledge? Is there a difference between an empirical body of knowledge and a scientific, experimental one? Does psychiatry belong to medicine, or is it a science in its own right, or perhaps no science at all? In order to solve such problems philosophical cogitation is not enough: one needs a great deal of data, and these data can be secured only through historical inquiry. However, this implies in turn that historical inquiry be conducted not in an amateurish fashion, but by means of a scientific methodology.

Unfortunately medical history is a very young branch of science. It is not enough to say that there are wide gaps in our knowledge of Greco-Roman, Arabian, and medieval medicine (not to speak of Indian or Chinese medicine). The truth is that we possess only extremely fragmentary data, so that any reconstruction attempted on the basis of these data is doomed to be artificial. In regard to the last two or three centuries, the difficulty often stems from the immense accumulation of data, so that the trees hide the forest.

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