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  • Wilhelm Griesinger: Psychiatrie als ärztlicher Humanismus
  • Eric J. Engstrom
Gerlof Verwey . Wilhelm Griesinger: Psychiatrie als ärztlicher Humanismus. Nijmegen, The Netherlands: Arts & Boeve, 2004. x + 109 pp. Ill. No price given (paperbound, 90-75341-31-8).

Like his earlier work Psychiatry in an Anthropological and Biomedical Context (1985), Gerlof Verwey's most recent book on Wilhelm Griesinger is a careful, concise, and clearly argued study. He begins by briefly situating Griesinger in the political and cultural climes of Biedermeier Germany, spanning the divide between bourgeois, apolitical quietism on the one hand, and sociopolitical and revolutionary engagement on the other. Then, after a short biographic sketch, he turns to the main focus of his study—namely, Griesinger's medical self-understanding as both a scientist and an ethical humanist. In Verwey's account, Griesinger's most important psychiatric legacy lies in the realm of medical ethics. Whereas other accounts stress his conceptual contributions to biological or psychodynamic psychiatry, Verwey argues for a more subtle history of Griesinger's reception that stresses, above all, its normative content.

In many respects, Verwey's study represents an attempt to correct a number of distortions in the historiographic literature. For example, one of the chief aims in this book is to refute Erwin Ackerknecht's claim that Griesinger was an eclectic thinker. On the contrary, Verwey argues, Griesinger's work represents a profound synthesis that integrated anatomic localism and biological functionalism, neurophysiology and psychology, theory and practice. Furthermore, contrary to many histories of dynamic psychiatry that situate Griesinger between Johann Friedrich Herbart and Sigmund Freud on an historical trajectory leading to the "discovery" of the subconscious, Verwey argues that his voluntarism, his emphasis on cerebral physiology, and his use of psychology in psychiatry all suggest greater affinity with the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer. Verwey also argues that Griesinger began [End Page 379] distancing himself from Albert Zeller's concept of "unitary psychosis" as early as 1842 and not, as is commonly assumed, following the work of Ludwig Snell in 1865. Finally, he maintains that Griesinger's humanistic values can be traced back to Maximilian Jacobi and his own family roots in southwest German Pietism.

With these interpretive revisions, Verwey succeeds in giving us a "new" Griesinger, whose subtlety and complexity of thought are not sacrificed to larger historiographic narratives. Indeed, throughout the book Verwey takes issue with historians who either construct all-too-simplistic lines of continuity or ignore very real historical disjunction. Instead, he argues for a new methodological approach to the study of Griesinger's legacy: a Wirkungsgeschichte that distinguishes between concepts and values.

But the problem with narrating Griesinger's life in terms of normative values—that is, as a history of psychiatric humanism—is that the story cannot adequately explain why he became such a controversial figure in German psychiatry in the late 1860s. In particular, situating him in a history of psychiatric humanism tends to set up his opponents, the "conservative alienists," as the bogeymen of psychiatric history. To explain Griesinger's contested standing, Verwey has little option but to tar alienists with the black brush of inhumanity and attribute Griesinger's own inflammatory rhetoric to his scientific and deeply humanistic convictions. While these are not implausible attributions and motives, they do not suffice as explanations for the vehemence of the dispute over asylum reform. While humanitarian values certainly played a part in Griesinger's rejection of the administrative differentiation of curable vs. incurable patients, and in his preference for short-term rather than long-term care facilities, what really drove the dispute was the radical reorganization of psychiatric work, and indeed the usurpation of alienist power, that his reform agenda entailed. In a study that calls for a more subtle assessment of Griesinger's legacy, it is strange that Verwey pays so little attention to a dispute that spawned what is perhaps his "greatest" legacy: the deep-seated and long-lasting division between academic and alienist psychiatry in Germany.

Notwithstanding this critique, Verwey's study is certainly the best short account we have of Griesinger's thought and its humanistic underpinnings. Verwey has raised the bar for future biographies and has provided a forceful rebuttal to all those...


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