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  • Hildegard and Holism
  • Suzanne M. Phillips (bio) and Monique D. Boivin (bio)

biopsychosocial, integration, medieval, mental illness

We appreciate the careful and enriching commentary offered by Kroll and by Radden on our paper about holistic views of mental illness in the writings of the twelfth-century abbess and healer Hildegard of Bingen. Both reviewers are well-established figures in the study of historical perspectives on mental illness, an area that we have just begun to explore. We are glad for the opportunity to respond to their observations and thereby to continue the dialogue.

First, we would like to clarify our purpose in preparing this paper. Nowhere do we claim that Hildegard used a biopsychosocial model of mental illness, either in addressing the needs of the particular case of Sigewiza, or more generally in her writings on illness and health. In fact, we agree with Kroll (2007, 370), when he states that Hildegard did not use a biopsychosocial model. We use the term “biopsychosocial” only three times in the paper, always by contrast with what we see in Hildegard’s writings. The present-day biopsychosocial model focuses on getting a range of perspectives on the table, encouraging the consideration of biological, psychological, and social issues when thinking about mental illness. This is a good thing, but we argue that it does not go far enough. Specifically, there has been insufficient attention to ways these perspectives might interact.

How, then, might we describe Hildegard’s way of conceptualizing mental illness? In place of the label “biopsychosocial model,” Kroll suggests that Hildegard’s approach could be described as a “religious model” (p. 372). Here we disagree. By our reading, Hildegard’s description of mental illness involves religious components, certainly, but also humoral, astrological, interpersonal, community, and intrapsychic components. Radden correctly notes that we are not so much interested in the particular components as we are in their interactions. We are attracted to Hildegard’s writings because she attends to these interactions. Our students, like Kroll’s (p. 371), are curious about mind–body relationships, which represent one example of the interplay between components. Our concern is that the current biopsychosocial model often fails to satisfy our own, and our students’, interest in the nature of those interactions. Our hope is that Hildegard’s writings might help us to think more richly about the interactions.

As Radden (2007, 373) points out, present-day psychiatrists and psychologists do in fact use mul-ticausal accounts of depression. And we agree that such accounts need not be reductionistic (Kroll, 371). But we also recognize that psychology and psychiatry have well-established reductionist (more specifically, materialist) habits. To borrow [End Page 377] Kroll’s phrase, the biological model threatens “to swallow all other models” (p. 371). We must guard against such reductionism, given the habits of our disciplines. As we noted, McHugh and Slavney (1998) respond to that threat by building walls between the perspectives, suggesting that we might use different perspectives when thinking about different sorts of problems. We think that there ought to be more synthetic, holistic ways of responding to that threat, and we are hopeful that Hildegard’s writings can help us to develop those.

At a basic level, we see Hildegard asking different questions than people ask today. On the first page of his commentary, for example, Kroll poses the question of “which of these three modalities [bio-, psycho-, social] may be sufficient” (p. 369) in the particular medieval text. We found that the sufficiency of one modality or another does not concern Hildegard. We are not able to speak to the general point that Kroll raises, that one or another element is emphasized depending on the goal of the medieval text; we can report our experience in reading Hildegard, where we found no sense in which one or another component is privileged. Even though Hildegard operated within a thoroughly religious context, we did not find examples of her subsuming other factors under religion. Everything interacts with spiritual concerns, to be sure, but everything also interacts with the biological, and with the interpersonal, and with the astrological. Although it may seem odd to us post-Darwinian thinkers, Hildegard’s model is essentially...


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