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  • Wilhelm Griesinger: Psychiatry between Philosophy and Praxis
  • Katherine Arens (bio)

This essay discusses Wilhelm Griesinger’s seminal work on mental illness, Mental Pathology and Therapeutics (1867, trans. 1882), in the context of transcendental idealism, as an outgrowth of the work of Kant, Herbart, and Hegel. Griesinger drew on an adaptation of Hegel’s dialectical model of history and science to offer both a new way to interpret mental illness as a product of an individual’s long-term interactions with both nature and culture and a new norm for therapeutic practice based on the patient’s role in his community and history.

Mental Pathology and Therapeutics rests on Griesinger’s adaptation of the Hegelian dialectic to the context of pragmatic science, first by adopting its model of the mind, then by describing the etiology of mental disease and a taxonomy of its forms. Griesinger’s work thus stands in a largely unacknowledged tradition alive as late as Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.


Griesinger, history of psychiatry/psychology, idealism, Hegel, dialectic

In the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Griesinger (1817–68) emerged as a leader in a range of fields: modern-day psychiatric clinical practice, neuropathology, and diagnostics of mental diseases. 1 Griesinger was a theoretician, a clinician, a textbook author, and the founding editor of major professional organs in his field during the political and social ferment in the German-speaking world that allowed new, more socially responsible institutional practices to be considered by intellectual communities. As a consequence of 1849 German civil reforms, theory and practice became mutually enlightening, actually allowing Griesinger to implement his theories into concrete institutional reforms in the German mental health system.

Wilhelm Griesinger’s education and career were in many ways typical for his generation. He enrolled at the University of Tübingen in 1834 as a medical student; there, he became politically active (as a member of a forbidden fraternity), and, like many of his contemporaries, became familiar with Hegelian philosophy. After holding several private positions, he was appointed an associate professor (ausserordentlicher Professor) for pathology, “materia medica” and history of medicine at Tübingen in 1847. In 1848, he was called to Kiel; in 1850, to Egypt. Tübingen reappointed him as a full professor for clinical medicine and head of the university clinic in 1854. By 1860, he had moved to Zurich in a professorship for the medical clinic, where, starting in 1863, he was a key person in the planning of a new clinic for mental diseases—the Burghölzli, where Jung later worked. By 1865, he went to Berlin, as director of the Charité (mental institution), among other positions, and he wrote extensively about reform in asylum practice until his premature death in 1868.

To a degree, the eminence of this career is contradicted today by his reputation. Contemporary wisdom describes Griesinger as a synthesizer [End Page 147] rather than an innovator, a man who mixed medical psychology with psychology and psychiatric practice, allowing neurology to take a major role in the treatment of mental disease. 2 In one version, Griesinger simply pulled the clinic and the laboratory together, and so bridged Romanticism (i.e., speculative natural philosophy) and materialism (i.e., empirical science) while failing to effect crucial modern reforms. 3 In other descriptions, Griesinger is identified as an activist (Doerner 1981), a key player in the debates between the Hegelian left and right about the reformulation of public institutions (cf. Verwey 1985), 4 or a typical (but effective) member of the intellectual elite of his age. 5 None of these options explains the attractive or threatening aspects of his clinical practice, or suggests why a psychiatrist of his rank could have been so thoroughly refuted after his death. 6

The discussion which follows will try to remedy this lack by setting Griesinger’s approach to mental illness in the context of a transformation of a model from philosophy into medical practice. Griesinger’s scientific context strongly combined philosophical theorizing and empirical practice, a synthesis that later generations tended to denigrate as a “speculative” approach to a branch of medicine that required a more empirical foundation. Drawing on an adaptation of Hegel’s dialectical model of history and...

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