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  • Commentary on “Wilhelm Griesinger”
  • Aaron L. Mishara (bio)

Arens situates Wilhelm Griesinger in a historical context with which we are no longer familiar. In doing so, she has performed an important task for contemporary clinicians, philosophers, and historians. We find ourselves working and thinking (both in everyday clinical practice and in the construction of our models of mental disorder) with the same categories that Griesinger struggled to sort out and redefine; we often do so, however, without awareness of their history or lack of permanence. Ackerknecht writes that all the dominant trends in modern psychiatry can be traced back to Griesinger; he states that Griesinger is the “founder of neuropsychiatry,” a “merging of the two disciplines” neurology and psychiatry. Griesinger presents us with a “systematic synthesis of the anatomical, physiological, psychological and clinical points of view” (Ackerknecht 1959, 63). Somewhat contrarily, Karl Jaspers, in his General Psychopathology, groups Griesinger with the great observers and describers of clinical experience rather than among the systematic analyzers (Jaspers 1963, 849–50). Although Griesinger is best known for his identification of mental disorders as a subset of brain diseases, Karl Bonhoeffer, a successor to Griesinger as director of the Charité Clinic in Berlin, cautions that Griesinger “continued to see in psychological causes the most frequent and abundant source of mental disorders” (Bonhoeffer 1911, 53). Kales, Kales, and Vela-Bueno, however, write, “Griesinger was representative of a clinical movement that minimized the value of psychological concepts in the understanding of mental diseases” (Kales, Kales, and Vela-Bueno 1990, 15). Precisely because of his importance, contention surrounds his legacy.

If Griesinger is the pioneer of empirical approaches in biological neuropsychiatry (as Ackerknecht and others claim), he is also precursor to philosophical criticisms of their limits. It is not so easy to lump Griesinger to one side of the oppositions with which we think today: Griesinger’s scientific psychiatry (formed on the basis of the newly emergent empirical physiology) was meant to steer between the Scylla of the previously reigning overspeculative romantic medicine and the Charybdis of the antitheoretical and “positivistic” materialism of Magendie. As Arens suggests, even during the same generation of university psychiatry which Griesinger was critical in forming, he was posthumously denounced as belonging to the Hegelian idealists; later, he was proclaimed to be an empiricist. Griesinger’s work contained both idealism and empiricism in a fragile synthesis that soon broke asunder.

Hermeneutic theory points out that we inevitably interpret an author, in this case, Griesinger, in terms of the prejudices of our own present context of understanding and our current problems of application to clinical practice (Gadamer 1993). On the one hand, we benefit from the advantage of seeing all that follows Griesinger’s work and are able to “understand the author [End Page 165] better than he understood himself.” We are able to see what he only anticipates but is still not able to explicitly articulate as the unpredicted effects of his work. On the other hand, our interpretations are encumbered by the sedimentations of the views of his successors: his work lies buried under the subsequent interpretations and vicissitudes of a reception with its own agendas, contexts of interpretation, and realms of application. It would be easier if we could simply assign him to one side of our current debates concerning mind/body, individual/culture, and explanation/understanding rather than seeing that our present quandaries in understanding, classifying, and treating mental disorder result precisely from a reading of Griesinger that is not careful enough. It is here that Arens can help us develop our present views further by reviewing their past.

Although Griesinger is heralded as the pioneer of an empirical physiological approach which employs a natural scientific concept of mechanism (Ackerknecht, O. Marx, Verwey), Arens situates him in the tradition of Kant and German idealism. It is perhaps this solution of being both philosophical and empirical which seems hard for us, today, to understand. We have come to view these directions as contradictory, to be necessarily in a mutually exclusive relationship. (But that is rather the expression of the present impasse and not the way that Griesinger originally approached these problems.) Arens ambitiously retraces the genealogy of Griesinger’s model...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3303
Print ISSN
1071-6076
Pages
pp. 165-167
Launched on MUSE
1996-09-01
Open Access
No
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