Travels with Ian Hacking
Brought to you by The Slippery Brain Sodality
Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses
by Ian Hacking
This book (actually, a series of lectures with supplementing documents) was mentioned in a Jan. 10, 2010 New York Times Magazine article on the Americanization of Mental Illness. Using the fugue as a case example, Hacking sets forth a framework for thinking about and understanding how it is that madness (and distress more generally) comes to be expressed in ways specific to a given time and place. His main contribution is the concept of an "ecological niche," a metaphor he argues is more useful for thinking about the ephemerality of certain disorders than, say, social constructionism. His hope is that readers will extend this framework to thinking about present-day diagnostic vogues.
From Chapter 1:
"Perhaps all our problems will be erased when we have enough objective scientific knowledge. I have a another view. We do have a limitless reservoir of ignorance, but we also have conceptual confusions that new knowledge seldom helps relieve. There are a number of reasons for this, but I am especially impressed by the way that scientific knowledge about ourselves - the mere belief system - changes how we think of ourselves, the possibilities that are open to us, the kinds of people that we take ourselves and our fellows to be. Knowledge interacts with us and with a larger body of practice and ordinary life. This generates socially permissible combinations of symptoms and disease entities." (p.10)
"I believe that most important conceptual difficulties are rather unyielding [to efforts at clarification]. This is because they result from some fundamental incoherence in the underlying organization of our ideas - ideas that we will not give up partly because they are essential to the ways in which we do think. [...] No amount of analysis makes deep confusion evaporate...[but] there are things we can do. One is to examine in some detail a manageable example in which many of the ingredients of the confusion are plainly on view. Enter Albert. Enter the fugue epidemic of the 1890s." (pp. 11-12)
Comments, reactions welcome below...
(While this page is part of an ongoing book club discussion, visitors are warmly invited to share their experiences and join the conversation.)