Conference Agenda

6B: Continuity, Convergence and Consensus Between Religion and the Mind Sciences
Thursday, 09/Sept/2021:
10:45am - 12:00pm

Session Chair: Prof. Benoit Majerus, Université du Luxembourg


Continuity, Convergence and Consensus Between Rligion and the Mind Sciences

Chair(s): Majerus, Benoit (University of Luxembourg), Leclercq, Valérie B. (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)

The development of western medicine has traditionally been thought of as running parallel to the progress of secularization. In the last decades, however, historians have found and explored many places of continuity between religion and the modern medical domains. The mind sciences in particular have had to grapple with their pre-modern theological heritage, oftentimes prolonging it in new and ambiguous ways well into the 19th and 20th centuries. In this panel we would like to explore instances of continuity, convergence or consensus between religion and the mind sciences, particularly in the psychological and neurological discourses of the two last centuries.


Presentations of the Symposium


The Politics of Hallucinations in Mid-Nineteenth-century France

Novella, Enric
University of Valencia

Since they were canonically described by Jean-Étienne-Dominique Esquirol, hallucinations became one of the distinctive, yet most controversial, symptoms of modern psychological medicine. Therefore, the central decades of the nineteenth century witnessed –particularly in France– numerous discussions related to their definition, their psychopathological understanding, and their semiological value that reflected not only clinical or theoretical questions –such as their relationship with sensorial images or their possible analogies with sleep or mystic states–, but also significant epistemological and ideological concerns. Some alienists, for example, did not hesitate to qualify as veritable hallucinations some of the ‘extraordinary’ experiences of great men such as Moses, Socrates or Pascal, outlining an alternative, rational and secular interpretation of these phenomena against the traditional narratives from religion or art. However, other authors strongly rejected these views, defended the compatibility of hallucinatory phenomena with the integrity of reason and even postulated the existence of so-called ‘physiological hallucinations’. This was the case of Alexandre Brierre de Boismont, who stood out for his indignation over attempts to retrospectively ‘diagnose’ outstanding figures of thought, literature and –above all– religion who had supposedly experienced hallucinations. In this presentation, I will try to summarize the central elements of this debate and reassess it within the background of the epistemological problems faced by early alienists when establishing the boundaries of insanity and normality at a psychological level, as well as in the context of the conflicts accompanying the deployment of the new gaze embodied by the concepts and categories of psychological medicine.


The Making and Unmaking of Magical Temporalities in English Primary Care

Hayward, Rhodri
University of London

Since the end of the nineteenth century, physicians confronted with anomalous phenomena have sought to make sense of them through the invocation of alternative temporalities. They engage in a kind of ‘time work’ attributing incongruous physical symptoms to different orders of time. At its most prosaic level, this time work takes place in the turn to psychosomatic explanations with aberrant physical changes being described as primitive responses to present day challenges. With the growing acceptance of the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion in the early decades of the twentieth century, individuals were seen as being caught between the current time of the central and somatic nervous systems and the primordial time of the autonomic.

Within medicine and the mind sciences, time work could be used to contest religious phenomena. From the beginning of the twentieth-century, prophetic visions and religious stigmata were often read, not as signs of a divine future, but as manifestations of subconscious history. Such histories, however, sometimes escaped mundane time. This paper will explore the work of the English general practitioner, Arthur Guirdham (1905-1992) who in the 1950s began to read his own symptoms, and those of his patents, as fragments of their previous incarnations as Cathar heretics facing the Inquisition in early thirteenth-century France. Guirdham's example allows us to think about the way the temporal rhetoric of medicine and the mind sciences can be used for making and unmaking supernatural claims.


What Religion Does to the Brain: Ideological Consensus and Negotiations in the Nineteenth-Century Belgian Sciences of the Mind

Leclercq, Valérie B.
Université Libre de Bruxelles

This paper will explore the views of catholic and liberal physicians who, in the mid-1870s, were engaged in two of the longest debates that ever took place at the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium in the nineteenth century. Both debates were concerned with issues of cerebral pathology and raised the question of religion and its impact on the human brain. Going beyond the seemingly clear-cut antagonism that separated liberal physicians and their catholic counterparts – the first condemning religion as a cause of brain disease, the latter seeing in Catholicism a possible means of mental prophylaxis –, this paper seeks to understand the deeper loci of ideological consensus on which both groups built their proto-neurological discourses. It will then question the link between such tacit form of consensus and the perceived ideological neutrality of nineteenth-century scientific spaces. For under the relentless discord that fuelled the debates laid a belief shared by most speakers that some form of religion was paramount to cerebral health. Another such collectively shared notion maintained that public mental health depended on the upholding of a social status-quo promoted at the time both by conservative Liberals and the Catholic Church. By looking at the complex ideological layering of these discourses, it is my ambition not only to deconstruct the political and religious biases that accompanied the medicalisation of mental acts such as thinking, feeling and practicing faith, but also to gain a better understanding of the process of secularisation of medicine in Catholic countries like Belgium.