Epidemic Depression and Burtonian Melancholy

Philosophical Papers 36 (3):443-464 (2007)
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Data indicate the ubiquity and rapid increase of depression wherever war, want and social upheaval are found. The goal of this paper is to clarify such claims and draw conceptual distinctions separating the depressive states that are pathological from those that are normal and normative responses to misfortune. I do so by appeal to early modern writing on melancholy by Robert Burton, where the inchoate and boundless nature of melancholy symptoms are emphasized; universal suffering is separated from the disease states known as melancholy or melancholia, and normal temperamental variation is placed in contrast to such disease states. In Burton's time these distinctions and characterizations could be secured by the anchoring tenets of humoral theory. Without such anchoring, and in light of the findings and assumptions of today's biological diagnostic psychiatry, we must re-visit each of them. My goals here are to show the need for analytic foundations when claims are made about depression such as those cited above, and to draw attention to some contemporary attempts that may help provide those foundations, particularly, attempts to define disorder or disease. With adjustments, one of these (Cooper 2002) is shown to take us some way toward that goal

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Jennifer Radden
University of Massachusetts, Boston


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