The Essentialism of Early Modern Psychiatric Nosology

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 45 (2):1-25 (2023)
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Are psychiatric disorders natural kinds? This question has received a lot of attention within present-day philosophy of psychiatry, where many authors debate the ontology and nature of mental disorders. Similarly, historians of psychiatry, dating back to Foucault, have debated whether psychiatric researchers conceived of mental disorders as natural kinds or not. However, historians of psychiatry have paid little to no attention to the influence of (a) theories within logic, and (b) theories within metaphysics on psychiatric accounts of proper method, and on accounts of the nature and classification of mental disorders. Historically, however, logic and metaphysics have extensively shaped methods and interpretations of classifications in the natural sciences. This paper corrects this lacuna in the history of psychiatry, and demonstrates that theories within logic and metaphysics, articulated by Christian Wolff (1679-1754), have significantly shaped the conception of medical method and (psychiatric) nosology of the influential nosologist Boissier De Sauvages (1706-1767). After treating Sauvages, I discuss the method of the influential nosologist William Cullen (1710-1790), and demonstrate the continuity between the classificatory methods of Sauvages and Cullen. I show that both Sauvages and Cullen were essentialists concerning medical diseases in general and psychiatric disorders in particular, contributing to the history of conceptions of the ontology and nature of mental disorders.

Author's Profile

Hein Van Den Berg
University of Amsterdam


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