Voices in History
AbstractExperiences of “hearing voices” nowadays usually count as verbal hallucinations and they indicate serious mental illness. Some are first rank symptoms of schizophrenia, and the mass media, at least in Britain, tend to present them as antecedents of impulsive violence. They are, however, also found in other psychiatric conditions and epidemiological surveys reveal that even individuals with no need of psychiatric help can hear voices, sometimes following bereavement or abuse, but sometimes for no discernible reason. So do these experiences necessarily mean insanity and violence, and must they be thought of as pathogenic hallucinations; or are there other ways to understand them and live with them, and with what consequences?
One way to make our thinking more flexible is to turn to history. We find that hearing voices was always an enigmatic experience, and the people who had it were rare. The gallery of voice hearers is, though, distinguished and it includes Galilei, Bunyan and St Teresa. Socrates heard a daemon who guided his actions, but in his time this did not signify madness, nor was it described as a hallucination. Yet in 19th century French psychological medicine the daemon became a hallucination and Socrates was retrospectively diagnosed as mentally ill. This paper examines the controversies which surrounded the experience at different points in history as well as the practice of retrospective psychiatry. The conclusion reached on the basis of the historical materials is that the experience and the ontological status it is ascribed are not trans-cultural or trans-historic but situated both in history and in the contemporary conflicts.
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