Tag Archives: medicine

Essay: “‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination”

“‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination,” wrote Christopher Goodey (2004) in Medical History, 48(3). Why, yes, I thought. It does. And it seems especially apropos to revisit this topic today: through his delving into the past, we may well find a more interesting interpretation of contemporary pranksters’ April tomfoolery.

As Goodey points out, “foolishness” is often equated with a kind of “mental deficiency.” (Early texts describing it are now read by doctors as having anticipated modern diagnoses.) And the origins of April Fools’ Day could be read in this way too: on the earliest appearance of the day in English literature — as the 32nd of March — Chaucer’s (1392) cockerel Chanticleer was tricked into being eaten by a sly fox, who was then in turn tricked into letting his dinner escape (in the Canterbury Tales).

But did the origins of April Fools’ Day, in the Middle Ages, reflect this contemporary understanding? Has “foolishness” always been the opposite of “intelligence”?

Goodey suggests that the answer to this question is, simply, “no.” It is misleading, he shows, to reduce one to the other.

The idea of an intelligence peculiar to the human species… arrived only after logic-based methods started to be used to define essences of species, i.e. with the birth of modern biological classification in the eighteenth century. An ability for abstract thinking was perceived as universally human only when political and ecclesiastical élites were challenged over their divine right to prescribe the abstract principles known as “common ideas” to the rest of the population, and individuals started getting ideas by themselves. (p. 290)

In other words, the notion of intelligence as we think of it today is a relatively modern invention. As a result, we cannot read its meaning — or its opposite — into the texts of earlier writers.

Yet, it is the case that many contemporary April Fools’ Day pranks assume the mental deficiency of their targets (i.e., they assume their audience is “stupid”). Having accepted Goodey’s invitation to examine the notion more closely, however, I now suggest that this need not be the case.

Instead, I suggest that “stupid” pranks can be understood as reflecting a fundamental presentism. Recognizing this, and applying Hacking‘s notion of “the looping effect,” there then also seems to be a way out: contemporary pranksters have been led, by this misunderstanding of historical sources, to act differently than they might have otherwise.

Delving still more deeply, it seems that historicist readings of “foolishness” — and thus also of April Fools’ Day — may well be more subversive (and more interesting) than is usually thought at present. As Goodey points out:

Erasmus’s Praise of folly and Brant’s Ship of fools both use foolishness allegorically to attack political and ecclesiastical élites. (p. 292)

We are thus led to wonder: Were Chanticleer and the fox both actually stupid? Or did Chaucer use their foolishness to afford a commentary on a larger issue?

Thus, to close: if you pranked someone today, did your prank assume they were stupid? Or were you subverting something larger?

Conference on the Future Medical History

Here’s a quickie. For full info, go here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/histmed/future_histmed

The Future of Medical History

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International Conference

15th – 17th July 2010

Goodenough College, Bloomsbury, London

The Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine is hosting a three-day international conference on the future of the history of medicine. Papers are invited on the disciplinary and methodological challenges facing the field in all aspects of research and resourcing, not excluding media technologies and publishing.

Session Themes

‘The Neurological Turn’
‘The Place of Non-Humans in the project of Medical Humanism’
‘Intra AsiaEurope: Technologies of self and substance’
‘Global Health’

Petition to Save History of Medicine at UCL

University College LondonThe petition reads:

On March 31st the Wellcome Trust and UCL [University College London] announced the closure of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine. This decision came in the middle of negotiations concerning the normal quinquennial review of funding for the Centre. The proposal to close the Centre was made by a handful of persons within the Wellcome Trust without, as far as is known, the involvement of any historian of medicine. We call upon the Trust to reconsider its decision, reinstate the independent peer review process, and permit any subsequent Centre to remain within the Wellcome building. We call upon UCL to maintain the history of medicine as a visible entity within College serving both historians and medics.

To sign the petition, go here: http://www.petitiononline.com/WTCHOM/

Please circulate widely.

Making Visible Embryos

Another visually interesting website that may be of interest to AHP readers: Making Visible Embryos. The site consists of historical images related to human development arranged in eight sections: Unborn, Development, Learning, Evolution, Remodelling, Standards, Monitoring, and Intervention. Though the site covers a variety of related issues, focus is on imaging technologies and the people responsible for making embryos visible.

Thanks to HT student (YorkU) and History & Theory of Psychology Student Network webmaster, Jacy Young, for bringing this one to our attention.

Read Till You’re Crazy

Samuel TissotStudying too hard is bad for your health, according to a book by the 18th-century physician Samuel Tissot entitled Diseases Incidental to Literary and Sedentary Persons, with Proper Rules for Preventing Their Fatal Consequences, and Instructions for Their Cure. The Guardian‘s Marc Abrahams, who writes a regular column entitled “Improbable Research” has just posted a dispatch about Tissot’s book, which reports on a number of nasty encounters between the human body and concentrating on any one subject for too long.

[Philosopher Nicolas] Malebranche was seized with dreadful palpitations with reading Descartes’s Man; and there is still living in Paris a professor of rhetoric who fainted away whilst he was perusing some of the sublime passages of Homer. Continue reading Read Till You’re Crazy

New History of Medicine Website

The Science Museum, London launched a new website today called “Brought to Life.” The site provides a new history of medicine resource that includes 2,500 images from the Science Museum’s collection as well as descriptions of numerous individuals, technologies, objects, and themes from medicine’s history. According to the announcement made on the H-Net listserv for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology, the website is scheduled to receive another 4,000 images over the coming year.

Continue reading New History of Medicine Website

NY Review of Books on Physicians & Big Pharma

I have written quite a lot recently on the stunning revelations that have come forth from Iowa Senator Charles Grassley’s hearings on the extraordinarily lucrative connections between pharmaceutical companies and a number of highly influential psychiatrists. Now Marcia Angell has published a piece in the New York Review of Books summarizing what has been learned so far, and looking forward to what is yet to be learned. Importantly, psychiatry is only one of the medical disciplines that have been “corrupted” (as she puts it) by Big Pharma. Angell writes: Continue reading NY Review of Books on Physicians & Big Pharma

Physiology from Antiquity to Early Modern Europe

A call for papers that I thought might interest some of our readers.


Intersections. Yearbook for Early modern Studies, Leiden

25.08.2008-01.11.2008, Leiden

Deadline: 01.11.2008

Call for papers: ‘Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The Changing Concepts of Physiology from Antiquity into Early Modern Europe’ (Intersections, volume 21)

While the topic of anatomy, the structure of the body, has been the subject of considerable recent study, that of physiology, the theory of the normal functioning of living organisms, has received much less attention. To reach a better understanding of what was new in Early Modern Europe we need a thorough contextual interpretation of Ancient, Medieval ? including the Arabic tradition ? and Renaissance theories. Continue reading Physiology from Antiquity to Early Modern Europe