Is There any Chance for a Biologically-Oriented History Of Psychiatry?

Avant, Vol. XI, No. 1, doi: 10.26913/avant.2020.01.03
published under license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Krystyna Bielecka orcid-id
University of Warsaw, Poland @

Published 11 November 2019   Download full text

Abstract: Historia polskiego szaleństwa (History of Polish Madness) by Mira Marcinów is the first book on the history of melancholy in Poland. Nowadays we use a term „depression” instead of „melancholy” so Marcinów’s topic of study somehow corresponds to the concept of depression in modern psychiatry. In the first volume Słońce wśród czarnego nieba: Studium melancholii (The Study of Melancholy: The Sun with the Black Sky), Marcinów presents an original view on the history of the concept of Polish melancholy of the 19th century. It is both a conceptual and fascinating historic work, a large part of which contains a collection of personal case studies, unknown previously to historians of psychiatry, found by Marcinów in diaries or other forgotten notes or records.
In my paper, I want to analyze her claims about the relation between medicine and psychology in Poland of the 19th century that became a leitmotif of the book. Marcinów emphasizes that in the very beginning of psychiatry, all biological and psychological factors underlying psychopathologies (especially, melancholy) were understood as different and strictly separated. It contradicts the fact that psychiatric descriptions and explanations, as one can notice in the records cited, remind us of a mixed-bag of psychological and biological descriptions and explanations rather than a clear-cut distinction between them. My claim is that some of hidden philosophical assumptions that Marcinów slightly gestures toward in her book are responsible for the fact that such division between the mental and the somatic is so common in psychiatric explanations even nowadays (it is worth noticing that the situation in neuroscience is much different). I will then make explicit some of her philosophical assumptions (section 1). Furthermore, I will argue against Marcinów’s assumption that psychology should be considered autonomously from medicine. I will claim that a mixed view on psychopathologies fits very well the historical facts and is much more fruitful. I will then present a draft of an alternative philosophical framework that could rejoin two apparently different perspectives—psychological and medical—in order to explain further why some disordered mental states could have meaning (section 2) This alternative framework, in my opinion, would be useful in a more nuanced understanding of how the notion of melancholy emerged and eventually dissolved. In the last section, I will summarize the main points of the paper.

Keywords:  history of psychiatry; melancholy; biology; medicine; psychology


Ahn, W., Proctor, C. C., & Flanagan, E. H. (2009). Mental Health Clinicians’ Beliefs About the Biological, Psychological, and Environmental Bases of Mental Disorders. Cognitive Science, 33(2), 147-182.
Anscombe, G. E. (1957). Intention. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell
Bickhard, M. H. (2009). The interactivist model. Synthese, 166(3), 547-591.
Bielecka, K., & Marcinów, M. (2017). Mental Misrepresentation in Non-human Psychopathology. Biosemiotics, 10(2), 195-210.
Borsboom, D., Cramer, A., & Kalis, A. (2018). Brain disorders? Not really… Why network structures block reductionism in psychopathology research. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 42, 1-54.
Ciecierski, T. (2013). Nastawienia sądzeniowe: Wykłady z filozofii psychologii. Warszawa, Poland: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
Cooper, D. (1967). Psychiatry and Anti-psychiatry. London, UK: Paladin.
Crane, T. (2003). The Mechanical Mind (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge.
Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, reasons and causes. Journal of Philosophy, 60(23), 685-700.
Davidson, D. (1982). Rational animals. Dialectica, 36(4), 317-328.
de Masi, F. (2018). Wykłady z psychoanalizy: Pojęcia i historia ich rozwoju. Warszawa, Poland: Oficyna Ingenium.
Dennett, D. (1969). Content and Consciousness. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Foucault M. (1965). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. (R. Howard, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage.
Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. London, UK: Tavistock Publications.
Fuchs, T. (2007). Psychotherapy of the Lived Space: A Phenomenological and Ecological Concept. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 61(4), 423-439.
Fulford, K. W. M. (2000). Teleology without Tears: Naturalism, Neo-Naturalism, and Evaluationism in the Analysis of Function Statements in Biology (and a Bet on the Twenty-first Century). Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 7(1), 77-94.
Gipps, R. G. T., & Fulford, K. W. M. (Bill). (2004). Understanding the clinical concept of delusion: from an estranged to an engaged epistemology. International Review of Psychiatry, 16(3), 225-235.
Goffman, E. (1971). Insanity of Place. In: Relations in Public, Microstudies of the Public Order. London, UK: Harper, p. 335-390.
Jaspers K. (1963).General Psychopathology. (J. Hoenig, M. W. Hamilton, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Kendler, K. S. (2005). Toward a Philosophical Structure for Psychiatry. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(3), 433-440.
Laing, R. D. (1960). The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
Marcinów, M. (2017). Historia polskiego szaleństwa. Słońce wśród czarnego nieba: studium melancholii (Vol. 1). Gdańsk, Poland: Fundacja Terytoria Książki.
Micale, M. S., & Porter, R. (Eds.). (1994). Discovering the history of psychiatry. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Middleton, H., & Moncrieff, J. (2019). Critical psychiatry: A brief overview. BJPsych Advances, 25(1), 47-54.
Millikan, R. G. (1984). Language, thought, and other biological categories: New foundations for realism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Nesse, R. M. (2009). Evolution at 150: Time for truly biological psychiatry. The British Journal Psychiatry, 195(6), 471-472.
Pitt, D. (2013). Mental Representation. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from
Szasz, T. (1960). The Myth of Mental Illness. American Psychologist, 15, 113-118.
Szasz, T. (1997). The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Walicki, A. (2000). L. Kołakowski i warszawska szkoła historyków idei. In R. Sitek (Ed.), Warszawska szkoła historii idei. Między historią a teraźniejszością (pp. 229-249). Warszawa, Poland: Scholar.

Comments are closed.