Discursive Schemes of Human Improvement: The Case of French Psychiatry

  • Sophie Pia Stieger (Vortragende*r)

Aktivität: VorträgeVortragScience to Science


In the last few decades, the traditional grand narratives of the Enlightenment – as a linear process where reason and science won over belief and religious superstition – have given way to more complex stories of different Enlightenments. Far from unitary, what can be defined as the Age of Enlightenment is a multitude of twisted and tangled stories, shaped by specific national (Porter/Teich 1981) and religious (Sorkin 2008) contexts, unintended trajectories, and meanwhile forgotten ideological conflicts. My doctoral project is dedicated to such stories and their results, namely the ones that tell of people and their improvement.
The question of what it actually entails to be human was highly contested in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the interpretative sites where this battle was fought was the soul. The conflict over what the soul is, how it functions, and even if it existed at all produced different ideas of subjectivity and went hand in hand with the question of how to improve, how to influence, heal, and educate people. In the 19th century, specialized academic disciplines arose out of these struggles for the soul, dedicated to produce scientific knowledge about the true human condition and the possibilities, strategies and means of (self-)improvement. As research on the Protestant roots of early psychology has shown, these ‘soul sciences’ did not manifest out of thin air but in reaction to specific ways of reasoning about the soul that were pertinent in various religious contexts. For Protestant psychologists, the individual’s soul not only became a primary scientific concern but also “the central object of education” and a driving force of the “educationalization of the world” (Tröhler 2016, 5). While the Protestant tradition of psychological and educational reasoning about the individual self may be the most dominant in our discipline, as we came to know it, it is not the only one. Therefore, my Ph.D. project aims to contrast this narrative with two alternative case studies: The emergence of psychiatry in Catholic milieus in France and the birth of psychoanalysis in Jewish milieus in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
In my presentation, I will give a general overview of my Ph.D. project and discuss findings from my French case study. I will foremost focus on theological controversies about the soul in the first half of the 18th century and the rise of sensualism and medical materialism as historical conditions that that prefigured the emergence of psychiatry and enabled specific ideologies of human improvement. Unlike psychology and psychoanalysis, French psychiatry is, in a sense, a soul- science after the fact, embedded in a rather different discursive framework. By telling the story of the peculiar fate “the soul” met in the French Enlightenment, I aim to make this framework visible.
Zeitraum2 Okt. 2021
EreignistitelThe Vienna-Madison-Chapel Hill-Stanford-Aalborg Doctoral Colloquium for the History and Politics of Education
VeranstaltungstypVortragsreihe, Kolloquium
OrtKopenhagen, DänemarkAuf Karte anzeigen


  • Bildungsgeschichte
  • Diskursanalyse
  • Wissenschaftsgeschichte
  • Historische Epistemologie