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This article highlights the epistemic concerns that have permeated the historical discourse around charlatanism. In it, I study the term “charlatan” as a multivalent actor’s category without a stable referent. Instead of defining or identifying “the charlatan,” I analyze how the concept of the charlatan was used to make epistemic interventions about what constituted credible knowledge in two interconnected controversies. Focusing on these controversies allows me to thematize how the concept of “the charlatan” expanded beyond medical contexts and to bring a history of knowledge perspective to the history of medicine.
The title of the article, “Charlatan Epistemology,” indicates a historical epistemological approach to charlatanism as well as the existence of a charlatan’s embodied epistemology. On the one hand, I historicize the epistemic characteristics of charlatanism, focusing on virtues as well as vices, knowledge as well as ignorance, by addressing the historical and contextual specificities of two case studies and the larger epistemic concerns at play. On the other hand, I show how references to charlatanism implied the existence of specific embodied knowledges, special skills and techniques to manipulate either natural secrets or the human psyche, and I explore the similarities and differences between charlatan epistemology and artisanal epistemology.
Raspail’s domestic medicine method, popularized in 1840s France, has similarities with the practices of nineteenth century non-academic healers. His mass marketing of camphor as a universal treatment echoes the practices of “charlatans” and their circles. But Raspail is also very original in this history of popular care. As a scientist, a popularizer of encyclopedic knowledge and a political activist, he managed to blur traditional distinctions between science and politics and between popular and learned medicine. Raspail was a constant thorn in the side of academic institutions and professional organizations, which were struggling to gain legitimacy. His work took a political turn when he combined, within a single project, his approach to treatment and his call for democratizing medical care. Raspail’s method challenged institutional norms by acknowledging the importance of the patient’s contribution to the healing process, and recognizing the necessity of thwarting the occasionally deleterious effects of monopolistic medicalization.
This paper analyzes the public fasts of two Italian “hunger artists,” Giovanni Succi and Stefano Merlatti, in Paris in 1886, and their ability to forego eating for a long period (thirty and fifty days respectively). Some contemporary witnesses described them as clever frauds, but others considered them to be interesting physiological anomalies. Controversies about their fasts entered academic circles, but they also spread throughout the urban public at different levels. First, Succi and Merlatti steered medical debates among physicians on the “scientific” explanations of the limits of human resistance to inanition, and acted as ideal mediators for doctors’ professional interests. Second, they became useful tools for science popularizers in their attempt to gain authority in drawing the boundaries between “orthodox” and “heterodox” knowledge. Finally, in the 1880s, Succi and Merlatti’s contest, the controversy around the liquids they ingested, and their scientific supervision by medical doctors, all reinforced their own professional status as itinerant fasters in a golden decade for that kind of endeavor. For all those reasons, Succi and Merlatti can be viewed as useful, epistemologically-active charlatans.
This article examines the medical and political discussions regarding a controversial medicinal bark from Ecuador – cundurango – that was actively sponsored by the Ecuadorian government as a new botanical cure for cancer in the late nineteenth century United States and elsewhere. The article focuses on the commercial and diplomatic interests behind the public discussion and advertising techniques of this drug. It argues that diverse elements – including the struggle for positioning scientific societies and the disapproval of the capacities of Ecuadorian doctors, US abolitionist history, regional and local political struggles – played a role in the quackery accusations against cundurango and its promoters. The development and international trade of this remedy offer interesting insights into the global history of drugs, particularly how medical knowledge was challenged during a period when scientific medicine was struggling for hegemony. It explores how newspapers expanded “the public interest” in a possible cancer cure.
Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) is remembered as one of the most famous mediums in the history of spiritualism. Renowned scientists attended her séances in Europe and in the United States. They often had to admit to being unable to understand the origin of the phenomena produced. Cesare Lombroso, for example, after meeting Eusapia, was converted first to mediumism, then spiritualism. This article will retrace the early stages of her career as a medium and shed light on the way she managed to gain the attention of scientists. It will also show why they chose her as an epistemic object.
In the early twentieth century, counting and speaking horses, like the famous Clever Hans or the “Horses of Elberfeld,” became widely debated subjects in experimental psychology. The idea was to determine whether their learning success was only a fraud, or if it might open up a new chapter in “animal psychology” - or even belong to the realm of parapsychology and telepathy. When their tricks were discovered, the teachers of the animals were marked as charlatans. Both the attempts to detect charlatans and the efforts to avoid this accusation during the talking horse experiments proceeded using the method of introducing new levels of communication into the human-animal interaction process in order to substantiate each respective standpoint. This paper argues that the scientific studies and debates on the talking horses are relevant not only from psychological, biological, and semiotic vantage points, but also from the perspective of communications theory, giving rise to the foundational issue of levels of communication.
The world of charlatans is a world of constantly shifting borders and redefinitions, a world of crossed lines and pushed boundaries. Can one even speak of “the world” of charlatans in the singular, when the examples we are given to read in this volume reveal such great diversity that they seem to defeat any attempt to define common traits, as Roy Porter (1989) tried to do in his time? Certainly, commercial interests and the lure of a quick and easy profit seem to have motivated some charlatans. Certainly, the universal effects of the nostrum or (psycho)therapeutic procedures were often put forward as a commercial argument. Certainly, many had an itinerant career; but this was not always the case. In fact, these traits are not shared, and the main reason is probably that, aside from a very particular context in early modern Italy, the qualification of charlatan was not claimed by the actors themselves, but was attributed to them by others, be they contemporaries or later historians. These features are therefore only common if we understand them as stigmata1 attributed to charlatans by those who wish to distinguish themselves from them or to draw a line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.