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  • Print publication year: 1996
  • Online publication date: May 2010

Comments on Sheldon H. White's chapter


The progress from “attribution to information” can be traced in the area of adult psychopathology as well. Throughout the ages people with psychological illnesses came to the attention not only of physicians, but of witch-hunters, jailers, and protectors of society's morality. As noted in a remarkable appendix to The Vital Balance (Menninger et al., 1985), scattered through ancient Sumerian and Egyptian texts which date back to about 2500 B.C. are references to depressions and hysterical symptoms. And in the system of medicine in ancient India, the Ayur-Veda, about 1400 B.C., a kind of diagnostic dictionary was assembled on the basis of seven kinds of demonic possession. The symptoms of such conditions as psychosis, melancholia, obsessionality, or intoxication, for example, have been recognized from the beginnings of recorded history. It is not so much their recognition and description but their interpretation and significance that has shifted over time.

Naming, designating, and distinguishing these conditions is the activity of diagnosis. But the act of assigning names to conditions can itself introduce a valence that has made for much suffering over the ages. Just as with children, diagnosis as name-calling has been the occasion for burning at the stake, asphyxiation in the gas chamber, ostracism from society, or excuse from responsibility. It is not the scientific enterprise of designation and classification that produces these excesses, but the attributive activities of the interpreters.