Monthly Archives: July 2015

Reviewing Kanner’s In Defense of Mothers

Kanner’s In Defense of Mothers arrived last week, having been ordered from America. It was published in 1941, two years before he developed his notion of autism. This books is very different in focus to most his writings, unusually being primarily about children who did not see psychiatrists.

The message is primarily ‘let children be children’, and to a lesser degree ‘let mothers be mothers’. He seemingly has a notion of natural mothering and believes this is distorted through bad advice given by various sources of supposed experts on mothering. He tells mothers not to insist on rigid diets, not to overburden the children with work, not to interfere dramatically in the child’s social life (i.e not decide who their friends can be), trying to counter various cultural sources who insist the mother must perfectly raise children lest the child ends up neurotic and delinquent. He thinks society should just let mothers be mothers, which would mean mothers would let children be children, a good route to healthy children in Kanner’s view.

There was very little about psychoanalysis in the book. The specific claim that poor mothering causes mental illness (such as childhood schizophrenia) was not really discussed (there were some ambiguous passages related to this but much more moderate than what came later). Whilst such claims really took off around 1950, it seems they were of little significance in the early 1940s.

The guiding principle throughout the book was ‘put the child in context’. If the child does something bizarre then there probably is good reason for this, talk to the child, try to understand what is happening with their life, but do not take this as a sign of some ominous symptom that must be immediately countered. This looks like Kanner taking a Meyerian approach, emphasising the individual as a whole who must be understood contextually, rather than more common approaches of just interpreting everything under one pet theory, something some child psychaitrists did and Kanner hated.

It was interesting to see Kanner would often describe the family in political terms, outlining a democracy as an ideal family where the child was an active member who was listened to. This contrasted with totalitarian families where the exact path the child must take was laid out in advance by the parents. Written in 1941, using such political terminology was understandable.

Overall, I’d put In Defense of Mothers as Kanner’s least valuable book to read, measured by all those published since he became a child psychiatrist. It does not particularly illuminate Kanner’s views, at least not more so than his 1935 text book, which goes into much more detail. It does give some nice social history though, giving a good feel for early 1940s American approaches to childhood.

The History of Secondary Histories of Autism

Over the next few months I’ll be reviewing some secondary history texts, so firstly I’ll outline a brief history of the secondary history. I’m only counting work written from 1980 onwards, since this is when the major steps towards our modern autism started (for earlier histories see some of Kanner’s and Eisenberg’s texts). All texts I refer to below are listed here:

The earliest histories were written by medical practitioners. Sanua (1983) has other agendas than strictly writing a history but he gives an excellent account of the relationship between autism and childhood schizophrenia. Lorna Wing (1997) describes the basics but focuses too much on Kanner and Asperger, though I think her understanding of Kanner is more nuanced that some historians claim. Wolff (2004) is brief and also focuses too heavily on Kanner and Asperger, though she does give a good account of her own work.

The watershed came with Nadesan (2005). This was the first book length history of autism, additionally, it was written by someone who was not a medical practitioner, by someone who is not an important historical figure, unlike Wing and Wolff. Nadesan discusses of concepts of child development prior to autism and discuss how concepts of autism change over time due to changing theories in psychology, also giving wider cultural context to why those theories in psychology changed. Whilst not perfect the book was a massive step forward.

Except for Grinker (2007) (who is worth reading but is not primarily intending to write history), there was a major gap of four years between Nadesan’s book until what I call the first golden age started. 2010 saw books by Feinstein (2010) and Eyal et al (2010). Feinstein interviewed many historical figures whilst Eyal et al described in great detail the wider socio-medical changes and how this impacted concepts and classifications. 2010 also saw Jacobsen’s (2010) article which compared Kanner with Bettelheim and relates their work to modern autism. The next major publication was Silverman’s (2012) book. I believe her book is the least ground breaking of the four history of autism books, covering less new material than the others, but I believe it the most well developed and factually accurate. 2013 saw ground breaking articles by Verheoff (2013) and Evans (2013), both describing how wider theoretical changes in psychiatry influenced the changes to the classification. 2014 saw Evans (2014) provide background to 1950s and 1960s British psychiatry whilst Hollin (2014) and Verhoeff (2014) are the first history papers to cover beyond the 1980s in detail. I’ve missed out Neumärker (2003), Silverman (2010), Blacher & Christensen (2011) and Raz (2014) because they are very specific in their focus, though they are all still worth reading.

So far, to my knowledge, at time of writing (July), there has only been one secondary history publication in 2015 (my own, Fellowes (2015)). Perhaps the first golden age has ended. Alternatively, perhaps the second half of 2015 will see many publications; another of my articles will be submitted soon and Bonnie Evans’ book is due out in 2015. The history of autism has come far, especially since 2010, and I personally can identify many areas not yet covered. From where I sit, a continued stream of publications seems more likely than the field dying at this point – existing texts have raised many questions and it will be historians who read those secondary histories published during this first golden age who will produce the next wave of research.

British Society History of Science Conference Swansea 2015

This time last week saw the end of the BSHS annual conference. My talk seemed to be received well.

I’d never been to a history conference before and found myself pleasantly surprised. Everyone was very friendly and there was very little confrontational arguments. Typical questions were along the lines of asking speakers to expand upon their argument, what else was going on during these particular events, what theories were dominate, how did this relate to what came before and afterwards, how did this relate to activity in a wider setting (other counties, other sciences). Questions allowed the speaker another opportunity to discuss their research. This felt quite different to philosophy conferences (which I am more used to) where quite a few questions, though by no means a majority, focus upon criticizing the speaker’s argument: what about this counter example, surely you are making this particular assumption, maybe you should consider whoever’s view points. The history approach certainly makes for a more relaxing conference but which one is best? Generally, the history questions gave opportunities to present more empirical evidence rather than specifically defend a particular argument. Philosophy is typically more about defending the argument. To varying degrees (and with many exceptions) both history and philosophy need an empirical basis and a strong argument. The historian seems to build up from lots of empirical evidence to an argument whereas philosophy focuses more on the argument but then often need make their argument compatible with empirical evidence, i.e. fit available evidence as so avoid counter arguments. Personally, I prefer philosophy when it starts with a lot of empirical evidence and tries to analyse that evidence, systematise it and see how it relates to wider bodies of knowledge. I do not know how far it could be taken but I think philosophy could benefit from some approaches adopted by historians.

The other difference is how specific many history papers were, totally unrelated to my field, whereas most philosophy of science is relevant to most other philosophy of science. With exceptions, I think a philosopher of physics could still benefit from seeing, say, a philosopher of biology speak. Both cases may use notions in similar or different ways, i.e. cause, explain, predict, inductive, law, model, etc. You can learn from both the similarities and the differences. The benefits of attending many presentations at history conferences are less obvious but still there. History of 1800s paleontology is no use to the history of autism but you see a historian try to create a historical narrative or create explanations from a particular type of evidence, often using very different type of evidence than I’m used to. For instance, that presentation on paleontology had to appeal to a very limited number of paintings to understand 1800s views of woolly mammoths whereas I primarily deal with journal articles. Someone else deals with diaries, another with hospital records, another with medical equipment. Observing how a historian employs a particular type of evidence, with associated limitations that evidence brings, makes one reflect upon how I go about using evidence, how reliable is it, how representative is it, what is it missing, etc. A useful experience, but, again, useful in a different way to the benefits of seeing philosophers of science dealing with other sciences speak.