Cornhill Magazine,  5 (1862), 220–32.

Commissions of Lunacy

[J Fitzjames Stephen]




Mental Illness, Nomenclature, Physiological Psychology, Superstition, Spiritualism, Medical Practitioners

    Discussing a recent case before the Lunacy Commission, Stephen argues that the legal rights of 'suspected lunatics' should not be placed 'at the mercy of a set of mad doctors' with 'each man standing up for his own theory' or else imprisoning 'every one who was extravagant and vicious' (229). He insists that 'madness cannot be defined' in such hard and fast terms (221), and suggests that questions such as the criminal responsibility of the mad should be dealt with by 'an unprofessional tribunal of some sort', which, working under 'the disadvantages which the imperfect state of science at present imposes', should generally give suspected lunatics 'the benefit of a doubt' (229). Madness is not simply a matter of 'singularity' or deviation from common perceptions. For instance, someone who is 'prey to wretched superstitions, like the fetish worshippers in Africa, or the believers in rapping spirits in our own country' is not mad, because they proceed upon the same 'general principles of thought' as the rest of the population, although they 'apply them in totally different ways'. Rather, as the 'operations of the mind are at present known to us exclusively through bodily functions' (223), madness is best understood as 'an insensibility to the general principles of human nature' (things such as the universal dislike of pain) that is 'caused by a bodily disease' (225–26). The precise nature of this somatic disease is at present unknown, although it could be an 'obscure inflammation of the brain' (229), or even 'some morbid condition of the spinal marrow' (230). Concludes that the problem of defining insanity is 'one which the growth of science will certainly diminish and possibly will ultimately remove' if 'the specific nature of madness should be discovered, and symptoms should be detected affording an infallible test of its existence' (230).

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