The 19th-century nosology of alienism: history and epistemology

German E. Berrios

in Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry II

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2012 | ISBN: 9780199642205
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754777 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

The 19th-century nosology of alienism: history and epistemology

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In summary, 17th-century taxonomic theory was constructed to make possible the classification of plants, animals and minerals, and hopefully be able to predict new information about the nature of the members of a given class (Bowker and Star 1999; Winston 1999). Whether classifications are based on privileged features or countenance the possibility of a numerical taxonomy, they work at their best when the objects to be classified are ontologically stable (e.g., are natural kinds) and epistemologically accessible (defined by capturable attributes). When applied to abstract objects (e.g., virtues), artifacts (e.g., poems) or constructs (e.g., mental symptoms or disorders), such classificatory approaches are no longer on safe territory and require for their functioning of ad hoc epistemological aids. When applied outside of their field of competence and validity, it is not possible to predict what modifications classificatory systems require and much research (both conceptual and empirical) needs to be done to decide which are required by each type of object to be classified. The inchoate nature of our current knowledge on the epistemological and ontological status of psychiatric objects makes it particularly difficult to decide on what modifications within the classificatory system are required and on what expectations should classificators have in respect to the usefulness of classifying mental disorders.

After all, when talking about classifications, one should take the word seriously. Classifications are more than lists, glossaries or inventories; they are structured and (often enough) hierarchical clusters of objects holding a relationship with one another. The more one thinks about their application to mental disorders the more one realizes that the problem here is not only our lack of knowledge about taxonomy but the fact that psychiatric objects may not be susceptible to classification at all.

Chapter.  8619 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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