Fragment: Guard Your Daughters!

“It gives me great pain to tell you I believe he is a thoroughly unreliable witness. (laughter). I do not for one moment dispute his honesty of intention, but I say he is not fit to give evidence on this occasion. A question of evidence requires examination. A man should be thoroughly unprejudiced. I am afraid my friend does not come up to that standard. (laughter) Some years ago I was a witness of some of these performances. I knew one of the media, and it so happens everyone of these persons referred to have been females. (Laughter.) I say that these young girls—Professor Barrett’s young girls—my friend’s young girls—and these other young girls-I say they are not proper persons on whom to base great superstructures such as these. (Laughter and hisses.) May I mention another thing? Did anyone ever investigate hysteria- I speak to fathers and mother’s brothers and sisters. (Laughter.) I may say, as another fact, I am the parent of fourteen children—(roars of laughter)—and I say it is a most dangerous thing to bring these mesmeric experiences into a region like that, and I had to guard with great jealousy and great care my own daughters, or they would have been media.”

Rev. Dr. McIlwaine, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of science, 1876.

Emblemata: An Iconographic Overflowing

The emblematic world view, a modern term for the ways in which late medieval and Renaissance scholars saw the intertextuality and symbolic elements of the natural world, was popularized among historians of science by William B. Ashworth in his essay “Natural History and the Emblematic World View”. Here, he attempted to ascribe the fall of the emblematic world view near the end of the 16th century to its inability to account for certain aspects of human experience, such as the discovery of the new world, or the discovery of a new kind of history. While these factors most likely played a part in its decline, this explanation closes the door on several important considerations that would apply to other kinds of taxonomies as well.

Perhaps the decline of the emblematic world view was caused by a mechanism which was not particular to it alone. It is possible to imagine that when those working within a specific method of taxonomic interpretation come to feel that it has no end in sight, through either its increasing age and complexity, or when it finds itself presented with an abundance of intermediary forms or anomalies, the general body of its adherents could begin to grow disillusioned with the hope that that method of interpretation would lead to a kind of conclusive knowledge. In this instance, then it would seem that knowledge is only truly accepted as knowledge if it is believed to have an end.  This can apply to both its purpose and its progression to some ultimate goal. Conversely, the rise of the literal view of natural science wiped the slate clean, so to speak, giving early modern natural scientists a new hope for an exhaustible source of knowledge through observation. The seat of authority for this new standard of knowledge could be attributed to its ability to be reproduced numerous times, something to which the previously inexhaustible emblematic system of knowledge had less of a claim.

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich

As Ashworth points out, the essence of the emblematic world view “is the belief that every kind of thing in the cosmos has myriad hidden meanings and that knowledge consists of an attempt to comprehend as many of these as possible”.  Furthermore, these hidden meanings are connected symbolically to other things in the cosmos, making it necessary to be constantly searching for the interconnectedness of as many signs and symbols as possible. For example, Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), in his zoological encyclopaedia History of Animals, includes an exhaustive study of the signs and symbols associated with the animals under discussion because he “believed that to know the peacock [or any other thing] you must know its associations”. It would be fair to say that Gesner was not doing this because he was uncritical or obtuse, but because emblematic knowledge required such exhaustive measures in order to have the complete picture of the natural world.

Two things are at first noticeable from this account. Firstly, emblems make their ultimate appeal to be representative of reality through their meanings in relation to their parts and to each other. As Ashworth states: “In the ideal emblem, each element was necessary, but not sufficient, for comprehension”. Sometimes they point to God for authority, sometimes they point to the ancients, but they always demand that the reader return back to the structure in which they are presented, namely, each other. For example, a creature such as the bee could be understood in a variety of ways depending upon what other symbols were placed alongside it. In one English emblem they are a symbol of prosperity in peace: “Which doth declare, the blessed fruites of peace, / How sweete shee is, when mortall warres doe cease”, or in one German emblem it could be said to be a symbol of a well-ordered society. These two emblems taken together could then indicate that a well-ordered society is one that is benefiting from the fruits of peace. In such a way the emblems could be built upon each other to create more complex layers of meaning. Furthermore, because these meanings are hidden, they are necessarily subject to diverse interpretations.

When combined with the removal of any sort of earthly authority over the interpretation of the nature of symbols, this trend allowed a wide proliferation of emblems with a variety of meanings. Indeed, God himself could be understood as the ultimate emblem maker. In Huston Diehl’s article “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England” he points to two different emblem maker’s opposite assessments of the meaning of the same biblical brass serpent: “the image of the brass serpent, […] is neither inherently good or bad. Rather, what the viewer makes of the image, how he uses it, determines whether it is an idol to be condemned or a sign to be remembered”. Fundamentally, the emblem book asked the reader to interpret it and to see as many relations as one can, both among the emblems themselves and in the natural world.

This is further seen in the intentions of their original maker, Andrea Alciati, who wanted to “devise epigrams that were especially enigmatic, so that the readers would get a sudden and pleasing illumination when they figured them out”. Yet their being enigmatic would only add to the multiplicity of meanings that were derived from them. The emblem books could be open to such a wide array of interpretations because nature was seen to work through correspondences and patterns which were directly related to the understanding of human beings.

“Mind, not outward form, prevails.”

This extreme multiplicity of symbolic interpretation makes itself apparent if we examine one of the most theologically understood animals in the emblematic world view. The generally accepted symbolic role of the Pelican in the moral language of the Middle Ages was that its act of self sacrifice for the sake of its young reflected Christ’s sacrificing himself for all mankind. As it says in the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: “There are different versions of this emblem, but the pelican is always shown pecking open its breast to allow the young to feed on its own blood. […] the pelican represents Christ’s mercy”. With a precursory glance at some of the examples of pelican symbolism, however, we see the self-sacrifice of the pelican go through a number of transformations.

As per the generally accepted symbolism there are those, like the example from the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution, which show the Christian importance of the pelican. However, there were many associations drawn from the pelican other than this interpretive norm. The pelican, it seems, can also serve as a symbol of the king who sacrifices himself for his people in emulation of Christ. While this is not too far from the generally accepted iconography of the pelican there are others that diverge significantly from this symbolic norm. One emblem in particular “Pelikan baut sein Nest auf dem Boden” Pelican: builds its nest on the ground. This diverges from almost every other pelican emblem, only preserving the nest in its symbolism. Rather than espousing the virtues of self-sacrifice, as even the more secular emblems of its kind tend to, it warns against hubris, citing the placement of the pelican’s nest (which itself varies from emblem to emblem). Furthermore, this warning against arrogance is also reincorporated in another pelican emblem that depicts a mother holding her infant carelessly above the ground by one leg, while the pelican in the foreground moves to protect its young from their flaming nest. It condemns mothers who hold their own well being above that of their children. The nest in this emblem is also, incidentally, placed on the ground. It is no wonder then, that when Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) tried to make an encyclopaedia of the emblematic knowledge of his time, he did not finish until he had compiled thirteen massive folios on the subject. As Ashworth states: “It is one thing to talk about a ‘web of associations’; it is much more impressive to see this web laid out, strand by strand, as Aldrovandi does”. What allowed this massive swelling of emblematic knowledge was in part the extreme fluidity of meanings, which was shown to be the case with the pelican example above.

If the rise of the emblematic interpretation of the world first seemed to correspond with the Protestant Reformation, it would be that same Reformation that would set up the conditions for its downfall. As Peter Harrison discusses in his work The Bible Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science: “The demise of allegory […] was due largely to the efforts of Protestant reformers, who in their search for an unambiguous religious authority, insisted that the book of scripture be interpreted only in its literal, historical sense”. This search for an unambiguous authority worked its way into all forms of knowledge both sacred and secular, and was the start of a process that would spell the end of the emblematic world view.

“To insist now that texts be read literally” writes Harrison, “was to cut short a potentially endless chain of references in which words referred to things, and things in turn referred to other things”. The Protestant reformers, in their efforts for a single textual authority with a fixed meaning and unambiguous understanding, could not coexist with a view in which there was no one textual authority, no fixed meanings and that thrived on these very ambiguities. The Bible needed to be the only authority on matters of religious doctrine and thus it would necessarily be interpreted in such a way so as to remove all doubts and ambiguities. “Only a literal method, or more strictly a method which allowed but a single meaning to be assigned to each passage of scripture, could serve this purpose”. When taken into the realm of natural science this approach was incompatible with views based on ancient authorities or traditional symbolism. Interpretations of natural entities could no longer look to each other for their justifications, but could only appeal to the final authority left in the literal world: the senses. More than any other force, the disillusionment with the possibility of a set end to the emblematic understanding of nature served to discredit the possibility that meaning could serve as any solid basis for knowledge, for as a product of human convention it had no end but itself. This threw the entire view that meaning was the measure of knowledge into question, and helped set the stage for a view of observable truths to take its place. As Harrison writes:

A disturbing implication of this development was that the purportedly natural representative functions of living things were in fact merely conventional, that the things bore no universal, God-given, significance, but instead had been arbitrarily given meaning by human agents.

It is important here to note the difference in language used to describe what constituted knowledge in the emblematic and literal world views. When discussing the knowledge of the emblematic world Ashworth does not mention the word “truth” until he arrives at Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) attempt to demystify the symbolic associations of several animals in his section entitled: “Browne and the quest for truth in natural history”. In this section Ashworth recounts how Browne held the emblematic account of animals to the test of repeatable experimentation and observations, as he says about one of his works: “in the Pseudodoxia [Epidemica], Browne asks the remarkable questions: Are these stories true? Can they be demonstrated?” In this section Ashworth implies, if he does not state, that the measure of knowledge in the emblematic view is not truth, but meaning.

These two concepts are also paired off against each other in Harrison’s account, in which he describes St. Augustine’s focus on spiritual truths (the theological meaning beyond the literal sense of a text) as being elevated at the cost of literal interpretations. Mapping St. Augustine’s approach to scripture onto accounts of the natural world, he goes on to argue how the meaning of the “spiritual truth” undermines the truth of the literal interpretation of the natural world. What is perhaps more interesting, in a later section Harrison goes on to describe how Thomas Browne sought to demystify the mythological representations of animals. He did this with an account based on observations that explained where the mistaken belief about the animal’s behaviours may have come from. This shows a reversal of St. Augustine’s original evaluation in which the meaning is actually a misinterpretation of the truth of a particular creature. As Harrison states: “Thomas Browne, for example, suggested that the allegory of the pelican might have arisen from observations of the birds scratching their breasts during preening, and drawing blood”. This is the exact opposite of the earlier accounts of the natural world and is evident in the word choice of “meaning” as opposed to “truth”, a distinction that arguably did not exist until the rise of the literal view. Thus it could be summarized that meanings are variable, of uncertain authority, and potentially endless in their permutations, whereas truths as seen to be pinnacle of certainty, appealing to one firmly established authority and above all a limited number of viable permutations. In the decline of the emblematic world view a new concept of “truth” had displaced “meaning” in providing the conceptual framework under which nature was studied.

John Ray (1627-1705), in his preference to The Ornithology of Francis Willughby states that the chief error of previous natural philosophers trying to document the physical world was that they multiplied, unnecessarily, the number of species. This new focus on facts above meanings also necessitated a different ordering principle than that which had dominated the emblematic world view.  Harrison states that even with the emergence of Baconian empiricism, there was no set structure guiding observational knowledge: “Physical collections of objects bear witness to the same taxonomic anarchy […]. Vast amounts of new data might have been accumulated, but in the absence of an alternative conception of natural order, these could not constitute a new science”. What provided this order in the case of the literal world view was both the thesis, or hypothesis, and the developing science of taxonomy. As Harrison notes: “An overarching ordering principle is conspicuously absent in critical and constructive humanist works on natural history”, though arguably this lack of an overarching principle was part of the point of the humanist approach to knowledge, it does provide a key insight into the differences and similarities of the two. The emblematic world view could not have a thesis because that would require some end to the process of associations; it could not have a taxonomy based on the smallest parts of animals because its form of knowledge was based on building them up in associations, rather than breaking them down. In comparison, the literal world view needed a thesis and a set taxonomical language around which to structure it as its ordering principle to some observable end.

Thus the need for some set thesis led to the new pressure to develop a uniform taxonomy of the natural world, so that it could be discussed in definite terms that allowed for conclusive answers. Ray, commenting on his deceased colleague Willughby describes in his work the mentality that would be necessary to develop such a taxonomy:

Now that he might clear up all these obscurities, and render the knowledge and distinction of Species facile to all that should come after, he bent his endeavours mainly to find out […] certain Characteristic notes of each kind. But if in any kind no singular mark occurred whereby it might be certainly distinguished from all others, he did minutely and exactly describe all its parts, that at least a Collection of many accidents, which all together could not be found in any Species else of the same kind, might serve for a Characteristic.

At first glance this method could be seen as being similar to the “taxonomic anarchy” of the emblematic world view. However, one must keep in mind that the reason why such exhaustive detail was needed was to fulfill the set task of ready identification and separation of species, instead of the more general task of “accumulating vast amounts of new data”. Furthermore, we see that this massive accumulation works downwards to more minute details, rather than upwards to more complex meanings. Harrison argues that this taxonomical process is the offspring of the attempt to find a universal language capable of filling the gap left by the death of the emblematic world view. As he states:

[N]o-one thought any longer that such universal languages would somehow unlock the secrets of Adam’s encyclopedic knowledge. The best of the schemes offered a way of ordering and symbolizing what human ingenuity had discovered, [and gives us] a glimpse of the future direction of such systems – taxonomy.

In considering the comparison between these two world views it seems wise to offer an alternative explanation for one of the main changes seen in the shift from one to the other. While it is argued by Harrison that such an account shows a turn to a demand for more “useful” knowledge, it is more elucidating to consider that the question is not one of use as opposed to uselessness, but rather of what was considered useful to the various practitioners of these interpretive methods. The medieval interpretations of nature as allegory served the use of spiritual enlightenment, the emblematic interpretation of nature served the use of holistic wisdom, both of these concepts were more highly valued in their times than what we would today consider practical use. In contrast the literal world view was the only one of these interpretive methods to focus on practical uses, whether they were coming to know God or being able to describe more accurately the anatomy of a pelican. If anything, this trend shows a greater intolerance for uncertainty than a turn away from supposedly useless knowledge.

The effort to develop a set taxonomy described here is the literal equivalent of the expanding series of relations that had developed in the emblematic tradition. Ashworth quotes François Jacob’s comment that: “Living bodies were scraped clean, so to speak. They shook of their crust of analogies, resemblances and signs, to appear in all the nakedness of their true outer shape”. If this was the beginning of the literal world view, it certainly was not its end. What the efforts at taxonomy show is the literal world view’s alternative, or renewed, quest to build itself up, not through a web of associations, but by a chain of facts that would point to the ultimate knowledge of natural entities. If in the emblematic view creatures were systematically expanded into a growing web of associations, then the literal one could be said to have systematically stripped creatures down in a sort of reductionist taxonomy. This method had the new goal of identification, which itself served the purpose of expanding the literal knowledge need for a single, specific, unambiguous language with which to address the natural world.

Ultimately then, the mechanism most likely to have caused the demise of the emblematic world view and the rise of the literal one was the growing feeling that knowledge based on meanings could potentially continue forever. In contrast, knowledge based on observable truths promised a specific end with definite results. The shift was caused by a change from valuing the holistic knowledge of nature as associations to valuing the repeatable and observational knowledge of nature as sensations over and above human history and meaning. One could not repeat the “experiment” of a symbol or emblem, and their uses were discredited in light of their potential for endless ambiguities and interpretations. What is present in the one case is the valuing of knowledge as being incomplete without those necessary uncertainties that make psychological relationships possible, as opposed to the very definite demand for certainty present in a literal account of the world.

As such, meaning and their symbolic representations were eclipsed by a notion of truth and its association with observable facts as the measure of knowledge. The new interpretive tools provided by the literal world view, however, in their need to fill the space left by the receding emblematic tool set, demanded some new descriptive standard. That standard was taxonomy. The physical taxonomy of things being interpreted in terms of their more minute physical components is a method not dissimilar in kind to that of the emblematic world view, yet it benefits from being younger and having the renewed promise of a definitive end. Yet understood this way, the door is open for the possibility that the literal world view could succumb to the same pressures that were the ruination of the emblematic cosmos. The processes may be slowed somewhat by the specialization of knowledge, but one must eventually ask oneself the question: What would happen if this method of interpretation were to encounter the same explosion of “facts” and the same seemingly endless pursuit that led to the demise of the emblematic world view? That is, however, a question for another time. For as has already been stated, when operating under the literal world view, the demand for a thesis under which to organize a collection of information contains within itself the demand for a recognizable, definitive end.

For More Information:

Geoffrey Whitney. A Choice of Emblems 1586 Yorkshire: The Scolar Press Limited, 1973.

Henkel, Arthur, Albrecht Schöne, Ed. Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts.

John Ray, Francis Willughby. The Ornithology of Francis Willughby London: Printed by E. Cotes, 1658.

(Accessible online at:

Ashworth, William B., Jr. “Natural history and the emblematic world view”, in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg, Robert S. Westman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 303-325.

Diehl, Huston. “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England”, Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1986): 49-66.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tapp, Kevin. “Emblematics”, in Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: From Copernicus to Newton, Ed. Wilbur Applebaum. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000, 203-205.

Active Life in an Uncertain World: The Epicureans and the Stoics

Of the Socratic branches of thought, the Epicureans and the Stoics stood apart from their Platonic and Aristotelian brethren in that they sought to provide philosophies of an active life, and criticised the other two schools for what they saw as their bookish tendencies. In the Epicurean and Stoic traditions, then, questions had to be asked about the ways to personally address the unknown, particularly as it pertained to the future and the perishable world around us. As such, both branches of thought developed natural philosophies that emerged from their efforts to offer followers a method of addressing the unknown in their daily lives. Whether it is the Epicurean goal of freeing the self from fear or the Stoic one of aligning oneself with the natural order, both philosophies seek these goals in response to the unknown, and ultimately, its avoidance or its removal from the cosmos. Both schools related this to their primary objectives, their relationship to the gods, and to the conflagration or infinity of the universe.

As the Epicurean Lucretius states in his On the Nature of Things: “nature craves for herself no more than this, that pain hold aloof from the body, and she in mind enjoy a feeling of pleasure exempt from care and fear”. To do so requires an understanding pleasure and pain, death, and the nature of the gods. The purpose of obtaining an understanding of these concepts, however, has its roots in the removal of fear. Thus, it could also be said that if this fear can be removed with a proper understanding of certain concepts, then it is first and foremost, a fear based on unknowns. A study of natural philosophy is necessary so that people can understand how to properly avoid suffering and seek pleasure, come to terms with death, and realize how arbitrary, omnipresent forces cannot influence them. As Rist states in Epicurus: An Introduction: “Epicurus regards the study of nature as a necessary evil; without it we are subject to delusions about the role of the gods in the ordering of the world and about an afterlife”. Understood this way, eliminating the fear of the unknown through understanding certain key elements of the world around us is the Epicurean ideal. As Lucretius states more eloquently: “This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature”.

It is important, however, to point out that this method calls for knowledge of the natural world only insofar as it removes fear. There are a few very specific areas that are seen as vital to removing fear (i.e. pleasure and pain, fear of the gods, and fear of death). As Asmis says in her work Epicurus’ Scientific Method: “It is, I think, fair to say that Epicurus was not interested in exploiting his method of inquiry to its full potential”. A substantial portion of nature can be left to its own devices insofar as people do not fear those particular events. One primary example of this is Epicurean astronomy, which lagged far behind its Stoic counterpart. Yet, as will be shown in his view of infinity, even these modest goals resulted in the need for a complex account of the universe.

The Stoic account of the good life differs drastically from that of the Epicureans. It appears to demonstrate an acceptance of the unknown nature of the outside world, particularly as it pertains to the future, since the future is merely the playing out of the divine will. For the Stoics then, the place in which they demand certainty is not in knowledge of the world around them, nor even in what will happen to them, but rather how they will respond to what will happen to them. As Epictetus states: “the gods then, as was but right, put in our hands the one blessing that is best of all and master of all, that and nothing else, the power to deal rightly with our impressions, but everything else they did not put in our hands”. This “blessing” is our own reason that grants us the ability to influence how we respond to the events in the world around us. As Epictetus artfully puts it: “Philosophy does not promise to secure to man anything outside him”, rather it allows him to secure within himself a certainty of how he will react to unforeseen events. The rationality of the world outside of man is what permits the Stoics to have such trust in it. Even though they do not know where that same rationality will lead their individual lives, it both must be and is good that it will be. As such it is both impious and foolish to lament what must in the end come to pass. For the Stoics: “The beginning of philosophy […] is a consciousness of one’s own weakness and want of power in regard to necessary things”.

Epictetus argues from the interdependence that he sees all around him in the natural world that there must be an overarching reason dictating all things. Just as the perfect fit of sword to scabbard indicates reason was used in its construction, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that the fact that colour and light would be meaningless without creatures possessing the power of sight indicates that reason was likewise used in their construction. As such, reason and purpose in nature underlie all things. As opposed to the Epicurean concept of nature as something fundamentally separate from theology, there is no separating the natural from the divine for the Stoics. As Keimpe Algra points out in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics: “theology, according to the Stoics, is just a part of physics”. Indeed, it is this very view that compels the stoics to seek their center of certainty in themselves, for: “[w]e must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it. What do you mean by ‘nature’? I mean, God’s will”.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans agree that we can determine what there is to know about the gods based on our primary conceptions, the natural impressions or definitions with which we defined gods qua gods. For the Stoics the definition of a god is that it is an overwhelmingly rational, blessed, eternal, and providential being. Since the world displays this reason and providence, and we have a conception of the gods to begin with, they must, therefore, exist. As such, Stoic good and Stoic God in this case cannot be separated. Epictetus makes this clear in his segment entitled “How One May Act in All Things So As To Please the Gods”. Reason is God, it is nature, it is the whole progression of human life; thus following nature is no more than accepting what is necessary.

Yet this interpretation of nature also has other connotations, particularly in regards to the unknown. If God’s will is God’s reason, and it expresses itself in the knowable world, then what is to separate human knowing from divine knowing, except in quantity? As Algra states: “Behind all this lies the firm conviction that God’s rationality – or, for that matter, the rationality of the cosmos- does not differ in kind from human rationality”. In the larger scheme of things, then, there is nothing that is truly unknown, for all knowledge is encapsulated in the reason of God, and that reason is no different in kind from human reason. Stoic theology in some respects could be said to have removed the fears that Epicurus sought to conquer, for nothing is truly unknown in the Stoic world view. Contrary to Epicurus this victory over fear finds its removal exactly in an affirmation of the power of the gods. As Epictetus has shown, the Stoic’s primary good is the removal of uncertainty of the self and an acceptance of the world around us. However, this acceptance does not show a trust in the unknown, but rather a belief in its ultimate non-existence. The gods know everything, for things existences cannot be removed from the god’s knowing of them. What Epictetus says of men’s relation to the gods is the same as the god’s relation to all things, as universal reason: “what need have they of light to see what you are doing”, for they have willed what all things are doing.

For an Epicurean, however, this view could not be tenable, for the distinction between God and nature is clearly made. Nature and its laws are the result of atoms playing out their individual natures qua matter. This process is knowable, lacking a set teleology, and constant. The gods on the other hand, by definition, have no part to play in the lives of men. Epicurus’ explanation for why people fall into the error when thinking about the gods is that “many people assign to the gods attributes, such as harming or helping men, that are incompatible with the primary concept, or presupposition, of God as an indestructible and blessed living being”. By their very definition, gods for Epicurus can have no part in the world, for they are blessed, thus not wanting anything outside of themselves, and indestructible, thus playing no role in the generation or corruption of atomic congregations such as people. It is reasonable to see that Epicurus’ doctrine against the gods could be viewed as a natural result of his primary goal of removing fear of the unknown, for if the gods did influence the affairs of men then we would be subject to the seemingly arbitrary and unknowable will of some divine personality. If they did influence the affairs of humans, the gods would cordon off a segment of a very personal and immediate part of human life, namely the knowability of natural causes. There is a great difference between explaining a thunderstorm as an impersonal build up of fire in the air that eventually releases itself, and explaining the same storm as Zeus’ will. The first explanation can be known to work given certain understandable conditions, while the other is up to the seemingly arbitrary will of an omnipresent, alien, mind.

Lucretius seems to be addressing the Stoic position on the gods when he says: “But some […] ignorant of matter, believe that nature cannot without the providence of the gods in such nice conformity to the ways of men vary the seasons of the year”. For Lucretius, the fact that there are orderly elements to the world does not rule out the fact that there are also disorderly elements, given the traditional definition of the heavens this should not be so, and yet it appears to be just that. For, as he continues: “judging by the very arrangement of heavens, I would venture to affirm […] that the nature of the world has by no means been made for us by divine power: so great are the defects with which it stands encumbered”. If reason is to rule everything and nature made for the good of man, then from where do their opposites emerge, disorder and misfortune to man?

Both of these positions reach their logical conclusions, however, in their two most expansive cosmological doctrines, that of infinity and the conflagration. When looking at the cosmos as a whole, Epicurus couldn’t argue that there was nothing like reason in the world, for it presented itself all around him. Yet if matter is ruled by a divine reason, then there is something existent outside of the scope of matter and the senses. This determinism could spell the end for the Epicurean good; for if the will is determined, all hope for a doctrine based on acquiring certainty on specific key themes is lost. In order for matter not to need such divine reason, it must be infinite in extent, for only then would probability ensure that everything that could be must be. It would then provide us with something in the natural world that appears to be reason, but is more like a Darwinian process of selection. Furthermore, the doctrine of infinity strengthens the Epicurean belief that nothing is lost, and nothing fundamentally changes, even though our atoms disassociate. As Lucretius states: “one can easily believe’ that ‘these very atoms out of which we are now composed were often previously placed in the same order that they are now’”. Not only are they placed in the same order, but in every possible order, for “if something can be produced by atoms, it necessarily is produced by them. Accordingly the ever unchanging atoms keep producing ever the same combinations as they have been producing in the past”.

This doctrine allows the unknown to be explained away as a function of probability on the universal level, for everything that can be is, yet still permits of the Epicurean view that there is no afterlife or need for divine reason. Lucretius treats upon this in his On the Nature of Things, as Asmis summarizes: “In an attempt to remove all fear of an afterlife, he argues that if there are future individuals just like ourselves, this matters not at all to our present selves, since our memory will have been severed”. Infinity, unlike the conflagration, is also an expansive cosmological view that still permits of the possibility of a free will. Even though everything has to be somewhere, there is nothing to say that any one thing has to be here. Given Epicurus’ goals and methods, the doctrine of the infinity of worlds seems like a natural conclusion. Thus, from one of Epicurus’ first natural principles, that: “the primary bodies have previously moved with the same motion with which they now move, and will afterward always move in the same way” and his desire for a free will also free from fear of uncertainty, the afterlife, and the gods, we arrive at the eventuality of this doctrine of the infinite.

The conflagration, likewise, is the natural and pan-ultimate expression of the Stoic world view. As Michael White puts it: “With respect to the relation between eternal recurrence [the conflagration] and determinism, it is worth reemphasizing the point that both doctrines were considered by the Stoics manifestations of the all-encompassing divine reason controlling the cosmos”. Indeed, in the accounts given by Marcus Aurelius this seems to be the case, since everything will happen again, man cannot and should not bemoan the length of his life. As he says: “all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, […] it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years […] or an infinite time”. The doctrine served well to demonstrate the reasoning and necessity behind the Stoic virtues to adherents and non-adherents alike. As Long and Sedly note in The Hellenistic Philosophers: “in Stoicism the doctrine [of the conflagration] may have served to underline the necessity of accepting one’s present situation. For that will be one’s situation time and again in the everlasting nature of things”.

Yet the conflagration is more than merely a doctrine justifying the Stoic way of life, it also shows how the Stoics ultimately sought to eliminate all unknowns in the ordered cosmos. The conflagration, then, is somewhat like the fulfilment of the promise of causality and reason. As such it represents the absolute removal of the unknown in an eternal cosmic year that itself is the playing out of reason in the world to its ultimate conclusion. This playing out of the cosmos is finally reabsorbed into reason as it progresses and “returns to the so-called primary reason and to that resurrection which creates the greatest year, in which the reconstitution from itself alone [i.e. universal reason] into itself recurs”. All of universal reason, then, must necessarily be a closed circuit. Its reason being no different in kind from that of human reason it thus sees itself completed in a beginning and an end. Most importantly however, is the point raised by Long and Sedly, they write:

It would be a mistake, however, to think of everlasting recurrence as a purely mechanical consequence of Stoic determinism. God is a supremely rational agent, and the most interesting fact about the conflagration is its omnipresent instantiation of his providence […]. In his own identity god is the causal nexus […]; hence the sequence of cause and effect is an enactment of divine rationality and providence. Since every previous world has been excellent […], god can have no reason to modify any succeeding world.

The repetition of the cosmos is required for cause and effect to substantiate the rationality of God. Since God is the supreme cause, with a hyper-humanlike rationality responsible for the universe, he must necessarily circle back on himself to eternally enact the chain of causality. This chain, built upon a hyper-humanlike rationality will necessarily squeeze out any unknowns from the universe, and establish itself as the ultimate good. This allows the Stoics to trust in that which they do not know, but which nevertheless is the enactment of a human-like reason. Thus, insofar as they are willing what happens to them, and aligning themselves to what is, they are in a real way participating in this great whole of divine reason, and thus amputating the unknown from their lives. This is why Epictetus can state “I am a citizen of the universe”, for: “When a man […] has learnt to understand the government of the universe and has realized that there is nothing so great […] as this frame of things wherein men and God are united” he is a part of a universal all-knowing reason, and has no reason to fear anything as unknown, for he wills it as God wills it and sees that it is good.

As has been shown then, at first glance the Stoic goal of asking certainty within the self and how that self approaches necessity seems to be an acceptance of the unknowns in the world around us; however, with a closer look into Stoic cosmology and theology it can be seen that this is not the case. The Stoics eliminated the unknown by endowing all the cosmos with a human-like rationality that is shared by those who align themselves to it. Since the Stoic in some ways could be said to will the future, it would not be unknown to him. There is the trust that all things are known by God because they exist, for God’s knowing and things being cannot be separated, thus there is a purpose to the Stoic world order that does not permit the unknown. This purpose finds its end in the Conflagration which completes the cosmic year and reinstates the divine will of providence as the perfect replaying of reason.

In comparison, the Epicurean goal of removing fear from the individual’s life through the understanding of a few key principles must necessarily be at odds with the Stoic conception of determinism, for they see it as the mistaken idea of gods who result in a principle of personality beyond matter that arbitrarily influences the lives of men. For the Epicureans, rather, the unknown is defeated on the cosmic scale by probability in an infinite nature that lacks any sort of humanlike reason, but which is still subject to its own primary laws. On the individual level it accomplishes this task by focusing on several key areas of knowledge, the nature of pleasure and pain, death, the gods and showing how all fear can be removed by a proper understanding of these key principles. Everything outside of these principles need not be considered, as they do not inhibit the human from living the good life. Thus the question of the unknown in the individual sphere is in part avoided.

In these two philosophies, as philosophies of active life, the unknown has then been conquered by a myriad of principles and methods. It remains however, for the individual reader to see if these methods are appropriate or accurate, and if there can be any philosophy of an active life that permits of the unknown. Barring that, it would appear that any philosophy of an active life must necessarily find some way to banish the unknown to irrelevance or oblivion if it wishes to allow its practitioners the certainty to act in the world.

For More Information:

Asmis, Elizabeth. Epicurus’ Scientific Method. London: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Greek thought: A Guide to Classical knowledge. Ed. Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey Lloyd. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. New York: Russell & Russel Inc, 1962.

The Hellenistic Philosophers, Long and Sedley, Cambridge U.P., 1987. Vol 1.

Rist, J. M. Epicurus: An Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Rist, J. M. Stoic Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Ed. Brad Inwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers: The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. Ed. Jennings Oates. New York: Random House, 1940.

Humboldt’s Lingering Renaissance: Interests and Influences

Few intellects were as expansive and influential as that of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). The still more famous brother of the famous Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), both served to radically alter the way that science was seen and taught in Germany, and through that, the world. It is a little known fact that in the 19th century, Europeans seeking an advanced degree in science had to go to Germany, and the early system of government funding for science established there was the envy of the scientific world. Thomas Henry Huxley and his group often used Germany as a model for what English science should be, and Alexander von Humboldt, with his expansive, cosmic interest in nature, romantic tendencies, and world traveling adventures, served as a major inspiration for Charles Darwin before the young naturalist decided to go on his voyage on the Beagle. Humboldt’s biogeography was also highly influential in Darwin’s interest in the topic, and thereby was influential in the development of evolutionary theory.

Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his own cosmology, Eureka, to Humboldt, and he lent his name to a score of animal species, most notably the Humboldt Squid, that taloned, intelligent, and vicious cannibal called by the natives of South America “Diablos rojos” Red Devils.

Admired by Goethe, (though less so by Schiller, who is reputed to have said that “Alexander impresses many, particularly when compared to his brother – because he shows off more!”), by Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson, Humboldt was perhaps one of the last of the great Renaissance thinkers who embraced both science and culture with equal interest.

For More Information:

Sachs, Aaron. The Humboldt Current. Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. America: Viking, 2006.

Walls, Laura Dassow. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander Von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

The Devourer of Time: John Harrison, The Grasshopper Escarpment and John Harrison

To counteract the rampant progress in my previous post, I felt that a contrary internet find was in order. I stumbled upon this adorable monstrosity when look for images by the Spanish artist Salvador Dali.

The beast was unveiled on the nineteenth of September 2008 in Cambridge by Stephen Hawking.

It was created by the inventor John C. Taylor. With two hundred craftspeople and one million pounds of funding, he took five years to construct the Corpus Clock, which features a large gold-plated stainless steel face that was shaped from a single piece of metal using highly accurate underwater explosions in a “secret military research institute in Holland”.

The inscription beneath the clock reads mundus transit et concupiscentia eius “the world passeth away, and the lust thereof”, and above it all is the Chronophage, a demonic grasshopper who eats time minute by minute. The creature serves a double purpose, being a highly decorated “grasshopper escarpment” that helps to regulate the machine, and, on the other hand, it is a jaw-snapping, time-eating symbol of the regular yet random, arbitrary, and ultimately finite nature of life itself.

Yet interestingly enough, the clock’s construction was partly inspired by the work of the English clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776). Harrison developed the first clocks accurate enough to measure time at sea, and thus to determine longitude, perhaps an uninteresting point until one considers the number of ships lost at sea because of navigational errors. Harrison’s story was made into a book and movie some years ago, but what is just as interesting is the story of what happened to some of the first clocks he made to demonstrate his skill. One of them (K2) was on the ill fated HMS Bounty, whose famous mutiny on April 28th 1789 caused such a stir in the British Empire. The clock ended up on the isolated Pitcairn Islands where the mutineers settled (after a brief stop in the Philippines to pick up wives). K2 was only recovered  generations later when a passing sea captain traded some practical goods for the then redundant clock.

More than anything, it seems to me, this fascinating, and macabre tale is the best thread connecting Harrison’s clocks to its most recent, and monstrous child.

For More Information:

Helmholtz, Perception and Progress Naturalized

Herman von Helmholtz, whose name so often conjures images of thermodynamics, electricity or heat death, was also the teacher of of Heinrich Hertz, friend of Lord Kelvin and a major figure in 19th century physics. Despite his proclivity for the physical sciences, though, Helmholtz began his career as a doctor, and during that time invented the ophthalmoscope, for examining the human eye. This beginning is noteworthy, considering Helmholtz’s life-long interest in Neo-Kantian thought and the nature of human perception. When combined with his views on thermodynamics these interests present an unusual picture of progress in human life.

In looking at his philosophy of science it is possible to see an implicit consequence of Helmholtz’s understanding of force, law and knowledge. It suggests a notion of progress, which can be understood as a force produced in an analogous fashion to those produced by steam or wind, but acting on human knowledge as mediated through the senses.

According to Helmholtz, the underlying unity of phenomena is what makes them knowable, for knowledge consist of establishing laws encapsulating isolated facts. Yet it can only do this when there is something common underlying those individual facts. In nature, this commonality is made possible by the law of conservation of force. In light of the impossibility of perpetual motion and second law of thermodynamics; however, this same commonality could allow for a definite direction to the “force” of human knowing, resulting in progress. Thus an interesting symmetry can be seen between human knowledge and nature in which each acts upon the other in terms of forces largely understood in physical terms.

It seems safe to say that for Helmholtz progress occurs in the world, it is characterized by change, and all changes are ultimately changes of motion. Thus, when considering his deterministic views of nature and the human, progress must in some ways be accounted for in naturalistic terms involving a kind of motion. If not placed in the knowledge deriving capacity of a human actor, and the mirroring that capacity must have with the laws of nature to enable the objectivity and coherence of knowledge, we would be at a loss in attempting to account for a naturalized version of progress in a Helmholtzian framework.

In his popular lectures a symmetry can be seen between knowledge and nature made possible by the commonalities underlying forces. We can only see laws amongst the disparate facts of nature thanks to our perceptions. These perceptions are involuntary. They are rooted in natural processes and the unity of forces that make change both possible as well as comprehensible. This has the consequence that all of human knowledge, its society, arts and sciences, are themselves subject to natural laws acting in ways analogous to the more straightforward laws of the physical sciences. These laws have the power to influence human knowledge, both by acting on it as an external constraint, as well as through their actions produced by our knowledge of them. In considering the impossibility of perpetual motion and the second law of thermodynamics, more than merely making knowledge of nature possible, this approach also weds progress and directionality to knowledge as a consequence of the laws of physics. Thus, in this potential reading of Hemlholtz, progress could be seen as a force acting in a deterministic way on humanity, expanding its reaches until, at its final expiration, it achieves its destiny.

For More Information:

Helmholtz, Hermann von. “On the Aim and Progress of Physical Science” in Science and

Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Conservation of Force” in Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical

Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. Helmholtz’s Treaties on Physiological Optics. Ed and Trans. James P. C. Southall.

Vol 3. The Optical Society of America; Wisconsin, 1925.

—. “On the Interaction of Natural Forces” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Origin of the Planetary System” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “The Relation of Natural Science to Science in General” in Science and Culture:

Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press; Chicago, 1995.

Secondary Sources:

Cahan, David. “Helmholtz and the Civilizing Power of Science” in Herman von

Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth Century Science. Ed. David Cahan. University of California Press; Los Angeles, 1993.

Dale, Peter Allan. In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture: Science, Art and Society in the

Victorian Age. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1989.

Oxford-Duden German Dictionary. Ed. W. Scholze-Stubenrecht, J.B. Sykes, et al. Oxford

University Press: Oxford, 2005.

Smith, Crosbie and M. Norton Wise. Energy and Empire: a Biographical Study of Lord

Kelvin. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989.

Smith, Crosbie. The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in

Victorian Britain. University Of Chicago: Press Chicago, 1999.

Giant Squid, the Alecton, and Recent Legends

It is difficult to find any three accounts of the giant squid that agree on the upper limits of its size. In Deep Ocean, Tony Rice cautiously estimates that they can reach a size of at least 49 feet. Bill Bryson, in his much celebrated work A Short History of Nearly Everything, says that their tentacles can reach a length of 60 feet. While C.P. Idyll, writing in 1964 estimated that the size of Architeuthis can range from 50 to 55 feet. He considered a specimen found off the coast of New Zealand as an entirely new species, Architeuthis longimanus, which measured in at 57 feet (and thus implied that this species may grow even larger). However, Architeuthis longimanus has since been recognized as being the same as Architeuthis dux. Perhaps more incredible than this are modern accounts which have experts claiming that the giant squid could grow anywhere from 150 to 200 feet long. Richard Ellis finds this to be irresponsible and explains that: “Because Architeuthis is such a spectacular animal, those who would include it in their catalog of monsters often increase its length substantially, and often its weight as well”. Thus, more than any property deep sea monsters may actually possess, their designation as monsters always seems to tempt even the most honest and respectable of observers to inflate their proportions to even more monstrous measurements.

According to the modern record, the first verifiable observation of the giant squid was made by the crew of the French corvette the Alecton while sailing between Madeira and Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Yet while this event did not happen until November 30th 1861, sperm whalers knew of the existence of these creatures because the quarry they hunted would sometimes regurgitate pieces of the squid.

The problems facing this encounter with a giant squid are representative of the problems facing deep sea biology in general during the 1800s. Most noticeably, however, are the difficulties involved in ascertaining the historical accuracy of this one event. The condition of the specimen observed, as well as how much of it the crew of the Alecton were able to secure, varies widely in the historical record.

According to Ellis, the specimen was already dead when discovered. This in itself demonstrates a problem that faced early biological studies of the deep sea. Whenever deep sea creatures make an appearance on the surface of the ocean they are most likely dead or dying, which made it difficult for naturalists of the time to observe living specimens . More than this “deep-sea creatures fairly burst with the release of the pressure under which they have lived […] and oftentimes the specimens are scarcely more than detached fragments by the time they can be preserved”.

Yet the story of the Alecton’s squid is far from certain. As Ellis states, the crew, wanting to bring the corpse on board, approached the body and shot it repeatedly as they came (to ensure that the creature was in fact dead): “They got a rope around the animal […] but as they were hauling it in, the body separated from the tail, and they were left with only the tail section”. Writing in 1998, Ellis may have had access to a wider range of sources than most; however, his is the only account I was able to attain which stated that the creature was in fact dead when discovered. Writing in 1964, Idyll gives a very different story. He states that the squid was alive, and if not well, functional enough to evade the pursuing Alecton for some time before they were able to hit it with a harpoon and get the rope around it. This time: “A violent movement by the animal broke the harpoon loose and tore off part of the tail fin. The maimed squid disappeared. The piece torn from it was estimated to be about a tenth [of its weight]”.

An article written in June 1941 by W. Ley for the Natural History Magazine makes the encounter far more violent, and, from the view of science, far less rewarding. In this account the creature was still alive, but far less lively:

Since the Alecton was a war vessel, there was no lack of armament. Cannon balls were shot at and through the lazy kraken […] and harpoons were thrown at it. […] After three hours of intensive naval warfare, the squid suddenly vomited (one of the canon balls must have hit a vital spot).

In this version it is again the weight of the squid, and not its efforts to free itself, which led to the majority of it falling back into the sea. This time, however, the part of the squid that was salvaged was totally unusable and thrown away shortly after.

It is rather remarkable that so many projectiles would have been directed towards this “lazy kraken”, and it is perhaps ironic when considering the statement made by Lieutenant Frédéric-Marie Bouyer, the Alecton’s commander, who wrote: “Finding myself in the presence of one of those strange creatures which the Ocean brings forth at times from its depths as if to challenge science, I resolved to study it more closely and try to catch it”. Again, the sheer size of some deep sea denizens makes them difficult to collect and observe. In the 1800s, it seems, sea monsters were much better studied with the help of projectiles.

Going even further back in articles written by A. E. Verrill and A.S. Packard Jr. in 1875 and 1873, respectively, the encounter of the Alecton is mentioned only in passing along with a number of other sightings, and no mention of any part of the creature being retrieved is given. Despite the new space opened up for the study of history in the natural sciences, there are still difficulties in ascertaining the accounts made by people even a hundred years ago, not to mention a thousand. Furthermore, the very size of some deep sea creatures made the collecting of specimens nearly impossible until comparatively recently. This fact left early naturalists only the hope that something would wash ashore or float to the surface in good condition in order to prove or disprove their theories.

For More Information:

Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck, eds. The Galathea DeepSea Expedition: 1950-1952. London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2003.

Eldredge, Niles and Steven M. Stanley, eds. Living Fossils. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1984.

Ellis, Richard. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: The Lyons Press, 1998.

Idyll, C.P. Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964.

Ley, W. Scylla Was a Squid. Natural History Magazine. 2007. 25 Feb. 2007.

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. Endeavour, vol. 30 (2006).

Nigg, Joseph, ed. The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Packard, A.S. Jr. Colossal Cuttlefishes. The American Naturalist, vol. 7, No. 2. (Feb., 1873).


Rice, Tony. Deep Ocean. London: The Natural History Museum, 2000.

The Linnean Society of London. An Essay on the Credibility of the Existence of the

Kraken, Sea Serpent, and Other Sea Monsters: With Illustrations. London: William Tegg, 1849.

Verrill, A.E. The Colossal Cephalopods of the North Atlantic. II. The American Naturalist, vol.9, No.2. (Feb.,1875).


Verrill, A. Hyatt. The Ocean and Its Mysteries. New York: Duffield & Co, 1925.

Wolff, Torben. Danish Expeditions on the Seven Seas. Copenhagen: Rhodos International Science and Art Publishers, 1967.

The Unplumbed Depths of Lovecraftian Philosophy

H. P. Lovecraft’s interests mark him as one of the most scientifically engaged writers of fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. His works demonstrate an awareness of Einsteinian and quantum physics, Freud and psychoanalysis, astronomy, chemistry and the question of progress. He also wrote over a hundred articles dealing almost exclusively with these themes. Despite this, Lovecraft’s importance in the context of the history and philosophy of science has largely been overlooked.

A few examples of this kind do exist, such as S.T. Joshi’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West”, which attempts to place Lovecraft in the tradition of Oswald Spengler’s critique of progress. Overall, however, there has been little written on this topic in any concentrated way, and what has appeared has generally been dominated by the writings of Joshi.

Lovecraft’s philosophy of science has been much maligned by narrow interpreters who see in his exultation of the unknown an anti-scientific nostalgia and an unhealthy, morbid fascination with madness and human frailty. While by the end of the 20th century Lovecraft’s fiction had developed a cult following, this interest and the substantial cultural capital afforded by it has seen little reflection in academic circles, partly, one thinks, for this very same reason.

My recent interests have lead me to a comparison of Lovecraft’s sense of “Cosmic Horror” with Einstein’s description of “Cosmic Religion”. Given Lovecraft’s knowledge of Einstein this connection is tantalizing, more so because of the work I have been doing on science and the uncanny. All three of these concepts are closely related, and are worthy of much further consideration.

Links of Interest:

A Canadian film that interweaves Lovecraft’s life and literature: “Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft”.

If you can get a plushy of it, it must be important:

Nelson, Victoria 2001 The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

A Cosmological Romance

In 1848 the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) went into the publisher George P. Putnam’s (1814-1872) office on Broadway and told him that as of that day he could abandon all of his other projects and dedicate his business to the production and distribution of Poe’s newest work: Eureka: A Prose Poem. The poet first looked upon his publisher with a “glittering eye” and announced, “I am Mr. Poe”. The work was to be his magnum opus, beside which “Newton’s discovery of gravitation was a mere incident”. It would revolutionize the way that humanity understood its place in the world, and as such an initial print run of fifty thousand copies may have been sufficient.

There is no comparable story surrounding Robert Chambers’ (1802-1871) 1844 publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Yet despite this, Chambers’ work has been applauded for bringing an “evolutionary vision of the universe into the heart of everyday life”, with its widespread popularity and influence. In its first print run Poe had difficulty selling five hundred copies of his masterpiece, and his publisher concluded that: “It has never, apparently, caused any profound interest either to popular or scientific readers”. In comparison, Chambers’ work ran into twelve editions at around twenty nine thousand copies. Insofar as it laid the groundwork for the acceptance of the evolutionary theories of the latter half of the nineteenth century, it could be said that Vestiges, rather than Eureka accomplished what Poe had claimed for himself. Charles Darwin’s tombstone in Westminster Abbey, resting just a few meters away from the exalted monument to Isaac Newton, would seem to corroborate this account.

Yet however dissimilar they were in influence and content, there was something in Poe’s Eureka that caused contemporary commentators to link the two works together in the popular press. In examining the similarities and differences of these works and their reception, the question of authority serves as the distinguishing feature that allows us to make sense of their puzzling relationship. Whereas Chambers’ anonymity, and appeals to acceptable theological, logical and scientific sources of authority allowed him to win the hearts of his bourgeoisie audience, Poe had no such support. Instead, he infamously and systematically attacked the very foundations of respectable logic and scientific discourse, and opted for a pantheistic theological underpinning to his cosmology, which flew in the face of all but the most radical of artistic and moral sentiments.

In a February 29th 1848 letter to George E. Isbell, Poe inquired about the substance of Vestiges, of which he admitted he was only partially aware. As he commented:

’The Vestiges of Creation’ I have not yet seen; and it is always unsafe and unwise to form opinions of books from reviews of them. The extracts of the work, which have fallen in my way, abound in inaccuracies of fact: — still these may not materially affect the general argument. One thing is certain; that the objections of merely scientific men—men, I mean, who cultivate the physical sciences to the exclusion, in a greater or less degree, of the mathematics, of metaphysics and of logic – are generally invalid except in respect to scientific details. Of all persons in the world, they are at the same time the most bigoted and the least capable of using, generalizing, or deciding upon the facts, which they bring to light in the course of their experiments. And these are the men who chiefly write the criticisms against all efforts at generalization – denouncing these efforts as ‘speculative’ and ‘theoretical’.

After laying out his own key positions in Eureka, Poe went on to state that: “I would be obliged to you if you would let me know how far these ideas are coincident with those of the ‘Vestiges’”. Here we see Poe indirectly answering criticisms against Vestiges by merely scientific men in much the same way that he criticized those who found fault with his own work. Implicitly, he praises its power of generalization, suggestion, and is willing to forgive the abundance of “inaccuracies of fact” in what he does know about the work, provided that the core of the argument rings true.

While scholars have justifiably focused on the compositional relationship between Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos and Poe’s Eureka, there is still much to be learned from examining the parallel and divergent paths that it traveled along with Vestiges in the cultural context of America in the 1840s. The sensation caused by Vestiges in Britain was echoed across the Atlantic, and part of this echo resonated with both the style and content of Eureka. Both works were the children of the popular press, but one found its audience to spectacular effect, while the other struggled to receive recognition from its intended public. What then can be said about this difference? In large part, they can be attributed to the extreme personality behind Eureka. Impoverished and desperate, Poe could not benefit from the ambiguous authority provided by literary anonymity in the same way as Chambers. Clearly linked to his identity, many suspected a hoax, not in spite of this connection, but because of it. Despite his knowledge of the popular press, he never sought to appeal to the same reform minded and utilitarian principles that made Chambers’ work so appealing to his bourgeoisie audience. What was perhaps more unacceptable to his American audience, Poe’s pantheistic cosmology was clearly and abundantly anathema to traditional religion, while critics of Vestiges were forced to argue instead that its author’s religious platitudes were disingenuous. Furthermore, while both Chambers and Poe drew criticisms for their lack of scientific rigor, Chambers overall project was not as blatantly antagonistic to the authority of the sciences. Yet at the heart of all three of Poe’s problems with traditional modes of authority remains the question of his individual personality and its relationship to the emerging “mass public” that grew out of the communication technologies of the early nineteenth-century. In this context what it evinces, in its most powerful form, is the message that the most successful profits of a new cosmology are those who can afford to remain nameless.

As a side note, not everyone was ambivalent to Eureka. The french loved it, particularly the eminent polymath Paul Valéry and the poet Charles Baudelaire. Its emphasis on the crucial role of inspiration and intuition resonated with Albert Einstein’s approach to science, who also found the work intriguing, and the analytical philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine stated that it was one of the most influential works in his early life that made him interested in philosophy and the philosophy of science.

For More Information See:

Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Assessments. Vol II. Ed. Graham Clarke. Helm Information: Mountfield, 1991.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. (Cooper Square Press: New York, 1992)

“New Publications”. In the Broadway Journal (1845-1846); Jan 18, 1845; American Periodicals Series Online. 45.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ‘Dream-land’, in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. J. A. Harrison. T. Y. Crowell: New York, 1965.

—. Eureka: A Prose Poem. Ed. Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2004.

—. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. John Ward Ostrom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.

Secord, James A. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000.

Thompson, G.R. “Unity, Death, and Nothingness: Poe’s ‘Romantic Skepticism’”. In PMLA. (Vol. 85. No. 2. 1970) 297-300.

Tresch, John. “The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude: Edgar Allan Poe within the Mechanical Age”. In The British Journal for the History of Science. (Vol. 30. No. 3. 1997) 275-290.

Welsh, Susan. “The Value of Anological Evidence: Poe’s ‘Eureka’ in the Context of a Scientific Debate”. In Modern Language Studies. (Vol 21. No. 4. 1991) 3-15.

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 3 Vols. Ed. Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Redfield: New York, 1849.

Yeo, Richard. “Science and Intellectual Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain: Robert Chambers and ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’”. In Victorian Studies. (Vol. 28. No. 1. 1984) 5-31.

The Nightmares that Unite Us

In the December 7th and December 9th 2006 issues of the Chronicle Herald of Halifax, columnist Peter Duffy wrote an article in which he claimed to have been the victim of what he described as a case of supernatural sexual assault. The experience was so vivid and traumatic that the otherwise conservative author consulted a psychic astrologer, a priest, and a professor of religious studies in an effort to understand what had happened to him. As he described the experience:

I became aware of a strange presence in the bedroom, something emitting waves of malevolence. […] I don’t know how, [but] I knew it was a demon of some kind. I recoiled in horror, trying to make myself small, unable to tear my eyes away. […] And then it was on top of me, soundless and unstoppable, smothering me, assaulting me. There’s no delicate way to put this; I was vividly aware of this creature violating me. I yelled, but nothing came from my lips.

Observers in subsequent issues of the Herald indicated that what Duffy had experienced was a case of sleep paralysis with hypnagogic hallucinations (SPHH), and that the editors of the paper should have known better than to print his confused account of demon assault in one of Nova Scotia’s major newspapers. The highly public nature of this event and the backlash that accompanied its publication are quite uncommon, and they are an intriguing indicator of the still obscure nature of a physiological experience that occurs at least once in the lifetime of between 5 and 62 percent of the population. Yet importantly, subsequent readers of the Herald knew of the experience and were willing and able to set the record straight in their letters to the editor. The situation would have been much different had the same article been published thirty years ago.

Here I hope to explore the role that folklorists had in drawing attention to the existence and normalcy of SPHH, what they often refer to as “the Old Hag”. More specifically: how did they succeed in doing this and through what channels did their influence take effect? By examining these issues it is hoped that the interdisciplinary shift that this change of focus entailed in both the folkloric and medical communities will also be made manifest. This development owes a great deal to the work of the folklorist David J. Hufford from the Department of Humanities at Penn State University and Robert C. Ness from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Centre. Both Hufford’s 1982 book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions and Ness’ 1978 article “The Old Hag Phenomenon as Sleep Paralysis: A Biocultural Interpretation” attempted to articulate the Old Hag as a unique phenomenon whose widespread cultural occurrence should be understood alongside a particular set of physiological conditions consistent with what psychologists and doctors were designating SPHH. Thus in this paper Ness’ and Hufford’s roles will be particularly important to the investigation.

By exploring the folkloric, anthropological and medical literature surrounding the changing approach to the Old Hag in the past 30 years, I hope to demonstrate how, in contrast to its earlier obscurity and misclassification, the folkloric turn instigated by figures such as Hufford and Ness near the beginning of the 1980s allowed for the isolation of the Old Hag as a stable, medically relevant phenomenon. While not immediately accepted, this suggested approach helped to changed the medical community’s focus on SPHH away from the usual associations with narcolepsy, epilepsy and schizophrenia, towards stress, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This movement was then predicated on a shift in the medical community’s understanding of the Old Hag’s pathological associations, and was mediated by medical anthropologists’ understanding of culture-bound syndromes, as well as the contributions made by researchers with cultural and ethnic backgrounds other than that of most modern western medical practitioners. The consequence of this “folkloric turn” has been that doctors and psychologists confronted with the Old Hag have increasingly come to see the value of folklore in treating patients experiencing the condition, particularly in cases of PTSD, and several folklorists have begun understanding their rolls as those of healers and medical researchers.

Doctors, Folklorists and the Phenomenon, 1979-1982:

The phenomenology of the Old Hag is typified by a number of striking characteristics: The impression of wakefulness and the capacity to hear things that are actually happening around the subject, total paralysis which sets in either upon waking or falling asleep, a felt presence of some (usually malevolent) entity nearby, auditory and visual hallucinations clearly set in the room in which the victim went to sleep, and pressure on the chest or other part of the body that interferes with respiration. While other experiences have been reported in association with the Old Hag, these are the basic traits most often attributed to the experience.

It is generally accepted that the modern medical study of dream phenomenon begins with the work of Sigmund Freud. However, Freud was often uncomfortable with bad dreams, for they challenged one of the central dogmas of his interpretive method: They could not easily be described as repressed wishes. The early work of attempting to understand them would be left to a disciple of Freud’s, the welsh psychologist Ernest Jones. His On The Nightmare concluded by claiming that many nightmare phenomena, including several that have since become associated with the Old Hag, were representative of sexual angst, in which a state of guilt is turned back upon the dreamer resulting in their frightening dreams. While this study was ultimately superseded, it nevertheless represents the earliest modern medical attempt to account for a variety of bad dream experiences and set the framework for later discussions.

Up until at least 1984 doctors and psychologists tended to view consistent bad dreams or experiences consistent with the Old Hag as indicative of some underlying pathology. For instance, the psychologist Ernest Hartmann, while seemingly unaware of the Old Hag as such, observed in his 1984 work on nightmares that extreme cases were often indicative of schizophrenic, or pre-schizophrenic personality types. The common co-occurrence of SPHH consistent with the Old Hag in narcoleptics was also the focus of many of these early studies. While the association in this case is entirely justified, people with narcolepsy do experience the Old Hag on average much more frequently than those without it, this connection had the further result of leading some researchers to suspect that the presence of Old Hag symptoms might necessarily be a sign of narcolepsy. While not as prevalent in the medical literature, clinical accounts also indicate that people coming to their physician during this time were often diagnosed as potential epileptics. Together these three tentative diagnoses, schizophrenia, narcolepsy and epilepsy, constituted doctors’ and psychologists’ primary response to patients describing Old Hag symptoms in the period prior to the folkloric turn.

In 1978 Robert C. Ness published a paper in Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry entitled “The Old Hag Phenomenon as Sleep Paralysis: A Biocultural Interpretation”. The main thesis of his paper was that the phenomenon of the Old Hag experienced by many Newfoundlanders was best explained by identifying it with SPHH, and that its widespread nature largely ruled out the exclusively pathological view advanced by many of his colleagues. As he argued at the time: “My opportunity to live and work for 13 months with people who had experienced attacks of the Old Hag convinced me that they were not suffering from any distinctive form of chronic or episodic emotional disturbance”. Furthermore, what was unusual at the time was that while Ness was acting in his role as a psychologist, his methodologies were decidedly folkloric.

Four years after the publication of Ness’ article, in 1982, the folklorist David Hufford published The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. This broad ranging study of the Old Hag likewise concluded that the cultural experience must be understood alongside the medical designation of SPHH, and that it was not necessarily associated with the pathologies usually attributed to it. More than this, Hufford stressed the widespread nature of the experience, the problems that modern western medicine has faced in attempting to properly isolate it, and how these difficulties had definite clinical consequences. For Hufford, understanding the Old Hag in folkloric terms had “potential medical and psychological significance”. This significance was owed partially to his view that “folk knowledge is sometimes well in advance of scientific knowledge”, as well as his conviction that it provides “an arena for genuinely interdisciplinary research”. In many ways his book was a self-conscious call to arms to the folkloric and medical communities to unite for the better understanding of the Old Hag.

The Meeting of Minds:

One of the earliest points of contact between folkloric and medical studies of the Old Hag in the years after the publication of Hufford’s and Ness’ work can be seen in the anthropological and psychological writings of the time period centered around the concept of the “culture-bound syndrome”. Even while being considered a “blurred” distinction at the time in which it was proposed, Ronald C. Simons, from the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan State University, described this class of syndrome as follows in his introduction to The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest:

Unlike the categories of standard Western psychiatric nosology culture-bound syndromes are restricted to specifiable peoples and locales, hence the term ‘culture-bound’. Thus their full explications require description not only of the behaviors and experiences which are considered deviant, but also of the ways those behaviors and experiences are embedded in specific social systems and cultural context.

In the collection Ness’ essay on the Old Hag serves as a main feature for the discussion of the “sleep paralysis taxon”, and Simons makes a point of quoting at length The Terror that Comes in the Night, “a remarkable volume by David Hufford”. Furthermore, the follow-up to the section on sleep paralysis comments on the “striking” similarities in symptomology of the Old Hag in Ness’ article and the experience of uqamairineq and uqumanigianiq in an article on Eskimo SPHH presented in the same volume by Joseph D. Bloom, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oregon, and Richard D. Gelardin, from the Anchorage Community College. While the concept of the culture-bound syndrome often stood on a shaky footing, it clearly opened up a space in which medical researchers, anthropologists and folklorists such as Hufford could have their work mentioned in the same volume, and exposed to a wider professional audience than their isolated disciplines.

Outside of the concept of culture-bound syndromes it is informative to look at the work of Carl C. Bell, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois School of Medicine. In 1986 Bell published an article in the Journal of the National Medical Association entitled “Further Studies on the Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Black Subjects”. In reviewing the existing literature on sleep paralysis Bell explicitly mentions the contributions made by Hufford. More than this, his discussion of the folklorist occupies most of the space dedicated to the previous literature, and emphasizes Hufford’s “significant contribution” to the study and understanding of SPHH. The widely cited paper was a follow up to a number of studies Bell had already published on the prevalence of isolated sleep paralysis in African American communities. In particular, a look at his 1984 article “Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Black Subjects” does much to shed light on his early reception of the folkloric contribution.

Two things in particular are interesting about Bell’s earlier work. Unlike most of the studies of his subject matter in the medical community, he does not emphasize the typical pathologies of the Old Hag, but instead draws his reader’s attention to its association with stress, depression and PTSD. As he observes:

being black in this society is associated with stress due to racism with its attendant lack of parity in housing, health care, employment, nutrition, education, and opportunities […]. It may well be that the high amounts of sleep paralysis seen in this population are the results of ‘survival fatigue’

Furthermore, it is apparent that Bell was not unaware of the cultural dimension of the Old Hag that exists in African American communities. As he comments near the end of his paper:

One finds cultural evidence for the high incidence of sleep paralysis in blacks in American black folklore, with references to the experience ‘the witch is riding you.’ This may refer to the common report of sleep paralysis victims that they feel as if someone is sitting on their chest or standing over their bed. Certainly, a genetic predisposition toward sleep paralysis among blacks would help to explain the finding that black cultural cosmology in black Africa is in part based on the existence of genies and spirits.

Hufford would argue that it was the presence of a cultural tradition that allowed African American’s to elaborate their experience, creating only the appearance of a greater incidence rate than in other populations. However, Bell’s attempt to link the cultural expression of the Old Hag with the prevalence of sleep paralysis represents a dramatic shift in the professional medical community’s approach to the condition. That his work represents a kind of milestone is further emphasized by his statement at the beginning of his paper that: “This study represents the first survey to measure the incidence of this disorder in a black population of healthy subjects and psychiatric patients”. By placing “healthy subjects” alongside those with some recognized pathology Bell was able to get a clearer picture of the prevalence of Old Hag experiences in the African American community that he studied. Two factors in particular, Bell’s desire to shift the focus away from the traditional pathologies of the Old Hag, as well as his attention to the cultural elaborations of sleep paralysis among African Americans, made him predisposed to the kind of accounts that the folklorists were making to describe the Old Hag. Also, the fact that Bell himself is an African American may not have been entirely unimportant in shaping his novel approach to the study of the experience.

In general there were two main responses to the initial presentation of the folkloric turn in studies of the Old Hag: it was either absent in the writings of psychologists and doctors when addressing symptoms of SPHH, or the roll of folklore in isolating it as a condition was addressed. When it is addressed, it is done so by medical practitioners who, while working within the rubric of modern western medicine, are often from alternative cultural or ethnic backgrounds. This is particularly so in the case of Japanese researchers, in whose culture the concept of the Old Hag already exists under the name of kanashibari. However, notably, in cases in which the researchers are embedded in the tradition of modern western medicine, their subjects of study are often refugee immigrant groups or other minorities in whose culture the Old Hag has some form of definite expression.

Getting a Handle on the Hag:

In March 2005 the journal Transcultural Psychology published an issue entirely dedicated to sleep paralysis (SPHH) consistent with Hufford’s articulation of the Old Hag. Hufford made a contribution to the collection with his article “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience”, and many of the entries featured a distinctly folkloric approach in the psychological treatment of a wide variety of ethnic groups. With the general acceptance of the Old Hag as a stable, wide spread and cross-cultural phenomenon, attention has turned away from the pathologies of schizophrenia, narcolepsy and epilepsy, and is now focused on the more purely psychological conditions of stress, depression and PTSD. This new direction is in keeping with both Hufford’s and Bell’s treatment of the experience, and resulted in the production of novel methods of diagnosis and treatment.

Devon E. Hinton’s paper “‘The Ghost Pushes You Down’: Sleep Paralysis-Type Panic Attacks in a Khmer Refugee Population”, in which a population of Cambodian refugees from the Khmer Rouge period were examined for cases of SPHH, is demonstrative of this trend. One of the keys to his observations is that “SP [sleep paralysis] is a core aspect of the Cambodian refugees response to trauma; when assessing Cambodian refugees, and traumatized refugees in general, clinicians should assess for its presence“. This emphasis on the experience of the Old Hag in a culture in which there is a definite equivalent led the researchers to emphasize the importance of detecting the presence of the condition in sufferers of PTSD. This roll is particularly importance, since, as the study concludes:

Increased daytime anxiety and panic initiated by SP will subsequently lead to yet more conditioning of fear to arousal symptoms; increased arousal; and more night-time awakening. In turn, these three processes lead to more SP. Hence, a self-perpetuating cycle is initiated.

This sentiment in mirrored in a 2008 study of the link between PTSD resulting from childhood abuse and SPHH. In it the clinical psychologist Murray P. Abrams et al from the University of Regina likewise conclude that: “It is therefore reasonable to suggest that SP may itself be a substantially traumatizing experience, irrespective of whether or not it is specifically related to a prior trauma”. What is particularly notable in these works is that they do not suggest that individuals who experience the Old Hag and associated phenomenon are at any greater risk of schizophrenia or epilepsy. Indeed, the opposite is now the case. The presence of Old Hag symptoms is seen as a factor that should dissuade doctors and psychiatrists from making hasty diagnoses of schizophrenia, particularly in the case of immigrants. For example, Joop de Jong, a psychiatrist and professor of mental health and culture at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in his 2005 study of cultural variations in the presentation of isolated sleep paralysis emphasizes that this greater understanding can prevent the misdiagnosis of otherwise normal patients. As he says:

It is quite obvious that mental health professionals should be aware of the existence of this diagnosis, because the hallucinatory experiences may easily result in false-positive diagnoses of psychoses, especially among immigrant groups who more likely receive a diagnosis of (paranoid) schizophrenia.

This statement is far removed from Hartmann’s 1984 work and its accompanying support for a largely schizophrenic or pre-schizophrenic treatment of a wide array of Old Hag and nightmare phenomenon.

As seems evident from these considerations, the folkloric turn also brought with it novel methods of treatment, particularly in the area of PTSD, in which it was realized that the Old Hag could produce a feedback loop in which sufferers of PTSD are further traumatized. Attempting to disrupt this loop is seen as a new goal of treatment and is often accomplished merely by informing the patient of the normalcy and non-life threatening nature of the experience. As a testament to the interdisciplinary nature of this insight, the methods of addressing the “cycle of trauma” recognized in Abrams’ paper directly references Hufford’s work: “Education alone may provide relief, […] such information may also help ameliorate the initial shock and fear commonly associated with a SP episode (Hufford, 2005)”. These sentiments have also been mirrored elsewhere in the recent literature.

The consequences go further than this in Hinton’s paper however, for an attention to the folk beliefs of people suffering from the Old Hag comes to play a direct roll in the diagnosis and treatment of the various stresses contributing to the condition:

One should determine when the SP events began. If the episodes commenced during the Khmer Rouge period, trauma events at that time are implicated; if the onset of SP was at a later point, issues of interpersonal conflict, such as acting-out of children or gang involvement or spousal abuse, may be especially important. One should ask about self-treatment. One should elicit patient’s thoughts about the origin of SP. Also, one should carefully document the phenomenology of the sleep paralysis and post-sleep paralysis state.

These folk beliefs can thus provide important clues as to the origins and potential treatment methods of the stresses associated with the Old Hag, and is largely achieved through a more careful attention to what individuals believe about their own health, and by creating a space in which disclosure of experiences outside of the usual rubric of modern western medicine is encouraged.

The new options this approach has provided for the treatment of patients experiencing the Old Hag has been acknowledged by others. As early as 1992, Jude Uzoma Ohaeri from the Department of Psychiatry at the University College Hospital likewise concluded that: “It is hoped that doctors in general medical practice and in psychological medicine in developing countries where belief in supernatural causation of illness is rife will consider these factors in order to provide more effective treatment”. If the growing number of works that recognize this point is any indication of prevailing trends, we may conclude that from the interplay of folklore and medicine a novel phenomenon has been identified and treatments derived, which would not have been possible without the medical insights of the folklorists, or the cultural attention of the doctors involved.

The interdisciplinary victory represented by this new understanding of the Old Hag brought with it changing views in the medical and folkloric communities about the value of each other’s work. Several folklorists and medical anthropologists such as Shelly Adler, from the Division of Medical Anthropology in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California, have begun to see their roll as that of active medical researchers with valuable insights on the origin and identification of culturally defined illnesses. Nowhere is this understanding more forcefully expressed than in Adler’s work:

The ease with which folk tradition isolates the nightmare experience [the Old Hag], however, is in marked contrast to the continuing confusion that characterizes current scientific investigations into the phenomenon. Perhaps the most difficult problem involves distinguishing the specific nightmare incident from other sleep disorders, particularly the night terror, Pavor nocturnus. The terms nightmare and night terror are often used interchangeably and are incorrectly assumed to refer to the same experience. Even among researchers who have considered a possible connection between SUNDS [Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome] and certain “dreams” of the Hmong (e.g., Lemoine and Mougne 1983; Melles and Katz 1988; Tobin and Friedman 1983), progress is impeded by the lack of consistent use of an accurate characterization of the nightmare.

Likewise, clinical psychologists such as those represented in the May 2005 issue of Transcultural Psychiatry have increasingly come to recognize the importance of cultural variations in the presentation of the Old Hag, and its consequences for diagnosis and treatment.

It is also interesting to note the process of social construction that has taken place in dealing with Old Hag symptoms both before and after the folkloric turn. It is probable that western medicine’s outlook on hallucinatory symptoms helped to shape the pathological interpretation of early accounts of the Old Hag. In such a context patients reporting dramatic spiritual or paranormal experiences, particularly those from cultural backgrounds outside of the norm of modern medical practice, were much more likely to be seen as suffering from a major psychological condition. This had the combined effect of making patients less likely to come forward with this set of symptoms, as well as serving to further isolate minority and immigrant cultural groups from mainstream medicine.

However, elements of social construction can likewise be seen after the folkloric turn. In the case of Carl Bell’s research it seems evident that an emphasis on the subjugation of minorities played into the interpretation of the Old Hag as the product of stress, depression and PTSD. Adler’s touching articulation of the plight of Hmong immigrants in America further demonstrates this trend. Yet it must also be noted that as an experience whose cultural elaboration has taken on greater emphasis, the degree to which it is considered “culturally” constructed becomes much more flexible and informative than with the earlier pathological view.

Regardless of the degree to which interpretations of the Old Hag have been culturally constructed, the background of these considerations would benefit from further study. For instance, what changes took place from the 1980s to the present in the ways that the medical community approached the problems of war related trauma in immigrant and refugee populations? Alongside the notable case of Carl Bell, how did the socio-economic and cultural position of African Americans and other minorities change in relation to the medical community to allow for the study of the Old Hag? It may very well be that a large part of this shift is due to an increase in the number or activity of medical practitioners whose cultural backgrounds varied from that of traditional modern medicine. If this is the case it would not be unreasonable to suspect that the assumptions and biases that led early researches to associate hallucinatory experiences with severe mental pathologies might be absent or modified in their work. The role of Japanese researchers in particular is worthy of further study, for Japanese medicine represents a unique fusion of modern western medical practice within a non-western culture that already had a developed notion of the Old Hag in the form of kanashibari.

On the side of the folklorists, it would be fruitful to note how many of them had experienced the Old Hag before becoming interested in its role in their area of study. This is the case with Hufford, who first experienced the condition while a student at university. The typical stresses of university students, with frequent disruptions in sleep, constant deadlines and alienating figures of authority, combined with growing pressure placed upon them by larger class sizes and poor job prospects for the future, may increase the rate of the Old Hag in this population. If so, it would be worthwhile to examine the role that student life has played in shaping the interests of folklorist to see if changing levels of stress and depression made it ever more likely that they would direct their attention towards this experience.

That the folkloric turn of the 1980s did occur and helped to shape the ways in which the symptoms of the Old Hag were treated by psychologists and doctors now seems certain. The shift away from diagnoses of schizophrenia, narcolepsy and epilepsy, towards those of depression, stress and PTSD that was instigated by the folklorists was mediated to the larger medical community by researchers that studied or were part of minority groups who often had some discreet notion of the Old Hag as a stable and non-pathological phenomenon. The psychological concept of the culture-bound syndrome also played a part in widening the medical audience for this particular interpretation of the symptoms of the Old Hag. Once adopted, it cleared the way for novel methods of treatment and clinical practice that saw their most immediate consequences for immigrant refugees whose concerns had been previously marginalized or misdiagnosed as being more pathological than they actually were. By looking into the channels through which this process took place, and at the larger cultural issues that set the context for this change, it will be possible to glean yet further insights into a common human experience that has been silenced for longer than can be explained by traditional accounts of dispassionate medical research. At the very least, it highlights the importance and value of heterodoxy to modern western medicine, and forces a reevaluation of the role of folk beliefs in the mental health of individuals. It is hoped that we may now be able to come to terms with the experience of the Old Hag and gain some further insights into its future role at the crossroads of folklore and medicine.

For More Information:

The Devil’s Trill:

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Adler, Shelly R., “Refugee Stress and Folk Belief: Hmong Sudden Deaths” In Social Science and Medicine Vol. 40, No. 12. 1995. p. 1623-29.

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—. “Introduction: The Sleep Paralysis Taxon” in The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest. Ed. Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes. D. Reidel Publishing Company: Dordrecht, 1985.

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“Voice of the People”. The Chronicle Herald [Halifax] December 14th 2006, Metro and Provincial, The Mail Star: A12.