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The deviant mind

May 7, 2012

Work in progress – by Flávio Edler

We are witnessing these days a growth in biological theories that seek to explain violence. Researchers studying the causes of criminal or violent behaviour, involving biomarkers such as genes, hormones and brain function, are often unaware of the rich history of their activities. My work deals with two major themes in Brazilian history of medicine: illness, deviance and social identities, and the biological explanation of social problems from the 18th to the 20th centuries. I seek to investigate how anthropological and psychological methods interacted with medicine in myriad ways, developing representations and generalisations about individuals in specific social settings. My research is concerned with the relationship between the body and mind (or the soul); I am particularly interested in how the body, mind and soul were seen to be connected to transgressive, deviant or criminal behaviour in the abundant medical literature of the Brazilian Empire (1830–89).

Throughout the Old Regime (in the period before 1822), the offender’s behaviour was the object of moral disapproval, usually with religious overtones. To avoid sin, Jesuit pedagogy preached the discipline of the power of the will to subdue the passions. However, the metaphor of the balance between vices and virtues began to retreat slowly from the second half of the 18th century. The comprehension of passions and feelings, and their relationship to the idea of human nature – first articulated in the context of medical vitalism – became central to the debate about the proper ways to ensure social order and the governance of humans. In the place of sin and vice, the notion of somatic illness had established itself: instead of imposing punishment and asceticism, doctors and lawyers began to envision normality through the lens of hygiene or healing. Later, in the context of the Escola do Direito Positivo (Positive Criminal School), the image of the criminal was at least partly constructed as an influence of a morbid condition. The dividing line between passion and pathology was obscured, and behavioural analysis shifted from the ethical to the therapeutic.

Even before the wave of scientism that occurred in the 1870s, the Brazilian medical literature of the 19th century had thought about the relationship between the physical, mental and moral as reciprocal. This rhetoric, a legacy of the sensationalist movement, insisted that only medicine could offer a thorough understanding of the passions, since they were closely connected with bodily functions. Diseases and physical characteristics were thought to be the primary causes of the disorders of passion. The medicalisation of criminality asserted itself into the discussion on civil liability and criminal responsibility. As such, I postulate that from the late 18th century, theories about human nature originating from anthropological medicine became influential, and led to the dissemination of the medical viewpoint on offending and immoral behaviour. Such theories spread far and wide in Brazil after the creation of medical schools in the 1830s. I am interested in the nuances and changes in the cognitive structure of what is best labelled as the anthropology of medicine in the 19th century, and to discover the ways in which it challenged the Brazilian criminal law, specifically with regard to human agency and free will.

Flávio Edler is Researcher and Professor at the Postgraduate Programme in the History of Sciences and Health, Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/Oswaldo Cruz Foundation.

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