Darin Hayton: Edward Shorter Doubles Down on His Criticism of Historians of Science

tags: history of science, history of medicine, Edward Shorter, Darin Hayton, Haverford College



Darin Hayton is a historian of early modern science at Haverford College.

After reading the interview with Edward Shorter, “How Depression Went Mainstream,” I posted some critical thoughts about his dismissal of contemporary history of science. His point seemed to be that present history of science was boring because most contemporary historians of science do not have the technical training to understand the science. As John Wilkins pointed out, Shorter seems to be reviving the internalist/externalist dichotomy in favor of the internalist approach. Reflecting further on the interview, I wondered about the context that produced the interview and how much of Edward Shorter was coming through and how much of the interviewer. So I reached out to Edward Shorter and asked him a few questions. Below I try to summarize our conversation and try to refrain from commentary.[1]...

Shorter was clear and unambiguous: He considers the questions many colleagues are asking to be marginal. The history of medicine, he said, continues to be informed by particular agendas inherited from the 1970s. He characterized them as, on the one hand, leftist studies that sought to blame capitalism for society’s ills and, on the other hand, a women’s studies agenda that sought to show how women had been oppressed. These agendas seem to shape scholarship on psychiatry. Too often, Shorter remarked, histories of psychiatry try to explain how psychiatry has oppressed women. The history of psychiatry risks becoming an appendage of women’s studies or a bland sociology.

I asked about how he would characterize his own work, which has dealt with both women and psychiatry. He said that he had written about women‘s bodies but indicated that his interests had moved on from his earlier book. In general, today he described his work as a blend of history of medicine and social history, as concerned with what he called “narratives of therapy and diagnosis.” The historian cannot understand those therapies and diagnoses without understanding the science that undergirds them. Here is where much contemporary history of medicine goes awry. “Faute de mieux,” historians who are unable to understand the science have no choice but to study the social contexts. Such studies are often driven by the 1970s agendas Shorter deplores....




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