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Response to Review of The Transformation of the Psyche in British Primary Care 1880-1970

I would like to thank Roger Smith for his detailed, intelligent and highly perceptive review of The Transformation of the Psyche. Although, as the book makes clear, I remain sceptical about the existence of the unconscious, Smith’s review has helped me see more clearly my own intentions and agenda in writing the book. Put briefly, the work is a contribution to the growing, and now substantial, literature on the history of selfhood. However it departs from the large number of current narratives which, inspired by Michel Foucault, Norbert Elias and Richard Sennett, identify the emergence of the modern subject with new disciplinary techniques or cultural innovations. Instead I try to show how the way that the self is imagined and experienced is determined in a large part by mundane material transformations such as the paperwork accumulated around the administration of national insurance schemes, the availability of Valium or the changing design of the GP’s surgery.  This in part explains the extensive referencing that Smith notes in his review. Although I recognize that footnoting is often a defensive gesture, I wanted to show how new forms of selfhood are made possible through the accumulation of minor adjustments and material innovations across a whole host of sites.

Smith questions a ‘large ontological claim’ which I thought I had buried in fn. 12 on p. 135. This is the idea that psychological objects – such as ‘attitudes’, ‘character’ or the ‘unconscious’ can be seen as purely ‘human kinds’ (to borrow Ian Hacking’s phrase).  Human kinds are held to be distinct from natural kinds because they interact with our descriptions of them.  Thus if a group labels someone a king, that individual’s experience, behaviour and their range of possible actions will change to reflect our current understanding of kingship.  By way of contrast, calling an animal a badger or not calling it a badger will have much less effect on that animal’s self perceptions or potential behaviour. As Smith has argued in a number of essays the boundary between natural kinds and human kinds is not clear cut.(1) I agree with this position and indeed it was not my intention in The Transformation of the Psyche to resolve this ontological quandary.  Moreover I doubt I could have managed to within the allocated space for responses in Reviews in History. I am not sure that I need to. The point I wanted to make in this book is that the line we draw between human kinds and natural kinds is historical. The boundary shifts in line with contemporary theories, techniques and investigative practices. And as the boundary shifts, so do the horizons of our discretion. It determines what we think of as fixed and what we think of as changeable about the world.

In his conclusion to the review, Smith details many of the questions left unanswered by the book, particularly the role of gender and the placebo. These questions need to be addressed and good  work is already being done in this area by Andrew Lakoff, Anne Harrington, Vicky Long and Ali Haggett. I agree with Smith that as historians begin to engage more thoroughly with the history of the body and the history of the emotions we need to interrogate the antecedents of our working ideas of affect and embodiment. This book might not resolve these issues, but I hope it will at least encourage other attempts.


  1. Roger Smith, ‘Does reflexivity separate the human sciences from the natural sciences?’, History of the Human Sciences 18, 4 (2005), 1–25;  Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature, (Manchester, 2007), chapter 2.Back to (1)