Metaphor as Technology, Module 4: Teaching Instructions

This unit puts together two descriptions of what we would today call "mental illness" and what would have been called, during the 16th century, "possession with the Devil." The account of Margaret's possession, written and published in 1584, attributes guilt or responsibility for Margaret's strange actions differently than does the movie, "The Three Faces of Eve." Margaret, it seems, is partly responsible for her own incomprehensible behavior: she is not possessed BY but WITH the devil, suggesting that her own wayward thoughts are partly to blame for her current sense of being out of control or possessed. But the responsibility for bringing her back to her right mind is not hers alone: the whole community becomes involved in praying and laying on of hands. In redefining irrational behavior as "illness," modern society attenuates the sense of responsibility if it does not eradicate it entirely. One cannot help falling ill, as the metaphor of "falling" suggests. Reading the excerpt from Ian Hacking should help students learn to look at cultural understandings of irrationality without proclaiming one "right" and the other "wrong," "real" and "fake."

LEVEL DESCRIPTORS:

First- or second-year college students

LEARNING OUTCOMES:

Here again the goal is for students to understand that metaphors or models imply who is responsible for or guilty of any action. But there is a further goal. Ideally students will entertain the notion that cultural forms, like metal formed by a blacksmith, allow perfectly natural feelings and actions to be expressed in a certain form: the form doesn't falsify them.

DISCUSSION POSSIBILITIES:

Talk with students about whether they believe in "demonic possession" or not. Then ask them, what kind of professional would they consult if a loved one began uttering incomprehensible sentences or acting completely out of character: a priest? a doctor? Some of course would go to a priest, but then ask them, would they expect their loved one to be cured by "exorcism"? Now ask: if you were talking with someone about mental problems that he or she had, what would we typically expect the person to say about treatment -- that he is going to a therapist? that he is on anti-depressants? that he has been exorcised recently? The point, of course, is to show students that Western, U.S. social mores and expectations do not include belief in demonic possession as a cause for strange behavior, and that this belief is indicated precisely by calling that strange behavior "mental illness." The word "illness" for irrational behavior already implies a whole range of actors and actions: doctors, drugs, cure.

ASSESSMENT:

In grading assignment 1, look for the recognition that "mental illness" -- sickness, disease, any word suggesting it -- does not appear in the 16th-century description of what happened to Margaret whereas it would appear in a 21st-century account. In assignment 2, by far the hardest of the two assignments, look for the student's recognition that Hacking would NOT call Margaret's friends "wrong" and Eve's psychiatrist "right," that he would say that both are as right as they can be at their historical moment.

 

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