The Search for a Science of the Mind

Gray_06_14John Gray at Literary Review:

Headhunters is a mind-opening exploration of the lives, careers and ideas of four leading figures who believed themselves pioneers in a new branch of knowledge: the anthropologist and psychiatrist William Rivers (1864-1922), Rivers's pupil the physician and psychologist Charles Myers (1873-1946), the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) and the social psychologist William McDougall (1871-1938). The origins of this arrestingly original and beautifully written book are themselves an interesting story. They go back to 1963, when as a teenager Shephard read Siegfried Sassoon's Sherston's Progress, in which Rivers appears as the doctor who treated Sassoon for shell shock. Reinforced by studies of the traumas experienced by servicemen as a result of the Vietnam War, Shephard's concern with the psychological aftermath of warfare led to an interest in military psychiatry, which eventually resulted in his writing War of Nerves (2000). All of the thinkers examined here, Shephard discovered, were involved in one way or another in the treatment of psychologically damaged soldiers. Rivers's pupil Myers coined the term 'shell shock' when serving in the army in France; McDougall – another pupil of Rivers – had written an account of the patients whom he had treated back in England; while Elliot Smith had published a wartime polemic on shell shock.

Shephard writes that he has 'tried to give some idea of how science actually works: the passions, the irrational flashes, the moments of insight – the big ideas that work and the big ideas that are plain wrong'. He does this, in part, by giving us a flavour of the personalities of his four protagonists.

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