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The history of medical discourse around epilepsy has been strongly marked by two explanatory paradigms, one primarily supernatural in character, the other chiefly scientific and medical. For most of this history, supernatural ideas predominated, but with the professionalization of medicine towards the end of the 19th century, a rigorous and self-consciously scientific discourse increasingly sought to exclude early explanatory paradigms as superstitious, unfounded, and implausible. Notwithstanding its significance for the medical and social construction of epilepsy, historians of science have largely neglected this transition. This paper offers a reading of a series of salient medical texts reflecting the discursive shifts in the liminal state between the two organizing frames of knowledge of epilepsy at the end of the 19th century. A primary epistemological pivot in these texts concerns the belief that epilepsy was a cause of insanity in patients. The highly discourse-specific observation that epileptics were moody and obstinate is identified as indicative of the belief that the mental condition of epileptics manifested in temporary outbursts of fury and attacks of regular maniacal excitement. As Foucault has relatedly observed, for much of the 19th century, the conceptual categories of average, normal, and healthy remained separate, though towards its end, they began to merge; following this theoretical framework, historical medical texts from the period are read as implicating shifts in the 19th-century construal of epilepsy as one way of failing to meet the requirements of normalcy. This paper argues that the transition from a supernatural to a scientific understanding of epilepsy characteristic of the late 19th century is most persuasively evinced by changes around the belief that epilepsy was a cause of insanity and madness in patients, a change which itself contributed to a novel negotiation of the social and medical constructions of normalcy and health.

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Justin Choi (United States of America) 10938
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