A drifting concept for an unruly menace: A history of psychopathy in Germany

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Abstract

The term “psychopath” has enjoyed wide currency both in popular culture and among specialists in forensic psychiatry. Historians, however, have generally neglected the subject. This essay examines the history of psychopathy in the country that first coined the term, developed the concept, and debated its treatment: Germany. While the notion can be traced to nineteenth-century psychiatric ideas about abnormal, yet not completely pathological, character traits, the figure of the psychopath emerged out of distinctly twentieth-century preoccupations and institutions. The vagueness and plasticity of the diagnosis of psychopathy proved to be one of the keys to its success, as it was embraced and employed by clinicians, researchers, and the mass media, despite attempts by some to curb its use. Within the span of a few decades, the image of the psychopath became one of a perpetual troublemaker, an individual who could not be managed within any institutional setting. By midcentury, psychopaths were no longer seen as simply nosological curiosities; rather, they were spatial problems, individuals whose defiance of institutional routine and attempts at social redemption stood in for an attributed mental status. The history of psychopathy therefore reveals how public dangers and risks can be shaped and defined by institutional limitations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)283-309
Number of pages27
JournalISIS
Volume106
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015

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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • History and Philosophy of Science

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