Dangers of the ‘Imagination’: The Passions and their Perils in Eighteenth-century Healthcare and Culture

The next meeting of the Eighteenth-Century Studies Seminar, with speaker Dr Alan Mackintosh.

The ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’ has been integral to many expositions on eighteenth-century arts.  The imagination was a necessary tool in appreciating art, poetry, literature, music and other cultural events, and it was also the mechanism for the resulting enhanced sentiments and sensitivity. In healthcare, physicians of the time were likewise aware of the importance of the imagination, and by the end of the century many were seeking to incorporate the management of the ‘passions’, the components of the imagination, into therapy. But they also recognised that the imagination and the passions were double-edged: they could be harmful as well as beneficial, and a physician should proceed with caution.

This multi-disciplinary seminar will explore the potential dangers of the imagination in both healthcare and the arts in the eighteenth century, especially for women.  For example, did the often-mentioned cautions about the effect of novels and the theatre on young women just reflect concerns about their sentiments and morals, perhaps transitory, or deeper worries about their long-term health?  Throughout the eighteenth century, some believed that alterations in the imagination of a mother could produce structural abnormalities in the foetus: so two people might be affected by adverse changes in the passions. More generally, should we take opposition to aspects of popular culture more seriously? Was the health of the nation, and therefore its productivity, fertility and fighting ability, threatened by inappropriate changes in the passions?

WARNING: This seminar will require extensive audience participation across the disciplines, and I will aim to take a back seat in the later stages.  Please bring along any examples you may have come across of the potentially deleterious effects of the imagination or the passions. If successful, the seminar will enhance the passion of joy. But be careful: William Falconer, a leading eighteenth-century physician, warned that sudden, excess, joy in the wrong person could produce fevers, ‘depravation of understanding’, fainting, and even sudden death.

Dr Alan Mackintosh (Philosophy & History of Science, University of Leeds)