During the Victorian period English psychology primarily derived from medical-psychological authorities in Germany and France. Kohlt (2014) has pointed to the role of "mental physiologists" of the era, citing sources and pioneers from English-speaking countries, and in particular books known to have been in the library of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).1

As the term "mental physiologists" is itself pre-psychological and occasions ambiguity, I have replaced it with "medical psychologists." The important psychological phenomena -— and especially the medical psychologist's hypnagogic imagery, echolalia, dissociation, and so on —-  are poorly served by a physiological framework, and thus impair the impact of sources2.

A key concept of medical psychology, "gradient consciousness," would lead us to expect intimations of the dynamic conscious-preconscious-unconscious familiar from psychoanalysis, beginning with Breuer and Freud in their early studies of hysteria. The idea is also evident in Dodgson's dream musings. What we find, however, from the "mental physiologists," is a quite different evolutionary-physiological gradient, from lowly animal forms, through molluscs ("sluggish"), to higher forms, whose consciousness must be inferred by the reader.

One English psychological "pioneer," according to Kohlt, was Herbert Spencer, but his works show him to have been more interested and competent as a social philosopher than student of psychology.3 Kohlt’s final source is George Henry Lewes, a fairly typical, wide-ranging Victorian intellectual who, like Spencer, explored psychological ideas but subordinated psychology to other interests.4

That Dodgson collected the works of so many of these authors (LIB., Lots 579 & 580) will not surprise anyone who understands Dodgson’s sophisticated psychology and personality. Whether he lived by such contemporary medical-psychological texts, or satirised them, is discussed elsewhere with reference to his "Mad Tea-Party" of Alice in Wonderland.5

Around 1858, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) joined the university laboratory of Prussian physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) as an assistant. Helmholtz's mechanistic approach deeply influenced Wundt. Over the following four decades, Wundt would establish an experimental, empirical, and physiological approach to psychology which eventually influenced such American pioneers as J. McKeen Cattell (1860-1944), Edward B. Titchener (1867-1927), and, by 1883, the Johns Hopkins University psychology laboratory. Continental medical psychology and psychiatry was led by pioneers such as Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915), Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926), Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), and Josef Breuer (1842-1925). Studies in cognate fields were led, in France, by J. M. Charcot (1825-1893), in Paris at the Salpêtrière from 1872; by Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919) at Nancy in 1880s; and by Pierre Janet (1859-1947), who succeeded Charcot in Paris in 1890. In Switzerland such studies were undertaken by Auguste Forel (1848-1931) and Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939) at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zürich.

Psychologically and therapeutically, England lagged some decades behind developments on the Continent. The slow emergence of therapeutic regimes, viable theoretical models, and efficacious results were instrumental to Dodgson’s continued flight to Romanticism, prolonged throughout his life, and largely to the detriment of his late nascent Modernism. Whilst his upbringing played a role, his sophisticated understanding of dreams, inner worlds and psychological states, mental health and illness, creativity, love and morality is best regarded as stemming not from familiarity with Lunacy Commissioners and the texts of alienists (which latter he was eminently capable of parodying) but from his lifelong reading of such intuitive greats as Shakespeare, Bunyan, Blake, Coleridge and other Romantic poets, artists, novelists, and playwrights.

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Created 31 July 2016

Last modified 15 February 2022