Determining the distinction between language and thought through medico-legal considerations of aphasia in the late 19th century

Marjorie LORCH and Paula HELLAL
Birkbeck College, University of London, UK
m.lorch AT ; pjhellal AT

In the second half of the 19th century, the newly emerging concept of an acquired disorder of expression (‘aphasia’, Trousseau 1864) gave rise to considerable interest in the distinction between an impairment of ‘speech’ versus ‘intelligence’. There was much debate as to whether aphasia was strictly a language disorder, or symptomatic of a more general cognitive disorder. In the law courts, physicians were called upon as expert witnesses to give their opinion regarding the mental capacity of individuals suffering from aphasia and/or mental illness in numerous civil cases at this time. Physicians were required not only to assess particular individuals, but also to clarify contemporary medical terminology for the courts, explaining new distinctions in the understanding of mental disorders.

This paper will examine the medico-legal aspects of aphasia through a discussion of a number of cases that appeared in the English speaking courts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By examining the arguments put forward by clinical experts on the mental capacity of aphasics, their views of the relation between language and thought will be revealed. The type of evidence presented regarding the aphasics’ behaviour and how it was judged to be relevant in the determination of the case will be analysed. Various diagnostic distinctions, assessment techniques, and non-verbal communication systems were developed and refined in this legal context. The goal of this research is to illuminate the development of the distinct concepts of language and thought through the examination of medico-legal records.

Trousseau, A. 1864. De l’aphasie, maladie d’écrite récemment sous le nom impropre d’aphémie. Gazette des Hôpitaux Civils et Militaires, 1, 13-14.

Session X.  Language
Saturday, 23 June 2007, 11:00 - 11:30 am

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007