The history of intelligence and ‘intellectual disability’ – a guest post from C.F. Goodey

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

Enjoy this guest post from C.F. Goodey, author of A History of Intelligence and ‘Intellectual Disability’. Goodey’s book was chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our History publishing programme.

The conceptual history of learning disability (in North America it tends to be called “intellectual” or “developmental” disability) was not long ago a greenfield site. No one had thought there was anything to examine. There were books about the large Victorian institutions where people were incarcerated, but by its very existence this kind of historical research simply reinforced the concept as if it were just a matter of scientific fact what their psychological make-up was. Why should we take that for granted? Would a current list of its characteristics match those of several centuries ago? Go back far enough, and were there even any such people?

A History of Intelligence and Intellectual DisabilityI also wanted to see how this conceptual instability reflected back on our ideas about a specifically human intelligence. After all, intelligence is the main currency in which academic life trades. But history shows it to be as dodgy as money itself. Governments liberally fund “cognitive” geneticists to do pretend science with woolly concepts that have no place in a laboratory. And although a lot of fancy sociologists might agree up with me to a point, I wonder how far they think of their own intelligence as merely relative, and whether they aren’t trying to have their cake and eat it. In the history of ideas, deconstruction has to lead to reconstruction (of the past), which can therefore provide a much firmer basis for scepticism about present-day concepts in the human sciences.

My researches led me to the conclusion – a provisional one as ever, and a radical one I suppose – that these are status concepts and nothing else. The story about a subjective human intelligence and its opposite is usually thought of as starting with psychology as a formal discipline, in the mid-nineteenth century. Earlier, it has been traced at a remote philosophical level. But what was actually running around in people’s heads when they needed to massage their self-respect? I wanted to know how the idea of intelligence and the way in which it casts its own particular out-group emerged from the previous and different ways people had represented their status to themselves and to each other.

From around 1200 to 1700 you represented your social status in terms of honour, and your religious status in terms of God-given grace. Modern concepts of intelligence in the human and psychological sciences (and therefore the concept of intellectual disability) emerged more or less directly from these. The word “idiot” once meant any landless or lay person; and the church catechism, designed to exclude “reprobates”, turned into the IQ test, with a seamlessness easily traceable in the history of literacy of education. My research also led me to reconceive and rewrite the appropriate aspects of medical history.

I had two eureka moments. I had always been fascinated by the role of honour and grace in the Spanish Golden Age drama of Lope and Calderon. Why would people kill or die for the sake of what appear to us to be chimeras? It is easy enough to point out that these were examples of what the historian R.G.Collingwood called “absolute presuppositions”. But historians often choose to forget that he saw these as also involving an interaction with the present. Get to the bottom of past presuppositions, he said, and it may expose a current one. It was easy for me to think, in lazy constructionist fashion, that the concept of human intelligence is chimerical like that of honour or grace. But what I then realised was that in my mass of seemingly unconnected research notes from primary sources lay a clearly traceable, concrete historical development from those two presuppositions to our own. Was I just finding a pattern that I wanted to find? Time will tell.

The second eureka moment of reconstruction involved the classics. Another knee-jerk of mine had been to start with Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. It soon became clear that, read in context, these thinkers display no concept of a specifically human intelligence or indeed of intellectual disability as we would understand it. That was the easy part. What kept me awake at night was why in that case Aristotle would have said “Man is a rational animal”. Everyone in the middle ages claimed he did, and it was a principle that would eventually feed into the idea of a specifically human intelligence. Everything else about the primary sources was shouting at me that he couldn’t have said it. Yet commentators ancient and modern, including the Lexicon, even give a precise reference. My discovery that in this bit of text he was talking about something else entirely – about logical systems, not about psychology – and of several contemporary sources to back this up, was a major milestone in mapping out for me the foreignness of the past.

A couple of researchers have taken up my overall theme, though I suspect or perhaps merely hope that that it will take thirty or forty years for the ideas to penetrate. In the meantime, I keep putting out accessible materials for the general public and practitioners, and with some colleagues I run a WordPress site I keep applying for funds to do workshops with the public and to produce graphic and web-based materials – so far unsuccessfully, so if there is anyone reading this out there who might want to help ….

At the other end of the spectrum there were some humdrum aspects to my work that I also enjoyed – for example, my obsessive approach to self-help marketing. I wrote a standard blurb so that it wouldn’t look like spam, and sent posts to a couple of thousand relevant faculty members in universities across the world. Spending three summer weeks doing that was a relief for my brain – like frenziedly cleaning the house from top to bottom. The book, despite being a monster hardback, sold out its first print run in two years.

Anyone else out there who is thinking of putting a substantial amount of their research life into one large volume may encounter a few oddities. Some things you may not anticipate, including your own reactions to reviewers. Reviews, it turns out, do not divide into good and bad, they divide into (a) reviewers who have read your book and (b) those who haven’t, and/or (a) those who have understood it and (b) those who haven’t. After all your efforts, you will have no problem appreciating (a) over (b). This holds irrespective of the value they attach to your work. All my reviews were positive except one, but I wasn’t particularly pleased with several of the “good” ones as they were of type (b). The one mainly bad review ended up with intentional sarcasm: “Goodey has bitten off more than he can chew.” The moment I read that, I punched the air and went “Yesssss”. Of course I had bitten off more than I could chew. That is what real research is – any pathbreaking piece of work will be a very, very large bleeding chunk that drips all over the shop. I felt more justified by that one comment than by any review which praised it.

The other unexpected effect comes when you get quoted. It is quite normal for people just to stick your name in an article or book of their own at random, especially with Harvard referencing which is the most cock-eyed way of trying to contribute to human knowledge ever devised. What you may not be prepared for is how often people who cite you and who have read your book will interpret it as saying diametrically the opposite of what you actually said. Is it your own fault, for not having expressed yourself clearly enough? Perhaps, but don’t worry about it, because your prose style can be as clear as a pane of glass and they will still quote you as saying what they wanted you to say (received wisdom) rather than what you actually did say (which turns the world upside down). Put it down to human nature – there’s nothing else you could have done. Perhaps our geneticist friends can discover the reason.

If I were writing the book now, I would start by time-travelling to the future post-publication point where I realised what its logical consequences were and which I had failed to mention. Then I would go back and incorporate these in my writing plan. Absurd, of course. The lesson is: go for it. My screensaver during this period was a quotation from Napoleon. Asked if he attributed his victories to superior strategy, he claimed never to make any plans: “On s’engage, et puis, on voit.” Roughly speaking (military historians can correct me if necessary) he meant: What you have to do first is get stuck in – then take a look around.


Go to our History Editors’ Choices page for a full list of History titles that were selected by our editors.

One thought on “The history of intelligence and ‘intellectual disability’ – a guest post from C.F. Goodey

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazettte: Vol. #42 | Whewell's Ghost

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