C. F. Goodey. A History of Intelligence and Intellectual Disability: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Europe. Burlington: Ashgate, 2011. 388 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4094-2021-7; ISBN 978-1-4094-2022-4.
Reviewed by Susan Anderson (Leeds Trinity University College)
Published on H-Disability (March, 2013)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison
C. F. Goodey’s A History of Intelligence is a wide-ranging work of iconoclasm. Goodey carefully marshals an extremely broad array of source material to trace the development of the concept of intelligence and its exclusions, whilst simultaneously demolishing any pretensions it might have to scientific objectivity. In this way, the book is no less than a dismantling of the terms upon which modern concepts of the self, identity, and the boundaries of the human are based. While most readers will be familiar with the development of concepts of intelligence and its measurement in the nineteenth century, this book offers its prehistory. It steers a course between problematic transhistorical generalizations and an outright rejection of continuity, creating a subtle and complex picture of the relationship between the modern concept of the intellect, and the theological, philosophical, and social classifications from which it developed.
The starting point is a “radical discontinuity” about the nature of intelligence as described in ancient Greek doctrine and western European convention, despite the sharing of terminology between them (p. 36). This disrupts what Goodey identifies as a common pattern in histories of ideas: starting with Greek philosophers and showing how their prescient speculation developed into current identification of broadly matching abstract truths. This, as Goodey notes, turns “a history that is rich and strange into a recital of our own prejudices” (p. 15), and he insists that “people did not then ask the same questions about each other as we do now, nor will in the future” (p. 16). Instead, Goodey demonstrates that Plato’s and Aristotle’s accounts of social structures and human nature cannot be mapped onto a hierarchy of specifically intellectual capabilities. What is frequently held in common across the historical sources considered here is the way that Plato’s definition of the worst form of ultimate ignorance constitutes, unsurprisingly, the exact opposite of himself.
This sense of intellect as a way of defining in-groups and out-groups is central to the book’s thesis. Part 3 establishes this challenge to the naturalization of concepts of disabled intellect by describing intelligence as a system of status bidding. This insight, important and useful in and of itself, leads to a further parallel with two other “bidding modes”: honor and grace. While the relationship between these two modes and disability is explored at length in subsequent sections, part 3 focuses on the emergence of intelligence as a quality that can be used to differentiate people. The promotion of meritocracy as an unironically positive system for organizing claims to power is unpacked with wry humor. Goodey points out, for example, that the inclusion of certain qualities and not others within assessment criteria is entirely culturally contingent, noting that the abilities involved in “keeping the streets clean … are ranked below the same abilities as applied to trading hedge funds, running a government department or writing books on conceptual history” (p. 73). Viewing intelligence as a quality for organizing status bidding thus neatly demonstrates the way that it is essentially predicated upon exclusions.
Part 4 develops the links between the values and mechanisms of the honor society and intelligence. The ways in which honor is constructed as inalienable in early modern society are shown to be strikingly similar to the ways in which intelligence becomes naturalized. This is particularly noticeable in the convincing parallels Goodey draws between heraldic blazon as a system of signs that denote, through mysterious interconnection, innate superiority, and systems of understanding intelligence. Furthermore, he is at pains to point out that any sense of transhistorical pathology in the terms used for various out-groups (such as idiotas) is undermined by the way that such terms are used in this context to differentiate on the basis of social class, not intellectual capacity.
Part 5 traces the relationship between grace and intelligence in more detail, delving into the technicalities of a series of seventeenth-century theological controversies over election and reprobation. The book establishes the necessity of a theological long view on a field of knowledge which nowadays is completely separated from, or indeed antagonistic to, religious understanding. The key point of disjunction seems to be rooted in the secularization of concepts that Goodey locates as properly spiritual in origin. For instance, Goodey charts the way that intellectual engagement with the mystery of the Eucharist goes from being a sign of potential grace (for which certainty is unattainable) to being a means by which grace can be enabled if not achieved. He demonstrates that the structure of the argument itself necessitated the invention or merger of concepts that gives rise to the idea of the existence of a state of being that is intellectually reprobate, so to speak, drawing on Richard Baxter in particular. Fallenness goes from being a generalized state of humanity to a specific condition applicable to a particular out-group, whose existence needs to be imagined to guarantee the possibility of salvation for others.
Goodey is particularly adept at pointing out the circular reasoning inherent in works that attempt to understand understanding. For instance, he observes that those who speculate on the nature of intelligence usually put themselves forward as their own prime example. The book also offers an important corrective to the question-begging inherent in quests for historical firsts, and the retrospective identification of diagnostic criteria within historical sources. As he observes, such exercises assume the objective equivalence of the state of being discovered, and/or of the terminology used to describe it. In particular, Goodey convincingly demonstrates the parallel emergence of doctrines of childhood with those of intelligence, and the concomitant understanding of a standard of normative temporal development that is a necessary precursor to the idea of developmental retardation.
The book culminates with a chapter examining John Locke (1632-1704) as the fulcrum between the early modern and the modern understandings of the mind and human identity that Goodey has outlined. Locke’s development of the idea of the intellect is seen as continuing its outgrowth from concepts of both spiritual grace and social honor, while also setting the stage for later, more familiar, uses of the concept of intelligence. In this respect, Locke anticipates the nineteenth-century reification of intellectual “ability,” reflecting the developments in intelligence testing that Goodey covers in his discussion of Francis Galton (1822-1911) in chapter 3. Testing both implies the existence of such a reified intellectual “ability,” and at the same time, is made possible by it. Goodey outlines lucidly the way that the choice this poses for disabled subjectivity is between resistance and acquiescence: both result in marginalization. The historical specificity of intelligence and “superior” intelligence is traced to the earliest beginnings of modern capitalism, where the skills of a particular group (educated middle-class administrators) become defined as desirable by that group. The inevitable byproduct of deeming intelligence (or wit) as a desirable quality is a concomitant conceptualization of its lack.
A History of Intelligence is a dense and, at times, overwhelming read. The historical scope of the source material makes it a demanding book, but enables it to offer an important overview of the origins of some of the most tenaciously held ideologies of personhood. The drawback is, of course, that there can never be enough detail, and at times, the reasoning is too condensed for a non-specialist to follow easily. Several of Goodey’s points rest upon the assertion that interpretations of the Greek sources are based on translations that are either inaccurate, or are based on terms which have significantly different meanings for us than they do in the original. For instance, he cautions that “identifying Greek psyche with the Christian ‘soul’ or the modern ‘mind’ can lead to gross misinterpretation of the texts” (p. 207) This much, the lay reader can accept without much difficulty, but in other areas, space does not permit the detailed argument that some of Goodey’s claims demand. Happily, the apparatus and referencing give ample information to enable the reader to take particular lines of inquiry further.
There are a few errors in the book, unfortunately (for example, the labeling of Ben Jonson’s The New Inne  as a court masque). Whilst this is understandable in the context of its grand sweep across genres, disciplines, and time periods, it is nevertheless distracting, which is a shame. These are quibbles, however. Mostly, the book is impressively researched and thorough. It is also eminently quotable, with many passages offering pithy summaries that wittily deflate received wisdom. For instance, Goodey provocatively remarks that “the education psychologist, in testing intelligence, tests above all the subject’s potential to be an educational psychologist” (p. 119).
Overall this book is an essential read for anyone interested in how our concepts of the mind and intellect came to be constructed in the particular ways that they did. It poses a sometimes uncomfortable challenge to the assumptions that underpin not only social policy and organization, but our own understanding of subjectivity and the role of categories of ability and disability in notions of selfhood and esteem. The importance of the book’s ethical claims should not be underestimated. Goodey himself asserts that “most research is effectively focused on expanding and exacerbating a negative image of these historically provisional kinds of difference, when it could instead be focusing on enabling people who are ‘intellectually’ disabled by the modern era to be part of ordinary life” (p. 213). Understanding fully the historical origins of this disablement is surely an important first step in dismantling it.
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Susan Anderson. Review of Goodey, C. F., A History of Intelligence and Intellectual Disability: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Europe.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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