Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

Book Description by Harvard University Press

It’s the American dream—unfettered freedom to follow our ambitions, to forge our identities, to become self-made. But what if our culture of limitless self-fulfillment is actually making millions desperately ill? One of our leading interpreters of modernity and nationalism, Liah Greenfeld argues that we have overlooked the connection between egalitarian society and mental illness. Intellectually fearless, encompassing philosophy, psychology, and history, Mind, Modernity, Madness challenges the most cherished assumptions about the blessings of living in a land of the free.

Modern nationalism, says Greenfeld, rests on bedrock principles of popular sovereignty, equality, and secularism. Citizens of the twenty-first century enjoy unprecedented freedom to become the authors of their personal destinies. Empowering as this is, it also places them under enormous psychic strain. They must constantly appraise their identities, manage their desires, and calibrate their place within society. For vulnerable individuals, this pressure is too much. Training her analytic eye on extensive case histories in manic depression and schizophrenia, Greenfeld contends that these illnesses are dysfunctions of selfhood caused by society’s overburdening demands for self-realization. In her rigorous diagnosis, madness is a culturally constituted malady.

The culminating volume of Greenfeld’s nationalism trilogy, Mind, Modernity, Madness is a tour de force in the classic tradition of Émile Durkheim—and a bold foray into uncharted territory. Often counter-intuitive, always illuminating, Mind, Modernity, Madness presents a many-sided view of humanity, one that enriches our deepest understanding of who we are and what we aspire to be.


“…this is a substantial piece of writing, impeccably researched, ambitious in its execution, provocative and fresh in its approach… a tour de force… this book will make a new and interesting contribution to the study of mental illness, the sociology of science and knowledge, and political and cultural sociology. It also presents a host of testable propositions that should be enthusiastically pursued by sociologists of culture and politics. Finally, the book provides stimulating material for graduate classes that address cultural or historical analysis. Indeed, Mind, Modernity, and Madness is the kind of book that remaps intellectual terrain, prodding us to rethink our conclusions and refocus our sights.”—Karen A. Cerulo, American Journal of Sociology

“[A] magnificent sweep of several fields… Those apt to gain most from Greenfeld’s remarkable tome are biological psychiatrists, legislators, and community leaders. Physicians, behavioral scientists, futurists, parents, and academicians will find the read exhilarating and useful. Cultural psychiatrists, ethnopsychiatric investigators, and psychiatric epidemiologists—those least apt to realize totally new understandings—will still find their comprehensions expanded in unanticipated ways.”—Joseph Westermeyer, The American Journal of Psychiatry

“Greenfeld offers a sweeping, sociologically grounded theory of the relationship between madness, mind, and society… a significant contribution to understanding mental illness and the more general interplay between mind, self, and society.  Highly recommended.”—S.C. Ward, CHOICE

“[Greenfeld] makes a compelling case that how we construct meaning and identity in our lives is a significant causal factor in madness. Insofar as mental diseases like schizophrenia are caused by the struggle with self-definition in open modern societies, drugs will never be a wholly adequate approach.”—Michael Strong, Barron’s

“The reduction of madness to brain biology covered by a veneer of culturally contingent expression is a scientific dogma of our time and to a fair extent it is the popular understanding as well.  To suggest that biology may not be both the deepest root and the adequate explanation is to tilt against some imposingly established windmills. But Greenfeld has a case to argue and she argues it extremely well… a beautifully readable book, capacious in its scholarship but entertainingly so.”—Peter Wood, Academic Questions

Mind, Modernity, Madness… has a clear, bold thesis… It provides readers with a provocative commentary on the sociocultural origins and psychopathological consequences of modernity.”–Allan Young, Hedgehog Review

“Greenfeld’s book persuasively demonstrates the lack of consensus in the scientific community and beyond, over the causes, treatment and prevalence of schizophrenia and manic depression, both in America and worldwide. As this review is being prepared a new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, is being released in the United States to some controversy. Liah Greenfeld’s call for a broader understanding of the role of culture in the growth of the illnesses of schizophrenia and manic depression seems perfectly timed to join the debate over the balance between science and culture in the diagnosis and treatment of these complex illnesses… Greenfeld’s discussion of the linguistic history of the term ‘madness,’ the documentation of the creation of a new medical vocabulary, provides a significant challenge to any claims that these illnesses, as we currently understand them, were in existence before the rise of nationalism. Greenfeld argues persuasively that this was a new, previously non-existent affliction, for which new medical terminology, institutions, organisations and journals would be created… Mind, Modernity, Madness displays an astonishing level of research.”—Catherine McKenna, MAKE Magazine

“This is a bold book from a leading intellectual… an analytic tour de force in terms of trying to understand what Laurence Kirmayer calls our ‘cultural biology.’  But it’s also a deeply personal and imaginative work: the ubiquity of depression among Greenfeld’s young students has made mental illness a personal problem, and she addresses the problem in the manner of the best fiction – Middlemarch immediately comes to mind – by delving into the ‘dim lights and tangled circumstances’ of our cultural history (to borrow a phrase from Elliott) and trying to create a coherent narrative universe… mental illness [is] a transdisciplinary rather than an interdisciplinary issue of gigantic scale. One of the great gifts of this book is the recognition of that fact in a way that makes it a viable starting point.”–Constance Cummings, Somatosphere

“What most distinguishes Greenfeld’s model of the mind from so much else in the field is that she brings together biological and cultural approaches to mental illness inclusively rather than exclusively, in a way that enlarges rather than diminishes both. While accepting the biological reality of major mental illnesses, her analysis is focused not simply on the brain, in a reductive sense, but on the mind as a product of experience and learning as well as biology. Likewise, she applies cultural concepts to psychiatry not in the reductive, purely social-constructionist manner of Laing, Foucault, and Szasz, but so as to foster understanding of cultural and historical variations in the incidence and expression of mental illness that biology alone cannot explain.”—Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D., Harvard Medical School

“Explaining madness in cultural terms is what makes Greenfeld’s book so audacious. A classical parallel would be with Durkheim’s attempt to explain suicide through sociological categories. Her reasoning is strong; the data extensive; the conclusions counterintuitive. The book represents a triumph of imaginative thought.”—Peter Baehr, Lingnan University

“Liah Greenfeld has written a book of weight (figuratively and literally) and power. It is an avalanche that pulls the reader with it into a new landscape.”—Charles Lindholm, Boston University

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • I. Philosophical
    • 1. Premises
    • 2. The Mind as an Emergent Phenomenon
  • II. Psychological
    • 3. Madness in Its Pure Form: Schizophrenia
    • 4. Madness Muddled: Manic-Depressive Illness
  • III. Historical
    • 5. The Cradle of Madness
    • 6. Going International: The Spread of Madness in Europe
    • 7. Madder Than Them All: From the Records of American Insanity
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Index