Emily Judges: August Forel


I bet I would have been a fan of Auguste Forel (PDF) if I had been alive in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Not only did he (sort of) discover the neuron, he was a reformer, an advocate for social justice and equality. His book, The Sexual Question, was radical in its day.

He was a psychiatrist who mostly worked in asylums and mostly thought about alcoholism. He also studied ants – like E. O. Wilson.

The thing about working in an asylum is that your point of view is shaped by a culture’s worst consequences on the most vulnerable members of a group. Hence, I think, the “marked pathological character” he observed.

He wasn’t a bad, oppressive guy – on the contrary.  He was limited by the pesky reality of an intellectual horizon. We can only see as far as the height of our own intellect (in his case, a mountain) and the shoulders of the people who came before us will allow.

So maybe I shouldn’t judge?

Or maybe it’s actually really important that we recognize that the things even very smart people believed 100 years ago were kind of nutsy, ripe for judging, so that who knows what someone 100 years from now will think of what we think.