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L'Usage du sexe. Lettres au Dr Tissot, auteur de L'Onanisme (1760). Editions BHMS. 2014

Ce livre est divisé en deux parties. La première, proprement historique et historiographique, fait d’abord le point sur les travaux historiques sur la sexualité au dix-huitième siècle, et montre ensuite en quoi la nouvelle perspective rendue possible par l’étude des lettres à Tissot doit modifier profondément notre compréhension de l’histoire de la sexualité. Dans la deuxième partie sont rassemblées les lettres les plus intéressantes touchant à la sphère sexuelle. Ainsi le lecteur pourra avoir lui-même accès à cette source historique exceptionnelle.

L'émission radio Babylone d'Espace 2 (Radio Télévision Suisse) du 28 août 2014 fut en partie consacrée à mon livre. 

Ce livre peut être commandé ici et ici.


Medical History

La Vie des Idées


Journal of Modern History vol. 87, no. 4 (2015): 968-70

Journal of the History of Sexuality

Articles and Essay Reviews

"Nous autres, victoriens: Punctuation, Power and Politics in Foucault's History of Sexuality." Cultural History. Vol. 5 (2016). 169-178

This essay focuses on one comma in Michel Foucault's Histoire de la sexualité and unpacks the methodological and political stakes contained in it. it argues that the semantic status of the comma in the title of the first part of the book -- "Nous autres, victoriens" -- is highly ambiguous, and that this ambiguity reflects both an innovative aspect of Foucault's study of power and his political critique of sexuality. 

"Hebephilia: A Postmortem Dissection." Archives of Sexual Behavior . Vol. 44 (2015). 1109-1116

In 2008, the concept of hebephilia, which denotes an erotic preference for “pubescent children,” was suggested by Ray Blanchard and his team for inclusion in the DSM-5. Four years later, the APA’s Board of Trustees opted for the status quo and rejected that proposal. This essay sheds light on the reason for this rejection. I consider three important questions related to hebephilia: Does hebephilia exist? Is it a disease? And what would have been the social consequences of including it in the DSM? I argue that if Blanchard failed to convince others that hebephilia should be included in the DSM-5, it is not because he focused too much on the first question and was unable to offer a convincing answer to the second one, but because he made the mistake of dismissing the third one as extraneous. The DSM is not intended to be a pure research manual, and a category like hebephilia cannot be evaluated without taking into account its potential forensic impact. In part or in whole, the decision to include a new diagnostic category in the DSM is, and always should be, a political decision.

"Danger and Difference: The Stakes of Hebephilia." In The DSM-5 in Perspective: Philosophical Reflections on the Psychiatric Babel. Edited by Steeves Demazeux and Patrick Singy. Springer, 2015. 113-124.

The diagnostic category of “hebephilia” (the erotic preference for pubescent children) was suggested in 2008 for inclusion in the DSM-5. Immediately, a violent debate took place about whether this condition should be considered a disease or not, and the proposal to include hebephilia in the DSM-5 was eventually rejected. In this paper I argue that the debate about the diagnostic validity of hebephilia was profoundly misguided. I first describe how hebephilia plays a role in “sexually violent predator” (SVP) laws, which can preventively deprive “dangerous” people of their liberty if they are deemed mentally ill (for instance by suffering from hebephilia). I show that the legal requirement of mental illness for the application of SVP laws is supposed to serve two functions: to identify the most dangerous people, and to define them out of humanity by transforming them into quasi animals, thus safeguarding the constitutionality of SVP laws in a liberal context. I then argue that it fails to accomplish both tasks, and that the debate about hebephilia should have targeted this unsound legal requirement itself. Instead, because it was centered around the issue of diagnostic validity, the hebephilia debate rested on an implicit acceptance of the requirement of mental illness for the application of SVP laws. 

"Sexuality and Liberalism." In The Care of Life: Transdisciplinary Perspectives in Bioethics and Biopolitics. Edited by Miguel de Beistegui, Giuseppe Bianco, and Marjorie Gracieuse. Rowan and Littlefield International Limited, 2015. 227-239.

More Inspired by Michel Foucault's general approach to history than by his actual interpretation of the history of sexuality, this paper argues that sexuality is a liberal concept. This seemingly banal thesis, fleshed out in some historical detail, has several original historical and political implications.

For the history of sexuality, one implication is that sadism and other violent sexual perversions turn out to be the central perversions of the discourse of sexuality. By this I mean two things. First, of all the perversions only the violent ones play the "harm game" of liberalism, inasmuch as they take a basic principle of liberalism ("do what you want as long as you do not harm others"), but turn it upside down into the desire of harming others. Second, and more importantly, violent perversions are the only perversions that are structurally related to liberalism. Liberalism is predicated on an optimistic view of humanity: as egoistic as they might be, people's interests spontaneously contribute to the common good. Instances of extreme and unmotivated sexual violence raise a challenge to this system and need to be explained away. Historically, the solution has been to ballast sexually violent people with a nature of their own, to make them, by means of a psychiatric conceptual apparatus, into quasi animals of a different species. Having been defined out of humanity, their existence no longer threatens the necessary optimism of liberalism. Unlike the homosexual, the fetishist, or the masochist, for instance, the violent sexual criminal appears then as the requisite personage of liberalism. His shadow hangs over the entire surface of the discourse of sexuality, from the middle of the nineteenth century until today.

Politically, one implication of the liberal constitution of sexuality is that while we can make the discourse of sexuality gradually more tolerable by pursuing what the Sexual Revolution started, we will not be able to escape from this discourse as long as liberalism remains the modern project of the Western world. Homosexuality and other innocuous "perversions" are thankfully in the process of being dissolved into mere sexual quirks and erotic preferences, but violent perversions feed on liberalism and will continue to keep the discourse of sexuality alive.

"Suggestion For the Inclusion of a New Disorder in the Forthcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5." (Also in French in the same journal: "Proposition pour l'insertion d'un nouveau trouble dans le Manuel diagnostique et statistique des troubles mentaux-5 (DSM-5)"). Psychiatrie, Sciences humaines, Neurosciences. Vol. 11, no. 2 (2013). 7-12

Sarcastic article in which I suggest that the DSM-5 should include a new disease called "DSM Distrust Disorder (DDD)," described as a maladaptive pattern of distrust in the validity and usefulness of the DSM.

"Medicine and the Senses: The Perception of Essences." In A Cultural History of the Senses. Vol.4: The Enlightenment. Edited by Anne Vila. Berg Publishers. 2014. 133-153

In the first section of this chapter I describe the characteristics of what I call the “experience of perception” of Enlightenment medicine and science. In the next sections I show how these characteristics concretely played out in the quotidian practice of physicians. I focus on three medical practices, chosen for their historical and historiographical importance: consultation by letter, percussion of the chest, and pathological anatomy.

“Power, Knowledge and Laughter: Forensic Psychiatry and the Misuse of the DSM.” In Contemporary Essays in the Philosophy of Medicine. Edited by P. Huneman, G. Lambert, and M. Silberstein. Springer, 2014. 131-146

In this paper I criticize how the DSM is used in forensic settings. Lawyers routinely ask forensic experts whether a defendant suffers from a mental disorder, especially when they try to establish legal responsibility or the necessity for civil commitment. Forensic psychiatrists rely heavily on the DSM to pronounce their expertise.

In the first part of my paper I argue that the relation between the DSM and forensic psychiatry is in fact based on a misunderstanding, which consists in regularly confounding the concept of “incapacity” with the concept of “mental disorder.” Lawyers are concerned with incapacities, such as lack of self-control, while the DSM is concerned with mental disorders, such as the paraphilias. This conceptual distinction is crucial since the DSM itself warns explicitly that there is no perfect overlap between incapacities and mental disorders. For instance, a paraphiliac might, or might not, be able to control himself; a diagnosis of paraphilia does not determine the issue of self-control—and yet it is precisely this issue that matters legally. The use of the DSM in the courtroom can therefore only be misleading, since it answers with “disease” a question about “incapacity.” For this reason, the DSM should no longer be invoked in legal decisions, and should become a purely clinical tool.

In the second section of my paper I look at the consequences, for both parties, of the divorce between forensic psychiatry and the DSM. For forensic psychiatry, the divorce would force this discipline to focus on the right question: not, Does a defendant have a disorder or not? But, Does a defendant have an incapacity or not? I then focus more specifically on the issue of lack of self-control, and argue that since forensic psychiatry is a deterministic science, it will never be able to answer scientifically a question that is ultimately about free will. For the DSM, its divorce with forensic psychiatry implies that all the diagnoses that serve a forensic function should be removed from the DSM. By way of a short historical detour, I show in particular how the paraphilias have always had a forensic function. I conclude that they should be removed from the DSM.

"Structuralism" and "Xavier Bichat." In Foucault Lexicon. Edited by Leonard Lawlor and John Nale. Cambridge University Press. 2014

Two Encyclopedia entries. In the first one I describe Foucault's complicated relation with French structuralism, and in the second one I describe the role that Foucault gave to Xavier Bichat in the emergence of the modern episteme.

"How to Be a Pervert: A Modest Philosophical Critique of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." Revista de Estudios Sociales. Vol. 43 (2012). 139-50

This paper is divided into three parts. I begin with a short history of the way American psychiatrists have defined mental disorder in general, and paraphilias (sexual perversions) in particular, from the 1950s to 2013. I look at how the different editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) have articulated (or in the case of the future DSM-5, will articulate) the distinction between health and disease. In the second part I suggest how psychiatrists might want to modify their approach to the definition of mental disorder. In the third part I explain why the paraphilias in particular should be removed from the current psychiatric classification of diseases.

This paper is available here.

“Perverse Perversion: How To Do the History of a Concept.” Historiographical essay, co-authored with Kevin Lamb. GLQ. Vol. 17 (2011). 405-422

In this essay Kevin Lamb and I discuss several historiographical issues related to the history of sexuality. We focus on Michel Foucault's Abnormal, Arnold Davidson's The Emergence of Sexuality, David Halperin's How To Do the History of Homosexuality, and Richard C. Sha's Perverse Romanticism.

As a field, the history of sexuality is often divided into Foucauldians and anti-Foucauldians. This essay, which reviews four recent contributions to the field, begins by showing that Foucault’s own methodology is ambiguous. Broad scholarly consensus rightly holds that Foucault took sexuality to be exclusively modern and its emergence, hence, to mark a sharp conceptual break with the past. Yet Foucault himself also traced successive “recodifications” of sexuality, offering a genealogy of practices that presupposed the continuity of sexuality with prior periods, from at least post-Tridentine confession to the present. In following his example, such distinguished and otherwise like-minded thinkers as Arnold Davidson and David Halperin differ remarkably in preferring one approach (whether conceptual rupture or genealogy) to the other. Yet, despite their internal differences, Foucault, Davidson, and Halperin as a group illustrate the continuing significance of a difficult, deliberate historiography to the history of sexuality. By way of conclusion, we gauge this significance by contrasting their approaches to that of Richard Sha, whose work on Romantic perversion rejects their historical claims while ignoring their methodological interventions.

"The Popularization of Medicine in the Eighteenth Century: Writing, Reading and Rewriting Samuel Auguste Tissot's Avis au peuple sur sa santé." Journal of Modern History. Vol. 82 (2010). 769-800

Samuel Auguste Tissot’s Avis au peuple sur sa santé, first published in 1761, was one of the biggest medical best-sellers of the eighteenth century. By studying the successive editions of Avis au peuple and the vast correspondence between Tissot and his patients, I revisit the worn-out issue of the popularization of science and medicine. I show that in the case of Avis au peuple the popularization of medicine was a process that involved both author and readers, that took shape through successive editions, and that was the effect rather than the cause of editorial success.

"What's Wrong With Sex?" Archives of Sexual Behavior. Vol. 39 (2010). 1231-33

This essay looks at the DSM-5's new take on paraphilias. I argue that the DSM-5 is about to drastically loosen the criteria for paraphilias and to make them directly dependent on cultural values. This will result in an epidemic of perverts, since anyone who likes sex in a way that is not culturally normative will now qualify for a diagnosis of paraphilia -- even if the sexual preference is not a source of distress or harm. The DSM-5 will then be closer to the DSM-I and DSM-II than to their successors, which all were at least trying to separate the concept of "mental disorder" from cultural norms, and which made "harm" or "distress" a necessary condition for having a mental disorder.

“Objectivity?” Iris. European Journal of Philosophy and Public Debate. Vol. 1 (2009). 281-84 

Essay review of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity. I argue that Daston and Galison offer a triple critique of objectivity: historical, philosophical, and, in a more subtle and reflexive way, historiographical as well.

Available here

“Expérience et observation dans les sciences de la vie au XVIIIème siècle.” Co-authored with Philippe Huneman. Bulletin d’histoire et d’épistémologie des sciences de la vie. Vol. 15 (2008). 121-25

Introduction to a special issue on experiment and observation in the eighteenth century.

“Huber’s Eyes: The Art of Scientific Observation before the Emergence of Positivism." Representations. Vol. 95 (2006). 54-75

How could a blind man be an observer in the eighteenth century? Taking this enigma as its point of departure, this essay reconstructs the regime of perception that was at the core of eighteenth-century scientific observation. This regime required senses that were as ordinary as possible, the analytic ability to decompose a perceptual whole into its parts, and a faculty of attention that could grasp intellectually the hidden relations between perceptions. The art of observation was therefore drastically different from the passive and thoughtless practice that nineteenth-century positivism made it to be. In the words of one of its most eloquent theoreticians, it was an “art of thinking.” The article concludes with an anecdote from pianist Glenn Gould, who imagined an experiment for a better experience of Baroque music -- an experiment that happens to capture perfectly the distinctive features of the eighteenth-century regime of perception.

A French translation of this essay subsequently appeared in Bulletin d’histoire et d’épistémologie des sciences de la vie 15 (2008): 147-72.

“L’ontologie, un problème historico-philosophique.” Agenda de la pensée contemporaine. Vol. 5 (2006). 97-108

Essay review of Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology. My analysis focuses on Hacking's discussion of "organizing concepts," "styles of reasoning," and "making up people." I argue that Hacking's tight combination of history and philosophy encourages a form of historicism and an interest in conditions of possibility. These two characteristics are clearly reminiscent of the work of Michel Foucault, and distinct from a traditional form of social history of science.

“Il caso ‘Sade’.” Rivista Sperimentale di Freniatria. Vol. CXXX (2006). 83-102

This paper traces the emergence of sexuality in the nineteenth century by studying the transformation of the Marquis de Sade into a psychiatric case. At the end of the nineteenth century Richard von Krafft-Ebing invented the concept of ‘sadism’, a perversion that combines sex and violence and that is still commonly used by psychiatrists today. Krafft-Ebing named this perversion after the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), whose novels are filled with scenes of violence and sex.

The psychiatric appropriation of Sade’s name is based however on a misunderstanding. Neither Sade nor the characters of his novels were sadists, for they experienced sex according to rules different from the ones of modern sexuality. In this paper I argue that the transformation of Sade into the example of sadism required the installation of three important rules that govern the discourse on sexuality: the rule of spontaneity (the sexual instinct is independent from the will); the rule of subjectivity (it is not the external behavior that defines sexuality, but the nature of the sexual instinct); the rule of totality (the sexual instinct touches upon the entire personality). It is only after these three rules have gradually emerged in the nineteenth century that the experience of sexuality – and therefore of sadism – became possible. And it is only by ignoring this complex historical process that one can see in Sade a sadist.

“La masturbation a-t-elle une histoire?” Critique. Vol. 708 (2006). 439-47

Essay review of Thomas Laqueur’s Solitary Sex, significantly different from my essay review in English of the same book. In this essay I argue that Solitary Sex paradoxically treats masturbation as an ahistorical object. For Laqueur there are three essential aspects to masturbation: solitude, excess, and the imagination. Relying on archival material (letters from eighteenth-century masturbators), I show that the experience of masturbation could mean something very different depending on the type of concepts structuring the masturbator's experience. While praising Laqueur's breadth of knowledge, I therefore claim not only that his historical description is at times inaccurate, but also that, methodologically, he has unfortunately limited his narrative to a history of the cultural contexts of masturbation, while ignoring the history of masturbation itself.

“Le sujet, l’objet, et la logique du réel dans Naissance de la clinique.” In Cahiers parisiens/Parisian Notebooks. Paris: The University of Chicago Center in Paris. Vol. 1 (2005). 377-402

This paper investigates the relations between history and methodology in Michel Foucault's Birth of the Clinic. Foucault’s archaeological method is more a series of experiments than a set of fixed precepts. In the course of his archaeological works Foucault went from a study of holistic and deep structures whose elements changed all at once, to an analysis of the piecemeal transformations of superficial systems. In The Birth of the Clinic, his position was ambiguous. For instance, in several key methodological passages he considered object and subject as two elements of a holistic structure, but in other passages he treated them as if they could exist independently from the medical structure in which they emerged. Through two specific examples – the concept of lesion and the practice of percussion of the chest – I argue that Foucault should have given more rigor to the rules governing the epistemological structures he described. The concept of lesion and the practice of percussion of the chest were indeed structurally related both to one another and to their common field of emergence.

“Gli ‘stili di ragionamento’ di Arnold Davidson.” Iride. Filosofia e discussione pubblica. Vol. 45 (2005). 437-42

Essay review of Arnold Davidson’s The Emergence of Sexuality. In this essay I analyze Davidson's "historical epistemology" by breaking it down into its four main characteristics: 1) its object is located on a deep epistemological level; 2) it bars hermeneutics from the writing of history; 3) it transcends biographical, social and cultural variations; 4) and its narrative takes the form of a comparison between static structures instead of an unfolding of events in constant evolution.

“The History of Masturbation: An Essay Review.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Vol. 59 (2004). 112-21

Essay review of Thomas Laqueur’s Solitary Sex, significantly different from my essay review in French of the same book. Laqueur gives a central importance to the anonymous Onania (1716), a book which according to him marks the beginning of the secular approach to masturbation. In my review I argue against this interpretation of Onania by focusing on the crucial problem of the imagination.

“Friction of the Genitals and Secularization of Morality.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 12 (2003). 345-64

A study of the conceptual relations between religion and medicine through a revisionist reading of Onania (1716) and L’Onanisme (1760), the two most important books written on masturbation in the eighteenth century. Almost all historians who have been interested in the history of masturbation have claimed that there is a clear continuity between Onania and L'Onanisme, and that both partake in a secular (medical) approach to sex. (This was in fact my own conclusion in two previous articles: see below.) In this somewhat structuralist paper I reconstruct the conceptual structures of each book and demonstrate that Onania is in fact primarily organized by the theological concepts of will, sin, and innocence, and relies on medical ideas only insofar as they support its moral message. Onania is therefore a theological book with a few medical ideas thrown in. L'Onanisme is precisely the opposite: it is fundamentally organized by the medical concepts of bodily need, disease and health, and religious ideas are invoked only in so far as they agree with the general medical message. I conclude this paper with a note on methodology, and argue that if historians have not been sensitive to the striking differences between Onania and L'Onanisme, it is because they have located their analyses at the lexical level without penetrating into the internal conceptual logics of these books.

“Le pouvoir de la science dans L’Onanisme de Tissot.” Gesnerus: Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Sciences. Vol. 57 (2000). 27-41

In this article, as well as in my 1999 "Tissot and L’Onanisme: a Shadow in the Enlightenment,” my understanding of Tissot's L'Onanisme remained in line with the one offered by most historians. My 2003 "Friction of the Genitals" marks on the other hand a clear departure from what I now think of as a misguided analysis based on a defective methodology.

“Tissot and L’Onanisme: a Shadow in the Enlightenment.” Spring. Vol. 65 (1999). 33-53

Articles and Short Pieces in Newspapers

“Du DSM-IV au DSM-5: Le jour d’après.” (With Steeves Demazeux)., May 29, 2013. Available here.

“La psychiatrie française dans le miroir du DSM.” With Steeves Demazeux. Libération, May 28, 2013. p. 21. Available here.

Contribution to “Sunday Dialogue: Defining Mental Illness.” New York Times, March 24, 2013. p. SR2. Available here.

Book Reviews

Elodie Giroux. Après Canguilhem. Définir la santé et la maladie. In Gesnerus: Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Sciences. Vol. 68 (2011). 121-22


Laurence Guignard. Juger la folie. La folie criminelle devant les Assises au XIXe siècle. In Gesnerus: Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Sciences. Vol. 67 (2010). 275-76


Richard C. Sha. Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750-1832. In Journal of Modern History. Vol. 82 (2010). 685-87


Niklaus Largier. In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal. In Journal of Modern History. Vol. 81 (2009). 377-79


Sean M. Quinlan. The Great Nation in Decline: Sex, Modernity and Health Crises in Revolutionary France c.1750-1850. In Gesnerus: Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Sciences. Vol. 65 (2008). 290-91

Edited and Translated Work

Co-editor (with Philippe Huneman), Bulletin d'histoire et d'épistémologie des sciences de la vie, 15 (2) (2008).

Special issue on experiment and observation in the eighteenth-century life sciences.

Translator: James Donat, "Les extraits de Tissot choisis par Wesley: Un Imprimatur méthodiste." In La Médecine des Lumières: Tout autour de Tissot. Edited by Vincent Barras and Micheline Louis-Courvoisier. Georg Editeur. 2001. 261-81

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