Temperament and the Long Shadow of Nerves in the Eighteenth Century

  • George Rousseau

“Temperament, [is] a moderate and proportionable mixture of any thing, but more peculiarly of the four humours of the body” (Phillips, 1658: sub “Temperament”)

One of our most acclaimed social scientists, Harvard psychology professor Jerome Kagan, has spent much of his professional career studying temperament as the key to human individuality. The titles of his recent books speak for themselves: Unstable ideas: Temperament, cognition, and self (1989); Galen’s prophecy: Temperament in human nature (1994); Three seductive ideas (1998), the salient one being The Long Shadow of Temperament (2004); and dozens of articles featuring temperament as pivotal. Awarded this place of privilege, temperament is the superlative operative word in Kagan’s conceptual framework. His theory, in brief, is that every human inherits a physiology determining the emotional temperament and shapes the larger psychological profile when combined with experience. The aim of this essay is to understand why a major psychologist of Kagan’s international stature should have chosen temperament; and secondly to historicize Kagan’s enterprise and inquire what, if anything, the eighteenth century contributed to temperament’s historical map.

This goal is worthwhile for several reasons: it explains the historical foundations on which one of the most prominent historical psychologists of our generation has worked and how he selected “temperament” above all other concepts; it serves to highlight Kagan’s sites of originality and account for those that are derivative; it unpacks a concept – temperament – that recently has fallen into disuse and dropped out of the historical vocabulary despite Kagan; and – most crucial for this book – it focuses squarely on the eighteenth-century contributions to temperament. It also demonstrates why a book about eighteenth-century neuroscience, whose three key concepts are brain, mind, and medicine, cannot afford to omit temperament, or if it does, does so at its own peril. These goals may be accomplished in addition to glossing the larger perennial riddle about who we are and how we got to be that way.


Eighteenth Century Vital Humour Animal Spirit Sensory Impression Rational Soul 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • George Rousseau
    • 1
  1. 1.Modern History Research Unit (MHRU)University of OxfordUK

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