It seems to me that we have a form of self-harm in the 1960s that is socially-embedded, accessed by social workers, and fundamentally understood as interpersonal behaviour. It is a very ‘social’ form of self-harm. In the 1980s, the kind of self-harm that resonates is one that focuses upon individual emotional states, and the practice of self-regulation. The very idea of ‘crying for help’ is recast as negative and manipulative.

What is self-harm, and where does it come from? These are the two questions that I am trying to answer in my new, open access book A History of Self-Harm in Britain: A Genealogy of Cutting and Overdosing (2015). The question really depends upon when and where you ask. In Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, the terms ‘self-harm’ and ‘self-damage’ largely signify taking an overdose of medication. It is also called ‘attempted suicide’, ‘self-poisoning’, ‘pseudocide’ and ‘propetia’ (from the Greek for ‘rashness’). The studies from which such terminology emerged were rooted in hospital Accident and Emergency departments (A&E). At this point, the overdose is generally understood as a disordered communication – a ‘cry for help’ – and is assessed by psychiatrists attached to hospitals, alongside another particular group of professionals: psychiatric social workers (PSWs). But the idea that ‘self harm’ essentially indicates ‘overdosing as a cry for help’ changes during the 1980s. In particular, the practice of self-cutting

as a form of tension release or emotional regulation gains more prominence. Initially studies of self-cutting emerge from inpatient units in North America and Britain. Despite being called things like ‘delicate cutting’ or ‘wrist-slashing’, these studies actually document a wide range of behaviours including self-burning, skin-picking, smashing windows, and swallowing objects such as pins or dominoes. However, self-cutting is repeatedly emphasized as being archetypal in some way (this is a topic I discuss in much more detail in another paper). Despite this emphasis on self-cutting, the behaviour presenting at hospitals doesn’t really change: between 80 and 95 per cent of the cases under the label ‘self-harm’ in hospital statistics remain self-poisoning. However, there are now huge numbers of studies from psychotherapists, counselors and psychiatrists documenting ‘self-cutters’. The behavioural stereotypes inaugurated during the 1980s remain substantially intact today. ‘Self-cutting as emotional self-regulation’ is still largely presumed to be the behaviour and motivation indicated by the term ‘self-harm’. The key questions are, why…

On the one hand, the journal’s success over the last 28 years has established the human sciences as a field, and made clear its intrinsically historical basis. In the last quarter century, the long-standing neglect, on the part of historians and philosophers of science, of the human sciences in comparison with the natural sciences has given way to an investigation of their often intertwined (as well as times opposed) epistemic projects, practices and commitments. On the other hand, the porous boundary between the natural scientific approach pursued in many of the life sciences and the historical approach promoted by this journal has largely dissolved.

The central problem of the human sciences remains unresolved. Despite the new claims championed within molecular biology, evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence and the cognitive neurosciences, one of the central organising categories of each of those disciplines – the human – has resisted definition. This resistance has a long history. When Kant asked the last of the four key philosophical questions posed in his Logic of 1800 – ‘Was ist der Mensch?’ – he likely knew that nineteenth-century theory would fail to provide a definitive answer. The category that came to define both the humanities and the human sciences in the German-speaking territories – that of Geist, the inherently un-measurable, unstable and speculative prefix to the Geisteswissenschaften – served only to produce provisional answers that would in turn only give rise to further questions. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Dilthey concluded that this resistance to definition was inevitable because the human being is

an ineluctably historical being whose attempts at self-understanding are always contingent upon a particular historical perspective and therefore always subject to variation (Dilthey 1991 [1883]). Within the German tradition of philosophical anthropology advanced by Max Scheler (1928) and Helmuth Plessner (1928), among others, and recently taken up in the writings of Hans Blumenberg (2006) and Peter Sloterdijk (2004), the human being is held up as a ‘cultural being’ that is able to survive only because of its non-biological adaptations and technologies. Human nature, these writers insist, is human culture, and the human sciences would thus require a methodology quite different from those of the natural sciences. This recognition that human nature is, in the last analysis, historical has been foundational to the post-structural turn in the human sciences. The acknowledgment of the radical problem that the question of the human posed underwrote the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Foucault famously argued in The Order of Things that ‘Man, in the analytic of finitude, is…

Philosophically, one of the goals of science studies was to show that there was no clear demarcation of science from society, that scientists were human beings like you and me, and that their claims to objectivity were unfounded. Expert knowledge was put in its place and subordinated to a democratic process. When science studies were established as a field in the 1980s, we were certainly not ruled by philosopher kings and nobody felt the need to show how Derrida and Rorty had fabricated their truth claims ­– not least because these philosophers didn't make any. But technoscientists did assert their expertise and transformed our world in powerful ways. So we started the Science Wars.

Nicolas Langlitz is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His work lies at the intersection of anthropology and the history of science, where he has been especially engaged with the epistemic cultures of the neurobiological and psychopharmcological sciences. His most recent monograph, 'Neuropsychedilia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research Since the Decade of The Brain' is available from the University of California Press. At the beginning of March, Des Fitzgerald, HHS Web Editor, caught up with Nicolas about his recent article in History of the Human Sciences, 'On a not so chance encounter of neurophilosophy and science studies in a sleep laboratory.' Des Fitzgerald: We’ve had a lot of reflection lately on how disciplines like anthropology and sociology intersect the natural sciences (and especially life sciences); one of the things I found especially valuable about your article was its attention to a very different set of interdisciplinary relations – those between social scientists and philosophers. Why do you think there has been relatively little attention to these interactions? And where do you see their future? Nicolas Langlitz: That's true.

Social studies of science, including anthropology and sociology, have not paid much attention to philosophy. I think there are political reasons for why the humanities and the social sciences attracted less interest. In his article "What Happened in the Sixties?", Jon Agar located the birth of science studies in the long 1960s and the countercultural upheaval against technocratic government. Philosophically, one of the goals of science studies was to show that there was no clear demarcation of science from society, that scientists were human beings like you and me, and that their claims to objectivity were unfounded. Expert knowledge was put in its place and subordinated to a democratic process. When science studies were established as a field in the 1980s, we were certainly not ruled by philosopher kings and nobody felt the need to show how Derrida and Rorty had fabricated their truth claims ­– not least because these philosophers didn't make any. But technoscientists did assert their expertise and transformed our world in powerful ways. So we started the…