Emotion governs truth: New perception of politics based on Semmelweis's dispute about hygiene

Dec 18, 2012
Ignaz Semmelweis – his historic fight for new standards of hygiene in hospitals now serves as a basis for developing a new theory on the perception of politics. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Jenő Doby

Emotions frame the establishment of "truth". This is the central hypothesis of a new project supported by the FWF. The object of the study is a dispute about hygiene during childbirth, which took place in the middle of the 19th century between Viennese gynaecologist Ignaz Semmelweis and his colleagues. While his views were considered to be very questionable at the time, they are now deemed to be standard practice in every hospital. An evaluation of current and historic literature will now show how discourses on establishing this "truth" were informed by emotions. The aim of the project is to develop a new theory on the poststructuralist perspective of politics.

Truth is created by what is articulated. This is a key tenet of discourse theory. It is based on the view that people generate meaning through their actions, words and communication that in turn create certain perceptions. These are based on power structures and interests, which themselves are partly created through discourses. Previous analyses paid little attention to how emotions affect such discourses and consequently the establishment of truths. That is exactly what the Austrian Science Fund FWF project is now going to do.

Negotiating truth

Dr. Anna Durnová is a coordinator of the project at the Institute for at the University of Vienna. She says: "I believe that truth is a construct, whose establishment is governed by both discourse and emotion. The reason for this is a type of relationship of negotiation between these two levels. I intend to analyse this using a historically well documented case study – the dispute concerning hand washing as a hygienic measure in Vienna in the middle of the ." For Dr. Durnová, this conflict shows exactly how the interaction of emotions and discourses led to the manifestation of values and beliefs, which only later resulted in the consolidation of the positions of individual groups.

The Vienna-based Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818–1865) was at the heart of the dispute. His observation that the disinfection of doctors' hands led to a significant reduction in childbed fever (puerperal sepsis) was not only met with a lack of understanding, but also with strong opposition. At a time when pathogens such as bacteria and viruses had not yet been discovered, there was no scientific explanation for his observations. At the same time, however, his thesis placed part of the blame for the high mortality rate associated with childbed fever on the respected doctors – even if they acted according to their best abilities and knowledge. A science-based discourse thus descended rapidly into a fierce exchange of views. The following excerpt from a letter sent by Semmelweis to the then-Professor of Obstetrics at the k. k. Josephs-Academie in Vienna underlines the intensity of the discourse: "I have no other means of stopping the slaughter other than relentlessly exposing my opponents, and nobody who has their heart in the right place will blame me for resorting to these means."

From dispute to daily routine

Despite deeply entrenched positions, the practice of hand washing was soon adopted in day-to-day medical care and is now an absolute minimum standard. Knowledge about the effectiveness of this practice is now also deemed as "truth". Using historical sources, Dr. Durnová is examining the steps that led to this acceptance and the role that emotions played in the debate. These sources include Semmelweis's work records, his correspondence with friends and foes, and historical research documents on his personal life and his career. Historical and current papers on childbed fever, and midwifery are also subjected to analysis. The objective of this empirical section of the analysis is to identify emotions linked to the convictions and values expressed at the time.

According to Dr. Durnová: "Emotions transform discourses and thus influence the outcome of these discourses. Current political theories about truth do not account for this. I want to use this FWF project to create a new concept of politics that takes this component into consideration. This concept is based on the understanding that the relationship between discourse and emotion must be seen as ."

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Should our biggest climate change fear be fear itself?

Nov 05, 2010

From apocalyptic forecasting to estimates of mass extinctions, climate change is a topic which is filled with fearful predictions for the future. In his latest research, published in WIREs Climate Change, historian Matthi ...

Discursive Politics: Language with a Spin

Sep 24, 2012

A project sponsored by the Austrian Science Fund FWF has made a detailed investigation on what viewers understand and how they evaluate the statements of politicians during televised debates. To this effect, ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

tadchem
4 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2012
As an undergraduate student taking epistemology, I learned that the main difficulty in developing a 'Theory of Knowledge' lies in equivocation. Each of the philosophers seems to have had a different concept associated with the word "knowledge" - a difficulty I spotted because of my familiarity with German, which has several distinct words which translate into English as "knowledge" and which seem to apply variously to the ideas of the participants in the discussion.
I also realized from that experience that many serious and intese conflicts arise from equivocations, and the absence of clear and unambiguous definitions of the terms being discussed.
I wager that there is similar difficulty with the word "truth" as discussed by politicians and other illogical people.
Squirrel
1 / 5 (1) Dec 19, 2012
So that Ignaz Semmelweis views are "deemed" to be true has nothing to do with infectious bacteria but "power structures and interests". Poststructuralism is nothing but well funded Velikovsky style "Worlds in Collision" pseudoscience done with the smoke and mirrors of invented neologisms. Shame on modern universities.

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.