Kraepelin and degeneration theory

  • Paul HoffEmail author


Emil Kraepelin’s contribution to the clinical and scientific field of psychiatry is recognized world-wide. In recent years, however, there have been a number of critical remarks on his acceptance of degeneration theory in particular and on his political opinion in general, which was said to have carried “overtones of proto-fascism” by Michael Shepherd [28]. The present paper discusses the theoretical cornerstones of Kraepelinian psychiatry with regard to their relevance for Kraepelin’s attitude towards degeneration theory. This theory had gained wide influence not only in scientific, but also in philosophical and political circles in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There is no doubt that Kraepelin, on the one hand, accepted and implemented degeneration theory into the debate on etiology and pathogenesis of mental disorders. On the other hand, it is not appropriate to draw a simple and direct line from early versions of degeneration theory to the crimes of psychiatrists and politicians during the rule of national socialism. What we need, is a differentiated view, since this will be the only scientific one. Much research needs to be done here in the future, and such research will surely have a significant impact not only on the historical field, but also on the continuous debate about psychiatry, neuroscience and neurophilosophy.

Key words

Kraepelin degeneration theory history of psychiatry naturalism evolutionary biology 



The author has no conflict of interest to declare.


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Copyright information

© Springer 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dept. of General and Social PsychiatryUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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