Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Rhetoric and Medicine

I'm preparing to reread Aquinas and Maimonides this month, and am considering reading Avicenna alongside them. They're a particularly interesting triad because they all lived in the middle ages, they're all known particularly but not exclusively for their philosophy, they communicated with each other, and they're representative of some of the best philosophy during the scholastic era. They represent Christian, Judaist, and Islamic civilisations at their high points during that period and are exceptionally clear and intersting writers.

They also got a lot wrong. But that's to be expected for their times, and given that they're religious philosophers, one can take for granted that their foundations are a bit off. Still, they contributed a lot to the world and are well worth reading.

In reading up on Avicenna to decide if I want to read him alongside (I haven't read much of him before, and find him a bit intimidating), I found excerpts from his theory of medicine. These things are usually pretty interesting and intricate, and also very very wrong, but at least by this time they had ideas about testing medicines carefully against various illnesses, and this was the era in which the university system was being born in western europe and where scholasticism was spreading throughout the Islamic world (al-Azhar dates back to this era). The point of this is that despite being fairly wrong in the contents of high theory of medicine, they had medieval scientific philosophy well-understood and presumably despite the theory being wrong, it was also stronger than nothing whatsoever in predictive power (presumably being accidentally-right in some ways).

I'm curious, given that the medievals seemed to both have a form of empiricism and an appreciation for rhetoric, how a modern doctor would fare against a medieval doctor in a debate. The modern doctor's theories would be much more accurate, but it's difficult to sum up modern medicine so concisely (I think). What would that debate look like? Would the lack of overarching theories of different flavours fail to capture the imagination in the way the ancient theories did? Is the story of real medicine less appealing than the stories they came up with back then?


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