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What Is Medicine?Western and Eastern Approaches to Healing$

Paul Unschuld

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780520257658

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520257658.001.0001

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Two Basic Ideas of Medicine

Two Basic Ideas of Medicine

Chapter:
80 Two Basic Ideas of Medicine
Source:
What Is Medicine?
Author(s):

Paul U. Unschuld

Publisher:
University of California Press
DOI:10.1525/california/9780520257658.003.0080

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an introduction to European medicine and its effect on the Chinese. There are two fundamental ideas in medicine in China as in Europe. One fundamental idea sees inherent laws in society, nature, and the human body. One who follows the laws survives and stays healthy. One who disobeys the laws will be punished, mildly or harshly, depending on the offense. Sometimes disobedience can cost one's life. The more civilized a society is, the more it can moderate the extent of punishment. The task of medicine is to protect people from the merciless punishments of nature. The other fundamental idea is that plausibility projects social life onto the life of an individual organism. An individual has friends as well as enemies so one must be on guard against enemies as they can hurt. There are enemies that wait to attack and then make an individual waste away, bleed, and perhaps even die. An individual organism sometimes wastes away without any attack by a visible enemy. In such cases, it must have been a miniscule or invisible enemy.

Keywords:   European medicine, human body, task of medicine, punishments of nature, social life, invisible enemy

What about European medicine? How did it affect the Chinese? This seems like only one question when in fact it is two: Did European medicine seem foreign or familiar to the Chinese? Was it useful for treating their illnesses and epidemics? Of course, a few things in the new medicine were foreign, about as foreign as acupuncture was for Europeans. But this was only the surface of things, a matter of technique. Behind that, the underlying ideas were hidden. And these were not foreign at all.

(p.190) There are two fundamental ideas in medicine—in China as in Europe. Can we separate plausibility and reality? One fundamental idea sees inherent laws in society, nature, and the human body. He who follows the laws survives and stays healthy. He who disobeys the laws will be punished, mildly or harshly, depending on the offense. Sometimes disobedience can cost one's life. This is no different in society than it is in nature. The more civilized a society is, the more it can moderate the extent of punishment. Nature, on the other hand, is always merciless. The task of medicine is to protect people from the merciless punishments of nature.

The other fundamental idea is that plausibility projects social life onto the life of the individual organism: We have friends, but we also have enemies. We must be on guard against our enemies. They can hurt us. There are enemies that wait to attack and then make us waste away, bleed, and perhaps even die. These enemies are visible. They are reality. War is reality. Time and time again.

The individual organism sometimes wastes away without any attack by a visible enemy. In such cases, it must have been a miniscule or invisible enemy. The names for the smallest enemies that could wreak such havoc were different in China and in Europe over the centuries. Xu Dachun was firmly convinced of their existence. So were Fracastoro and Samuel Hahnemann. We cannot be certain what Giovanni Morgagni thought. But Robert Koch convinced all of Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century, Western medicine arrived at the insight that had been present in China for two millennia.