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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities - Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

Detailed project description

Research Programme

This programme will be concerned with concepts of mental and physical health as developed in Graeco-Roman thought and their reception in later history. It will address major questions about the dialogue between medicine, philosophy and science, medicine’s engagement with the mind-body interface, the communication and transfer of medical ideas, and the relationship between medicine and its social and cultural environment.

Background of the programme

History of medicine as an academic discipline has long been devoted to the study of disease and human suffering in the past and of the responses of individuals and social groups to disease, as reflected in beliefs and theories about sickness and the body and in corresponding healing practices. Yet, more recently, there has been a shift towards the study of disease’s counterpart, health, its varying understandings and definitions through time, its relationship to other values held in a given society and the ways in which health was believed to be capable of being maintained, managed and enhanced, both privately and in the public domain.

The present research programme testifies to this development and aims to apply its insights to the ancient world. This is entirely appropriate, since for most Greek and Roman medical writers – as well as their readers and patients – the preservation and promotion of health was just as much part of the doctor’s business as the treatment of disease, and they went into very considerable detail defining health and specifying its requirements.

Yet ‘health’ is not a monolithic concept, but admits of different and sometimes rival understandings and definitions, ranging from the absence of disease (however defined) to happiness and mental well-being. And in the competitive setting of Graeco-Roman society, there were differences of perspective when it came to the question of who decides, and by what authority, whether someone is healthy or ill – the patient or the doctor, the individual or the society, the philosopher or the priest, one’s subjective experience or objective ‘scientific’ data. No aspect of health was more surrounded by such controversy than mental health, where competing claims were raised in Graeco-Roman medicine, philosophy and religion.

This research programme will focus on a number of such rival understandings of mental and physical health in the Graeco-Roman world. A key part of the programme will be devoted to the intellectual encounters between medicine and philosophy in antiquity, especially concerning the nature of human beings, the relationship between mind and body and the nature of biomedical knowledge. A second strand will be concerned with the ways in which ideas about health were expressed in technical vocabulary and communicated in rhetorically crafted literary forms. For, in the competitive Graeco-Roman world, persuasion and communicative skills were of the greatest importance to ‘sell’ one’s views to one’s audiences. Yet the project is not restricted to the intellectual and literary discourse: attention will also be given to the wider social and cultural embedding of ideas and practices of health, especially the impact of religious ideas and moral values. Finally, in a fourth strand, lines will be drawn from the past to the present by studying the ways in which classical ideas about health and disease were received and transformed in later times, both in the East (e.g. in Islamic medicine) and in what has come to be known as ‘the Western medical tradition’.

Methodologically, the programme unites approaches from a number of different disciplines. It builds on, and further develops, the latest developments in the academic study of medical history, the study of ancient philosophy, the pragmatic analysis of ‘technical’ discourse, the philological study of Greek and Latin texts, the historiography of science, cultural history, reception studies, and the comparative study of knowledge systems.

The programme will be carried out in collaboration with colleagues in other departments of the Humboldt University, the Free University and the Technical University Berlin, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, the Medical History Department of Berlin’s Medical School ‘Charité’, and several other German and international partners. The proposed research activities will tie in organically with existing research centres and activities in Berlin, such as the joint HU-FU Classics Excellence Cluster Topoi, the SFB 644 ‘Transformationen der Antike’, the new Centre for History of Science at the HU, and the Leibniz project ‘Heil und Heilung’ in the Institute for Ancient and Early Christian Studies.

The programme builds on, and develops further, research activities that Philip van der Eijk has developed at Newcastle University – supported by the Wellcome Trust – especially his projects ‘Aristotle, Aristotelianism and Medical History’ and ‘Towards a Galen in English’.


Structure of the Programme

The programme will be divided into four specific but interrelated strands:

I. Ancient Medicine in its relation to Philosophy and the Natural Sciences
II. The Communication of Medical Ideas in the Graeco-Roman World
III. Medicine in the Social, Cultural and Geographical Environment of the Ancient World
IV. The Transformations of Ancient Medicine

I. Ancient Medicine in its relation to Philosophy and the Natural Sciences

This strand will be devoted to the interaction, and in some cases competition, between medical and philosophical thought on health and disease in the Graeco-Roman world. Particular attention will be given to Aristotle, Aristotelianism and Galen(ism). It will further study the changing relationship between medicine and related natural sciences such as biology and physics. It will involve epistemological as well as ethical issues concerned with the professionalisation of medicine and with questions of authority and competence. Special attention will be given to the following questions: (i) What difference has Aristotelian philosophy made to the historical development of medicine? What specific contribution has Aristotelianism – alongside Hippocratism and Galenism – made to the Western medical tradition, both in terms of methodology and in knowledge, understanding and valuation of the human mind and body? (ii) To what extent has Aristotle’s engagement – and that of his followers – with the study of health and disease shaped their own thinking in fields such as biology, epistemology and ethics? (iii) What impact did medical ideas about mental health and illness have on philosophical discussions of the relationship between mind and body, and to what extent were medical accounts of mental illness influenced by theoretical presuppositions derived from philosophical discourse? (iv) What impact did moral and ethical ideas have on the development and articulation of ‘codes of conduct’ and scientific etiquette in Graeco-Roman medicine and science, and what was their relationship with legal thought and practice? (v) Was there such a thing as a discipline of the ‘life sciences’ in antiquity? How was ‘life’ defined and understood, and to what extent did the study of the living world (medicine, biology, botany) manage to establish itself as a field of enquiry of its own? (vi) How was medicine’s ambivalent status as a practical art and as a theoretical science based on universal truths about nature and the world brought to bear on epistemological issues? How did a philosopher such as Aristotle, and a scientist and doctor such as Galen, view the relationship between the humane, gentle and fallible aspects of medicine and its ‘hard core’, scientific side?


II. The Communication of Medical Ideas in the Graeco-Roman World

Within this strand, the textual nature of medical (and biological) knowledge and the ways in which it was expressed, rhetorically communicated and transferred, will be the focus of attention. The following questions will be adressed: (i) How was scientific knowledge expressed, communicated and disseminated in the ancient world? What modes of verbal expression, technical idioms, stylistic registers and textual genres were available to (medical) scientists in order to convey their views to their colleagues and their wider audiences? What rhetorical strategies did they employ to make their ideas intelligible, acceptable, or even fashionable? (ii) What were the circumstances in which they had to present their ideas, and what ‘audio-visual’ means (writing and ‘performance’ facilities, opportunities for live demonstration) did they have at their disposal? What were the interests, perceptions and expectations of their audiences, and how did these influence their authorial strategies? (iii) In what respects did ‘scientific’ language differ from ‘ordinary’ and ‘literary’ language? Was there such a thing as a scientific ‘discourse’ in the ancient world? Within this strand, specific attention will be given to the genres of the scientific treatise (pragmateia), the scientific commentary and the medical ‘encyclopaedia’. There will also be room for editions, translations and commentaries of Greek medical texts and collections of fragments of medical authors whose works are lost.


III. Medicine in the Social, Cultural and Geographical Environment of the Ancient World

In this strand, Graeco-Roman ideas and practices concerned with health and disease will be put in the wider social and cultural environment of the Ancient World – including the ancient and Hellenistic Near East and Egypt and the Roman provinces. This is a reflection of the developments in the study of ancient medical history under the influence of social history of medicine, medical anthropology and sociology. Particular attention will be paid to the following questions: (i) How did medical ideas function in actual practice in a wide variety of social, cultural and geographical environments in the ancient Mediterranean (and adjacent areas)? (ii) How was medical care provided and organised in various parts of the Graeco-Roman world and how did it interact with indigenous medical practices? (iii) How did ideas and concepts of health, disease and the body from different cultural traditions meet, clash or merge? (iv) What role did religious and magical approaches to mental and physical health as reflected in ancient healing cults, magical papyri, holy laws and other religious documents, play in this connection – both in ancient pagan religion and in early Christianity, and both in the Graeco-Roman and in the Near-Eastern world? (v) How were Graeco-Roman medical ideas and practices accommodated in early Christian belief and practice?


IV. The Transformations of Ancient Medicine

This strand will position itself within the broad area of the various transformations of Graeco-Roman medicine in later times – late antiquity, the medieval Byzantine, Western Latin and Islamic world, the Early Modern period, and the Age of Modernity. Special attention will be given to the following questions: (i) how did receptions, translations and interpretations of classical ideas and texts about health lead to and shape new engagement with the original texts? (ii) How were medical traditions and canons established, and how were historiographical patterns of medicine developed? (iii) How did the Hippocratic canon develop from the earliest traces of the Hippocratic ‘Corpus’ in the Hellenistic era through the printed collections of the Early Modern period, the 19th century editions by Ermerins and Littré, and the 20th century canons of Fichtner and Jouanna? (iv) What counted as ‘Hippocratic’, ‘Galenic’, ‘Aristotelian’ in different times and places? (v) How was and is ‘Hippocratic’, and indeed classical ‘holistic’ medicine, appropriated in contemporary Western medical and para-medical discourse about health and well-being, particularly in the sphere of complimentary medicine?