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

Procedural Knowledge in the Galenic Corpus

Todd Curtis (Austin)

It would be difficult to find an ancient medical author whose writings had a more profound effect on the practice of medicine than the 2nd century AD physician, Claudius Galenus. Medical historians have long recognized the use of Galenic texts in the curricula of Medieval and Renaissance medical schools. However, this does not indicate how Galenic texts were used in the practice of medicine during the 2nd century. Galen is often more forthcoming than many of his predecessors and contemporaries in regards to the purposes of his writings. In his auto- bibliographical works, The Order of My Own Books and On My Own Books, Galen makes it clear that some of his texts were written for the purpose of practical applications (πράξεις) rather than theoretical inquiry. In On My Own Books, Galen states that at the request of a classmate he wrote The Motion of the Chest and Lungs so this colleague could train (μελετᾶν) himself to perform anatomical demonstrations. Elsewhere in On My Own Books, Galen claims that On the Pulses for Beginners was written for beginners to practice (γυμνάζεσθαι) using the human pulse in order to make prognoses.  

Although we have numerous examples of Galenic texts ostensibly written for practical applications (e.g. On the Pulses for Beginners, Anatomical Procedures, On Barley Soup, and Advice for an Epileptic Boy), no scholarly attention has been paid to the kinds of knowledge (e.g. theoretical principles vs. procedural “know how”) Galen uses to accomplish this goal. The purpose of my paper is to examine to what extent procedural knowledge ̶ the knowledge of how to perform some specific task ̶   figures into the aforementioned writings. In other words, do such works teach specific steps which enable their audiences (1) to identify a particular situation, (2) to activate knowledge relevant to that situation, and (3) to take the appropriate action as well as to guard against inappropriate action? If so, what rhetorical and didactic techniques does Galen use to accomplish this? What kinds of audiences, according to Galen, are appropriate to teach via this method? And lastly, to what extent does procedural knowledge figure into the overall scope of Galen’s teachings? By addressing such questions we will also gain an appreciation for the socio-cultural value of procedural knowledge in 2nd century medical writings.