Item of the Day: General Observations on the Philosophy of Medicine (1809)

Full Title: General Observations on the Philosophy of Medicine; with some Anticipations of its Future State, Arising Out of a Comparison of its Progress with that of the Sciences in General. By Joseph William Gullifer, Esq. Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne and Co. for the Author, 1809.

SECTION FIRST.

WHEN the Statesman sits down to study the profound views of the science of legislation, and the Physician to investigate the various results arising from the complicated structure of the human body, the object which both propose to themselves, at the commencement of their labours, bears a manifest relation to the same end. viz. the bettering the condition of the human species. The errors for the practical Statesman, however, and the policy by which he is governed, are soon discovered, and soon pointed out, by the discerning eye of an enlightened public; but the Physician is able to veil his errors, and conceal the imperfections of his art, under the specious appearance of knowledge. This concealment of ignorance, on the part of the Physician, could not long pass unregarded, if there were any convincing test whereby to judge either of the depth or of the soundness of those principles whereupon he proceeds.

 

SECTION SECOND.

That we are very far from the knowledge of first principles in medicine, has been often allowed; and that no department of science can be expected to go on in any state of progressive improvement, until some data, some elements, are furnished to conduct the inquirer, is likewise a fact that cannot be denied. It is from the want of some materials of this kind, that the medical student finds himself so much at a loss; –he studies, and he may still continue to do so; collecting ideas ad infinitum, without reaping any real or solid advantage; –he cannot even indulge the fond hope, or the alluring prospect, of benefiting posterity by his labours; –he discovers, amdist the immense mass of materials presented to his view, such a multiplicity of heterogeneous opinions, as bewilder the attention, and distract the memory, and which he can refer to no general head whatever; –he finds himself entangled in the mazes of an unintellibible phraseology, that claims no title to use, much less to distinction, but that which the venerable sanction of time always secures to monuments of antiquity.

SECTION THREE.

Various as the divisions of mental inquiry are found to be, and difficult as it is to pursue them with precision, from the vagueness of language itself, yet in no circle of knowledge is this inconvenience more sensibly felt than in medicine. How various are the terms which Physicians daily employ, without annexing any correct or distinct idea to them? I feel persuaded, from the prodigious improvement that chemistry has lately undergone, partly owing to the philosophical nomenclature introduced by the French, and partly to the scientific arrangement observed in classing the differnt parts of its’ system, that, if a path somewhat similar to this, that is, a plan conducted upon principles nearly allied to it, were once opened, and steadily pursued, we should then gain a very important desideratum to guide the studes of medical men. When speaking upon the soruces of minunderstanding and fallacy arising from the abmiguity of language, it ought not to be forgotten, as the Abbe de Condillac has well remarked, that we think only through the medium of words; and that the first step towards the attainment of a philosophical system, is the acquirement of an accurate language for the ideas we express. It is not, however, the language of medicine itself that is so exceptionalbe–the doctrinal parts of it are no less so. Whilst the doctrines of Sympathy, of Spasm, of Irritability, follow each other with such a rapid succession at one time, and are found to approach and to receed from each other like the oscillations of a pendulum at another, what prospective advantages can the science of medicine be expected to hold out? That which is so fluctuating, so eccentric in its orbit, so totally void of any solid foundation for its support, which is made to appear as the standard of perfection to-day, and becomes obsolete on the morrow, may please for a while the speculative theoretician, but can never prove useful to the patient inquirer after the sublime operations of nature.

 

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Filed under 1800's, Culture, Medicine, Natural Science, Philosophy, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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