January 2008 Newsletter, Vol. 37, No.1

2007 Guggenheim Prize Winners

John Walbridge is Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. He is working on Shirazi’s synthesis of the philosophical foundations of Galenic medicine.

I am studying the philosophical issues identified by medieval Islamic medical scientists. Islamic medicine is mainly based on Galen, whose thought had a strong philosophical component. Since Islamic philosophers were often also physicians, medicine must have influenced their philosophical thought, but the philosophical foundations of Galenic medicine as developed in the medieval Islamic world are not well understood.

Galenic medicine was one of the three major systems for understanding the natural world transmitted from the Greeks to the Muslims. The other two were an eclectic Aristotelianism and a complex of occult sciences that I am not concerned with here. The relationship between Galenic medicine and Aristotelianism is not simple. It is easy to assume that Aristotelian philosophy deals with the universe and science as a whole while Galenic medicine applies Aristotelian science to health and the body. This is not exactly true. The Galenic texts commonly studied included discussions of epistemology in a medical context – in particular, the relationship between theory and empirical experience in diagnosis and treatment – and discussions of the nature of the living body and its components that sometimes verge into the metaphysical. There were also extensive discussions of causation and physical processes in general. Galen mentions Aristotle’s four causes, for example, but in practice uses a rather different theory of causation. Another complication is that Galen does not draw only from Aristotle – he is more directly the heir of the Hellenistic philosophers and is one of our most important sources for the physical doctrines of the Stoics.

It seems probable then that Islamic writers on Galenic medicine also dealt with philosophical themes in their writings on the foundations of medicine. My particular concern is with those who were both philosophers and physicians or who wrote significantly on the theoretical aspects of medicine. Superficial indications are easy to find; Avicenna often used medical examples in his philosophical works. The physician and philosopher Rhazes wrote a book entitled Doubts about Galen, in which he took issue with Galen on various philosophical and medical doctrines. Averroes wrote analytical summaries of Galen’s standard works, as he had done for Aristotle’s.

The following are the medical/philosophical issues I am concerned with: rationalism and empiricism in medical research and diagnosis; causation of health and disease; medical evidence, particularly signs and symptoms; the physical and metaphysical nature of non-sensible medical entities, such as the humors.

In the current project, I will be working on a huge and comprehensive unpublished commentary on the first book – the theoretical portions – of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine written by the Iranian scientist and philosopher Qutb al-Din Shirazi (1236–1310). In the introduction, he writes proudly of having tracked down all the significant earlier commentaries on the Canon, along with much other material. He lists these sources and refers to them in the body of the commentary. Since Shirazi is writing at what seems to be the end of the creative period of Islamic medicine and since Shirazi was a scientist of great distinction, this seems an excellent vehicle to understand the nature of the relationship between philosophy and medicine in the high Islamic middle ages.

I will be working in Istanbul where authoritative manuscripts of this work are preserved along with manuscripts used by Shirazi.

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