Examples and experience: on the uncertainty of medicine 1
After a brief account of the uncertainty of medicine in early modern thought, this paper focuses on two supple, sophisticated accounts of medicine by ‘non-medical’ writers – Michel de Montaigne's views of medical theory and medical practice and Francis Bacon's proposals for renovating both – in which the claims of individual sufferers are set against the normativity of medicine as a whole. From around 1500 to around 1680, in the common ensemble of both learned and popular invective, medicine was disparaged as poor philosophy and worse practice, even as the ‘lowest of professions’. In remarkably broad, elegant interventions, Montaigne argues that medicine is based on ‘examples and experience’ (and ‘so is my opinion’, he adds), impugning its universalizing claims with the tractable experience of his own embodiment, with his own historia and consilium, while Francis Bacon enlists dietetics, Hippocratic case-taking and medical history in his broad programme for the reform of medicine. He more or less accepts Montaigne's argument for particularity in medical theory and practice, but presses the particular into service in his reformist programme. Like many sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century scholars and physicians frustrated with Galenic methods and models, both turn to Hippocratic practice and to hygiene and dietetics as salves for an ailing discipline. Finally, I argue that both writers enquire into viable means for inflecting learned medicine with particular experience, and both settle on rhetorical tools – analogy and exemplarity – as the means by which universalized medical models might be particularized or reformed.(Published Online February 23 2006)
1 I would like to thank Simon Schaffer and two anonymous readers for the BJHS, also Stephanie Nadeau, Thomas Dilworth and Suzanne Matheson for patiently reading early drafts of this paper. Research for this work has been sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada.