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Monthly Archives: June 2015

“Secta Empírica y Dogmáticos Racionales”: medicine and the ESD in early modern Spain

A couple of months ago Peter Anstey directed me to a book by Miguel Marcelino Boix, a Spanish doctor and professor of surgery at the Universidad de Alcalá. The book, a defense and commentary on the first aphorism of Hippocrates, was published in 1711 and it contains some references to the experimental philosophy of the time. But what really caught my eye was the use Boix makes of the terms rationalism (racionalismo) and empiricism in medicine, and the connection of the latter term to experimental philosophy. In this and a couple of future posts I want to present Boix’s text and hopefully shed some light on the connection between experimental philosophy and empiricism (and the ESD) in early modern Spain.

Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile.

This is Hippocrates’ first aphorism, the focus of Boix’s text. The Spanish doctor gives his analysis of the five phrases of the aphorism while criticizing various other interpretations of them. It is during his account of the fourth phrase, experimentum periculosum, that Boix contrasts the two sects, rational dogmatists (dogmáticos racionales) and empirics (empíricos), and begins to connect the latter with experimental philosophy.

Boix begins by offering his interpretation of the phrase, explaining that it says that doctors “never apply any medicine to the human body with absolute certainty that the desired effect will result.” In this sense, the phrase serves as warning to doctors, both rational and empiric, to be mindful of the limits of our knowledge and experience regarding medicine. However, Boix comments, some rational dogmatists have taken the phrase to mean that “experience is dangerous and false if it is not accompanied by reason.” This interpretation is used by rational dogmatists to attack the empirics, given that they follow experience blindly without any reference to reason. But Boix believes that this description of the empiric doctors, which is popular among people, is flawed. It is this mistaken account of the empirics that leads him to explain the differences between the two sects.

Given that the rational dogmatists attack the empirics for detaching reason from experience, Boix begins by examining the reasons the former give in their accounts.

They (rational dogmatists) say that their Medicine and Philosophy is founded on the four Elements, and the four humours; look at these four columns, these four strong pillars. And so they say, that knowing that there is heat, cold, wet and dry; blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile, they know all the effects they want, and that solely with the knowledge of these two quartets they have enough to defeat even the toughest questions contained in Natural philosophy and all of medicine. To this they add, that they are extremely happy, that Galen and Aristotle,their Princes, one in Medicine, the other in Philosophy, knew all they could, because neither to them or their disciples, has a problem been put forward, whether Physical or Medical, that they have not been able to solve solely by knowing that there are four qualities, and four humours.

By contrast, the popular opinion of the empirics is that they focus solely on experience and never give reasons for it; they “are those tricksters or scoundrels that come from Foreign Nations with half a dozen remedies, wanting to cure all kinds of diseases with them.” But this is a false depiction of the empiric sect. In order to explain what the empiric doctors are really about, Boix refers to the main sects in natural philosophy: sceptics, academics, and rational dogmatists. But we will get into that in my next post. I want to stop here to talk about the popular concept of the empiric doctors and the connection with experimental philosophy.

As Alberto Vanzo pointed out in a previous post, “experimental physicians” saw themselves as opponents of “empirical physicians.” But the text by Boix brings in a new scenario for our consideration. It seems that in Spain, rather than seeing themselves as opponents of the empirical physicians, experimental physicians felt that were indeed part of the empiric sect and opposed the rational dogmatists. However, the position of the Spanish doctors is not different from that of the physicians described by Alberto in his post. When doctors like John Gregory and Friederich Hoffman described themselves as opponents of the empirical physicians, they had in mind the popular concept of empiric that Boix points out in his text. The Spanish doctors, just like their Scottish and German counterparts, saw themselves as opponents of that specific kind of physician. The difference lies in the fact that Spanish physicians believed that the true empirical physicians were far from the popular depiction of empirics. In fact, the way they described the true empirical doctors is very similar to that of Gregory and Hoffman regarding experimental physicians. It is this description of the empiric sect that we will turn to in my next post.