UJ’s Prof Alex Broadbent book launch reflects on Medicine and Philosophy

Philosophy of Medicine asks two central questions about medicine: what is it, and what should we think of it? Philosophy of medicine itself has evolved in response to developments in the philosophy of science, especially with regard to epistemology, positioning it to make contributions that are medically useful.

Book Launch

This was certainly the case at the Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Thursday evening, 23 May 2019, when UJ’s Prof Alex Broadbent laid bare his experiences and research on taking stock of philosophy of medicine’s present place in the landscape and its potential to illuminate a wide range of areas, from public health to policy.

Prof Broadbent carved out some new territory in the field, by taking a broad view of medicine as something existing in different forms, in different times and places. “I argue that any adequate understanding of medicine must say something about what medicine is, given this apparent variety of actual practices that are either claimed to be or regarded as medical,” he said.

“I argue that, while the goal of medicine is to cure, its track record in this regard is patchy at best. This gives rise to the question of why medicine has persisted despite being so commonly ineffective. I contend that this persistence shows that the business of medicine – the practice of a core medical competence – cannot be cure, even if that is the goal. Instead, what doctors provide is understanding and prediction, or at least engagement with the project of understanding health and disease.”

The audience of students, scientists and academics, also included members of the UJ’s Philosophy Department. Prof Broadbent is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at UJ, founding Director of the African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, and Professor of Philosophy.

Prof Broadbent then applied this position to medical dissidence and decolonisation of medicine. “Medical dissidence occurs when traditions co-exist with a more dominant tradition and reject parts of it. Homeopathy is the paradigm case. I advocate a much more tolerant stance between disputants about alternative medicine, arguing that the reason for different views (also extending to topics such as vaccination) is that all of our medical evidence reaches us through testimony, and trust then becomes king-maker as to which medical evidence you accept,” explained Prof Broadbent.

In closing, Prof Broadbent advocated something a little more critical than “dialogue” between traditions. He invited a critical attitude. The approach must be humble, and mainstream medicine must concede that it may well have something to learn from, e.g., African Medicine. He said decolonisation must fundamentally consist in the adoption of a critical mindset, one that rejected political colonisation, and that goes on to reject epistemic colonisation. “This critical mindset demands that African, Chinese, Indian and other traditions take the inevitable confrontation with mainstream medicine seriously, and seriously consider whether their various interventions and strategies are effective, just as they ask mainstream medicine to take these interventions and strategies seriously.”

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