Vol 2 Ed 18 » Columnistas » Multiplicity of the unity: Primordial phylosophy from the classical medicine

Multiplicity of the unity: Primordial phylosophy from the classical medicine

Ricardo Andrés Roa Castellanos

Trying to define the breakthrough of philosophical-scientific thinking oriented to solve life and health problems leads to the old Greek Ionian pre-Socratics of the 6th century BC. There appeared a multi-complementary system of thought that eventually founded on universal nature (Phýsis), and the philosophy of medicine, the factual joint to harmonize thought opposites, develop rational methods for problem-solving, and help us to understand the world. An additional benefit was finding happiness throughout the pursuit of truth (Aristotelian eudaimonia ethics). Of interest, the very word Physician –the iconic figure for that duty- has its etymological origins in the labor of understanding nature (Gr. Phýsis) 1.


The virtuous Greek triad was composed by Socrates (whose work showed the multiple benefits of education and morals combined with questioning knowledge), Plato (systematic exchanging of ideas) and Aristotle (the ethics of organic observation aimed to justice and happiness) which convert previous sophistry into pragmatic and realistic philosophy (episteme). That achievement was possible after being influenced by the medical Hippocratic integrative reasoning. Aristotle synthesized the new philosophy imbuing his approach with therapeutic sense (problem’s identification – prescription of actions for its solution) in the book titled The Organon.

The disease of thought that demands since then the best rational efforts to be defeated with truth was sophistry and its henchman: the sophists. Those who had killed Socrates.

Bottom line, this triad among their common motivations counted on the Hippocratic example as a torch. Last words of Socrates were precisely devoted to the divinity of medicine, Asclepius. As a peculiar trait, knowledge in medicine was directly used to combat disease (as dysfunctional state). For sophists, knowledge was more a utilitarian resource for working, gaining money, vanity, obtaining political power, etc.

From the sophist’s Greek decadence, the marvelous triad of lovers of wisdom (Gr. Philos-Sophy) changed its society into the Hellenistic splendor under the leadership of Aristotle’s disciple: Alexander the Great, the developer of the most extensive empire of antiquity.

To make rational judgments through problems (diagnose), take measures (treat), foresee events (pro-gnosis) and avoid death, death risks or dangerous signs (prevent), was the beginning of the physician-professional conduct based on rationality.


Remarkably, Hippocrates is strongly clear once initiating the treatise “On air, waters and places” in his Corpus Hippocraticum. He settles down his Ars medica on a surprisingly detailed deontological-instruction, especially valuable at present when facing Climate Change:

“Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly, should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year, and what effects each of them produces (for they are not at all alike, but differ much from themselves in regard to their changes). Then the winds, the hot and the cold, especially such as are common to all countries, and then such as are peculiar to each locality. We must also consider the qualities of the waters, for as they differ from one another in taste and weight, so also do they differ much in their qualities. In the same manner, when one comes into a city to which he is a stranger, he ought to consider its situation, how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun (…)

From these things he must proceed to investigate everything else”

Hippocrates, accordingly, conceived hygiene as an amplified concept: “an influence of atmosphere, soil, and water on human health”, commenting that “every disease has its own nature and arises from external causes”. He gave more importance to the expected outcome (prognosis) of the organic disequilibrium rather than its identification (diagnosis) 2.

Philosopher Michel Foucault3, in that last sense, add two relevant observations from the modern French medical school by quoting a couple of posterior interpretations: 1) Clifton in his État de la medicine ancienne et modern, wrote: “Hippocrates applied only observation ruling out the systems on whose footprints medicine can be perfected”, and, 2) Roucher-Deratte excerpted the idea, written in Leçons sur le art d’observer: “The observer reads the nature while the one who perform an experiment interrogates it

Thoughtful studies of previous data with updated knowledge may develop new conclusions, just like meta-analysis and theoretical medicine/biology have recently done. The key fact, therefore, relies for health and life (sciences) on choosing the complementary potential of different perspectives instead of fighting for an imposing discipline hegemony of a particular point of view (e.g. Pasteur’s microbiological origin and Virchow’s cellular understanding of disease; Pharmacological and Surgical treatments; Chemo and Immunotherapy for cancer, and so on). That is also possible through overall observation for systemic analyses.

The foregoing was necessary since with the arrival of the XX century, Von Bertalanffy consider the classic Greek stage of thinking as the prolegomena of his system’s explanation in theoretical biology.

He quoted twice the maximum synthesis of his proposal through a premise developed by Aristotle’s observation. His statement “The whole is more than the sum of its parts” is the repeated Aristotelian reasoning that summarizes Bertalanffy’s General System Theory and its further ramifications4. For that theory, one open system influences the other contacting systems. Certainly, the systematic view is a clear characteristic for physiological and anatomical homeostasis.

What if we broaden the interconnections? In Earth, life and health sciences almost all systems (from behavioral to organic ones, passing through either cellular or bio[geo]chemical cycles) are open.

Indeed, Aristotle in his scarcely known treatise called “Problems” synthesized with plenty practical sense, in addition to problem solving-attitude, the knowledge he had obtained articulating rudimentary elements of meteorology, medicine, zoology, and ethics4. Starting with Problems related to medicine in Section I, he recalls Pythagorean physician Alcmaeon of Croton for his idea of health as equilibrium of harmonic potencies while disease was seen as structural/functional decompensation of elements, either by excess or lacking.

Logics is the base for the art of observation and reasoning. For pre-Socratic Empedocles, multiple empirical exercises can be done to acquire knowledge through the senses (empirical-experimental knowledge), however, ignoring-mismatching exact relationships by means of careful reasoning the observed facts converts any effort into futility. That is the reason because it is necessary to integrate/complement the classic route of nature-functioning (Gr. Phýsis-Érgon) with the one of wisdom-logic (Gr. Sóphia-Lógos) 5.


For ancient Greeks, the shape of the Earth was a sphere. That was a logic observation with no initial experiments, but cross-cutting information. Theophrastus (371-287 BC), heir of the Aristotelian peripatetic school and father of botany, said the one responsible for this adequate assertion was Parmenides. Parmenides had a today’s “transdisciplinary profile” himself: he was a Philosopher and Legislator who was also a Physician and author of the treatise On Nature.

The polyhedral character of truth was proved with the Greek development itself had: Poet and theologian, Hesiod (750 and 650 BC), was one who earlier also mentioned the round astronomic idea for the Earth; Mathematician, musician, mystic, and philosopher Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC) corroborated the reasoning through geometry and logic tautologies (founding systematic inferring thinking), according to descriptions of Diogenes Laertius' book: <<Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers>>.

In the mature Plato´s dialogue entitled “Parmenides” (Gr. Παρμενίδης) it is possible to find the current roots of the main subsequent western philosophy schools and the fundamentals for any debate regarding objective (true) and subjective (doxa) systems of thought for human understanding. For that purpose, in the dialogue the key speakers of the Eleatic school –Parmenides and Zeno de Elea- talk to Socrates and Aristotle –the later, father of Ethics and also western Veterinary Medicine-, having as tacit guests not only Plato but also Heraclitus.

The functional unity of Phýsis by Parmenides in his Proem6 versus the apparently obvious multiplicity defended by Heraclitus’ legacy, represent the main ways to understand the world. Modern philosophers (I.e. Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Marx and Heidegger gravitate towards Heraclitus’ opposing principles theory) preferring the excluding approach of Heraclitus, a.k.a Flux-Logos’ philosopher over inclusive Parmenides’ Unmoved Mover concept, rescued by empirical Aristotle and Von Bertalanffy with his interrelating General System Theory. Predominant isolated specialization of knowledge has preceded and reinforced permanent ideology arguments amid multiplicity. Loss of balance and deadly conquest as social method may represent a negative outcome for life in the quest of dominance [e.g. “Deaths that are greater, greater portions gain”. (Apothegm B25)]7. Scientifically, instead, attempts for biotic homogenization can be seen as harmful events for systemic perspectives, for instance, in deadly polyclonal expansions of aberrant cells (cancer), mass extinctions8, urbanization9, and other events of biodiversity deprivation that increases the systemic risk of death.

Therefore, these paradigms go beyond bare science and knowledge history. They may be used for being applied. During the recent decades, the re-start of enriched-diverse combining fields has emerged in science as a need (e.g. Astrophysics, Biochemistry, Phytosociology, Bioethics, Physical chemistry). The primordial medical heritage may guide mankind in the crucial moment we are living in.


  1. Charen T. The etymology of medicine. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association. 1951. Jul; 39(3):216.
  2. Von Bertalanffy L. The history and status of general systems theory. Academy of Management Journal. 1972 Dec 1; 15(4):407-26.
  3. Foucault, M. Naissance de la clinique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963
  4. Aristotle. Problemas. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 2004.
  5. Inwood B. The poem of Empedocles: A text and translation with an introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 2001.
  6. Bowra CM. The proem of Parmenides. Classical Philology. 1937, Apr 1; 32(2):97-112.
  7. Haxton, B. Heraclitus: Fragments. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.
  8. McKinney ML, Lockwood JL. Biotic homogenization: a few winners replacing many losers in the next mass extinction. Trends in ecology & evolution. 1999 Nov 1; 14(11):450-3.
  9. McKinney ML. Urbanization as a major cause of biotic homogenization. Biological conservation. 2006 Jan 31; 127(3):247-60.

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