Chiara Cecconi

The Epistemological Turn in Hellenistic Medicine: Herophilus of Chalcedon, Erasistratus of Ceos and medical innovation

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The Epistemological Turn in Hellenistic Medicine: Herophilus of Chalcedon, Erasistratus of Ceos and medical innovation

The project investigates the role of the epistemology shared by the two Hellenistic doctors, Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos, in the introduction of the innovative practices of human dissection and vivisection in 3rd century BCE Alexandria. My inquiry starts from the working hypothesis that by resourcefully drawing upon Aristotelian epistemology and by claiming an autonomous space for medical investigation, Herophilus and Erasistratus overcame the scruples concerning the manipulation of the human body and thus carried out extensive research into human anatomy.

This research aims at shedding light on the innovation introduced by Herophilus and Erasistratus in the practice and theory of medicine and is designed to highlight the process leading to the demystification of the human body. As such, it also addresses from a philosophical point of view the interaction between the scientific enterprise and society in breaking new ground, and between science and philosophy in the Hellenistic period.

We know that experiments of this sort were already carried out on animals by Aristotle. Conversely, interfering with corpses was considered scabrous and was unacceptable for religious and moral reasons. Why then was human dissection, and even vivisection, tolerated in the 3rd century bce and used for research in the medical field? And why did it fall into disuse again soon after its introduction? These are some of the questions this research aims to explore.

Several attempts have been made in order to explain the origin of this practice pointing to a multifarious horizon of factors that might have concurred to establishing human dissection/vivisection in medical research. Without downplaying the historical circumstances surrounding Herophilus and Erasistratus, indeed necessary conditions for dissection/vivisection of the human body, were these external factors sufficient? I would like to suggest that they were accompanied and supported by the change of perspective within medical science. Therefore, what needs to receive greater attention is the epistemology on which such innovation is grounded and how it was or not anchored in the previous tradition. The present project, limited to the activity of Herophilus and Erasistratus, favours a philosophical point of view to tackle the matter at stake, acknowledging the deep interconnection between science and philosophy in antiquity.

To conclude, the project aims at shedding light on the innovation introduced by Herophilus and Erasistratus in the practice and theory of medicine and is designed to highlight the process leading to the demystification of the human body. As such, it also addresses from a philosophical point of view the interaction between the scientific enterprise and society in breaking new ground, and between science and philosophy in the Hellenistic period.