Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 331–350

In what sense is contemporary medicine dualistic?

  • Mark Sullivan

DOI: 10.1007/BF00049269

Cite this article as:
Sullivan, M. Cult Med Psych (1986) 10: 331. doi:10.1007/BF00049269


Medicine's inability to humanely respond to the concerns of its patients has often been attributed to its Cartesian dualism of mind and body. More recently, this inability has been ascribed to medicine's penchant for isolating biological disease as its sole proper concern to the exclusion of experienced illness. This dualism of disease and illness is claimed to be an outgrowth of the Cartesian dualism but the differences and similiarities between these two forms of dualism is not clear. This paper seeks to clarify their relationship through an examination of their historical origins.

Disease is currently identified and characterized by a process of clinico-pathological correlation. By this means clinical impressions are corrected in light of autopsy findings. Our current mode of clinico-pathological correlation originated in Paris in the early nineteenth century with the work of Xavier Bichat and others. The theory of knowledge implicit within this clinico-pathological approach to the body is described and compared to that of Descartes. Though medicine does pursue certain Cartesian goals for knowledge, such as knowledge of the patient that does not rely upon his candor, it ultimately espouses neither a Cartesian theory of knowledge nor a Cartesian theory of the body. With pathological inquiry modeled after the autopsy as the final word in the identification and characterization of disease, the patient's capacity for self-knowledge and interpretation — not an entity called mind — is isolated away from his body. This approach to the body means that objective evidence of disease is valued to the exclusion of subjective evidence.

If the shortcomings of modern biomedicine are to be effectively addressed, not only must the interdependence of disease and illness be acknowledged. The very canons of medical evidence must be revised. Subjective evidence must be rehabilitated and rejuvenated with better methods of subjective clinical investigation. Host factors relevant to the healing and knowing of sickness must be elucidated so that medicine may rediscover the sentience of its patients. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences University of Washington Seattle, WA 98195, U.S.A.

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark Sullivan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleU.S.A.