Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 3–10 | Cite as

The concept of disease—vague, complex, or just indefinable?

  • Bjørn HofmannEmail author
Scientific Contribution


The long ongoing and partly heated debate on the concept of disease has not led to any consensus on the status of this apparently essential concept for modern health care. The arguments range from claims that the disease concept is vague, slippery, elusive, or complex, and to statements that the concept is indefinable and unnecessary. The unsettled status of the concept of disease is challenging not only to health care where diagnosing, treating, and curing disease are core aims, but also to the branch of philosophy that tries to clarify concepts. This article discusses three claims about the concept of disease: that it is vague, complex, and that it is indefinable. It investigates (a) what is meant by these claims (b) what their implications are, and (c) whether the claims are sound or not. It is argued that some of the arguments are flawed and miss important points about concept analysis. This does not mean, however, that disease is a clear concept with a crisp definition. It only rules out speculative claims that disease necessarily is vague, complex, and indefinable. It appears at least as hard to show that disease is indefinable as it is to define it.


Disease Concept Language Definition Vague Complex 



An earlier draft of this manuscript has been presented at the 22nd European Conference on Philosophy of Medicine and Health Care, European bioethics in a global context, August 21–23, 2008, Tartu, Estonia. I am most thankful to the participants for an open and fruitful discussion on the ambitions, possibilities and limitations of conceptual analysis of disease. I am also grateful to Halvor Nordby for interesting and clarifying discussions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Health, Care and NursingUniversity College of GjøvikGjøvikNorway
  2. 2.Section for Medical EthicsUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

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