Skip to main content
Log in

On the relevance and importance of the notion of disease

  • Published:
Theoretical Medicine Aims and scope Submit manuscript


This paper constitutes a defence of the basic philosophical enterprise of characterising concepts such as ‘disease’ and ‘health’, as well as other medical concepts. I argue that these concepts play important roles, not only in medical, but also in other scientific and social contexts. In particular, medical decisions about health and diseasehood have important ethical, social and economic consequences. The role played is, however, not always a rational one. But the greater is the need for a reconstruction of this network of concepts for the purpose of efficient and rational communication.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Boorse C. On the distinction between disease and illness.Philosophy and Public Affairs 1975; 5: 49–68.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Boorse C. Health as a theoretical concept.Philosophy of Science 1977; 44:542–73.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Agich GJ. Disease and value: a rejection of the value-neutrality thesis.Theor Med 1983; 4:27–41.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Engelhardt HT Jr. Clinical judgment.Metamedicine 1981; 2:301–17.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Goosens WK. Values, health and medicine.Philosophy of Science 1980; 47:100–15.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Scadding JG. Viewpoint: the semantics of medical diagnosis.Int J Biomed Comput 1972; 3:83–90.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Gräsbeck R. Health and disease from the point of view of the clinical laboratory. In: Nordenfelt L, Lindahl BIB, eds.Health, Disease, and Causal Explanations in Medicine. Dordrecht: D Reidel, 1984:47–60.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Szasz T.The Myth of Mental Illness. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Hesslow G. Do we need a concept of disease?Theor Med 1993; 14:1–14 (this issue, pp. 1–14).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Aristotle.The Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Sahlin J, ed.Hälso- och sjukvärdslagen med kommentarer. Stockholm: Statens nämnd för utgivande av förvaltningsrättsliga publikationer, 1982.

  12. Nordenfelt L.On the Nature of Health: An Action-Theoretic Approach. Dordrecht: D Reidel, 1987.

    Google Scholar 

  13. World Health Organization.Manual of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Injuries, and Causes of Death. 9th revision, Vol 1–2. Geneva, WHO, 1977, 1978.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Bayer R.Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Culver CM, Gert E.Philosophy in Medicine: Conceptual and Ethical Issues in Medicine and Psychiatry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Ten CL.Crime, Guilt and Punishment. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Nordenfelt L.On Crime, Punishment and Psychiatric Care. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1992.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nordenfelt, L. On the relevance and importance of the notion of disease. Theoretical Medicine 14, 15–26 (1993).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Key words