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Medical history and the medical humanities between two reductionisms

Posted Jun 30 2010 5:34am

It’s hard to escape the impression that the humanities (including medical history, medical humanities, etc.) are living a wobbly existence, balancing on a fine line over the two abysses of social reductionism and biological reductionism. Are patients and their diseases social constructions or bags of biochemical reactions? Do these reductionist trends have any room left for the kind of books reviewed in the TLS ?

A forthcoming conference at the University of Copenhagen 16-17 September on ‘The Humanities Between Constructivism and Biologism’ will “explore the options for a coherent conception of Man as neither a mere biological species, nor a mere social construction. It is a conception of Man as both a producer and a product of history and culture, and thus as a shaper of himself”.

Not an entirely new or radical conception, I guess, but it deserves being repeated as an antidote to the two usual reductionisms (and I should remind the organisers that some women also feel they should be included in this coherent conception :-):

Humanistic studies as traditionally conducted are currently under pressure from two sides within academia itself: On one side, by a constructivist stance, which declares man to be a social construction. This robs the humanities of the natural focal point of their activities, the study of Man, and leaves them as an odd motley of disciplines with no unity and no shared vision. From the opposite side, the humanities are under pressure from evolutionary biology, which has no reservations about accepting the existence of such a thing as Man, who after all is a natural, biological species among others. In combination with affiliated approaches within neurophysiology and cognitive science, evolutionary psychology purports to explain every aspect of man’s behavior as a result of his genetic inheritance, as manifested in his brain and other cognitive apparatus. This leads to a heavily reductionist picture of man.

Speakers include: Ronald Schleifer (University of Oklahoma), Steve Fuller (University of Warwick), Robert Markley (University of Illinois), Nikolaj Zeuthen (University of Aarhus), Torben Kragh Grodal (University of Copenhagen), Finn Collin (University of Copenhagen), and Jan Faye (University of Copenhagen). Shall be interesting to see what position the unpredictable Steve Fuller will take on this!

No registration is needed. For complete programme and location, contact David Budtz Pedersen: davidp@hum.ku.dk

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