poster image by Christoph Geiger

poster image by Christoph Geiger

In Graeco-Roman medicine and its cultural context localisation has always been one of the key modalities, if not the central modality by which we read ancient accounts of human fundamental bodily experiences such as pathology, emotions and mental alteration. The firm identification of a locus affectus, an organ (or a set of organs) involved, or a suffering area of the body is indeed very visible in medical discussions of diseases and disorders, whether strictly physiological or also mental, as well as poetic representations of biological or mental experiences. The debate about the bodily seat of the soul and the development of anatomo-pathology in history of science has received attention, in modern history but also with reference to the medicines of the ancient world.

The complementary question, however, has not received as much attention: the alternative modality, that of de-localisation and more generally of an attention to human experiences of the body as diffuse, dynamic and explicitly disjointed from a firm location has received instead much less attention.

A forthcoming conference in London (11-12 September 2017I aims to redress this balance, by focussing on the following questions:

- What are the prominent examples of disputes on localisation in ancient science? What epistemological purposes are served by these disputes, aside from the advocacy of different medical doctrines?

- How did the ancient physicians explicitly engage with, and challenge questions of localisation, and why?

- What alternative ‘de-localising’ models were proposed? (e.g., bodily fluids and circulation models; the transit of substances in and out of the body through bodily vessels and channels; models of sympatheia between organs or areas of the body; attention to signs and symptoms affecting the body as a whole; and so on)

- What contributions can poetic representations give to this topic? In which way do representations of mental life and the emotions in epic, tragedy, lyric poetry - for example - compare to the localised model that appears dominant?

- Conversely, to what extent do medical authors refer to, criticise, adopt or distort poetic images of holism to make their theories conspicuous?

- Are there ancient roots, ancestors, or precursors of modern (medical and folk) concepts such as the ‘systemic’ level of bodily functioning, or the living animal as ‘organism’? Or are these completely anachronistic associations?

- Relatedly: what are the contemporary uses (and abuses) of ancient medical traditions in the elaboration of folk bio-medical systems and ‘holistic’ therapeutical ideals? Obvious examples of relevant material can be found as early as the Hippocratics. The famous image of the circle is used by the Hippocratic author of the treatise Places in Man, for instance, pointing precisely at a diffuse conceptualisation of vitality; some later medical schools are especially suitable to this enquiry, notably the Methodist and their challenge to the dogmatic search for precise localised causes of disease; waves of localisation and delocalisation, more broadly, characterise much of the discussion on mental disorder through the history of ancient medicine.