Locke's Approach to Health and Healing: Between the Scientific and the Popular

  • Claire Crignon Archives Henri Poincaré, UMR 7117 Université de Lorraine
Keywords: Learned, speculative / folk medicine, natural history, indigenous knowledge, Locke, Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum


One might be tempted to view Locke’s skepticism with regards to the very nature and purpose of advances in Western medicine as one example in a long tradition of philosophical tirades against physicians, often followed by a call for self-treatment and gentle remedies. The article aims to show that this analysis corresponds to only one aspect of Locke’s views on medicine. Locke’s critique of anatomy and his doubts about what we can expect from the use of instruments such as the microscope skepticism towards emerging technical advances in medical instruments do not mean that he contested the value of health. Locke’s approach to medicine must be seen in the context of the Baconian project of a natural history of nature and diseases. Criticism of speculative philosophy, and insistence on observation and experiment are not specific to Locke’s reflections on progress in medicine. Many philosophers of this period valued the knowledge of a wide variety of people who did not have access to medical knowledge, such as North American indigeneous peoples, illiterates, artisans or women natives while highlighting the inadequacies of knowledge inherited from scholasticism. What is remarkable in Locke’s use of natural history in medicine is that he includes popular beliefs, prejudices and errors, as well as diseases and natural phenomena in the very process of description and observation.  The inquiry into the intellectual virtues required of a practitioner of the natural history method becomes an example or even a case study of the natural history method itself. It is also a way of questioning the limits of rationality in medicine and of placing the art of medicine art at the intersection of what the historian and philosopher of biomedical sciences Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) called a “scientific” approach and a “folk” approach to health.