Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SEP: Murphy on Concepts of Disease and Health

Dominic Murphy (now at the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney) has has an entry on Concepts of Disease and Health published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

It's an excellent survey of the issues, and it discusses some issues related to psychiatry, which is inevitable given that most of the controversial cases are to do with mental illness. He sets up the debate by making the distinction between Objectivist views and Constructivist views of disease. On this divide, Boorse is an objectivist and most other people (such as Cooper, Wakefield, and Reznek) are constructivists. I'm not a fan of the terminology: I think that it is more helpful to distinguish between those who think that the concept of disease is intrinsically value-laden and those who don't. It also lumps together people who have quite different views, but that's just about inevitable in an encyclopedia article. Murphy's article is strong in its bringing together the issue with the philosophy of biology, some discussion of the nature of functions, and the problems faced by the two sides.

On Murphy's view, the main problem faced by the Objectivists is in providing a scientific basis for the distinction between normal and abnormal. For Constructivists, the main problem is in justifying any significant distinction between medical and other forms of undesirable conditions. It seems relatively clear that it would be hard to provide any general justification for our present conception of what counts as diseases or medical condition, and if we were to make our conceptual scheme with regard to medicine more rational, we would have to redraw our existing conceptions of disease.

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