Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.11.12

Mark J. Schiefsky, Hippocrates On Ancient Medicine. Translated with Introduction and Commentary. Studies in Ancient Medicine, 28.   Leiden:  Brill, 2005.  Pp. 415.  ISBN 90-04-13758-0.  €118.00.  

Reviewed by Chloe Balla, University of Crete (
Word count: 1293 words

The Hippocratic treatise On Ancient Medicine (VM) is an important document for the study of method in early science. Historians of philosophy have been particularly attracted to it because of its relevance to the 3rd century B.C. controversy between Empiricists and Rationalists. But, as Schiefsky's study aptly shows, an important difference separates the Hippocratic author from his Hellenistic successors, namely that, unlike the latter, the former is not concerned with the epistemological question of the origins and nature of knowledge in general, but with the question of what method can lead to useful medical knowledge. This difference also marks the distance between the Hippocratic author and Plato, whose arguments in the Gorgias have often been associated with those in VM. According to S., any attempt to place VM in relation to the context of Plato's discussion in the Gorgias is doomed to failure: the opposition between techne and empeiria, which underlies Plato's text, is completely foreign to the Hippocratic author, who, along the lines of pre-Platonic tradition, associates the accumulation of experience with techne, and opposes techne to tyche. Because the term "empiricist" in the history of philosophy presupposes an epistemological concern but also a controversy that is absent from VM, scholars have been reluctant to describe its author as an empiricist,1 and S. carefully avoids entering into this discussion in his introduction. On the other hand, "a sustained examination of the author's argument, free of presuppositions about his identity and intellectual affiliations" (p. 4), like the one S. provides, gives us insight into the kind of thinking that prevailed before Plato's Socrates launched his attack on Polus' defence of the value of experience (Gorgias 448C6-7, quoted by S. on p. 347).

The book is divided into an extended introduction, text and translation, commentary (here comments for each chapter are preceded by a useful brief reconstruction of the argument), two appendices ("VM and medical empiricism", "VM and the imprecision of medicine"), bibliography and indices. What makes the introduction particularly valuable is the fact that S. organizes it around questions that, based on the extant evidence, were important for the medical authors, as opposed to questions that modern readers have in mind when they approach VM.

The first section of his introduction, entitled "Background" deals with three such questions. In "Techne and tyche" S. argues that the author of VM and his opponents share a common conception of techne which involves an interest in diminishing tyche and draws on evidence from other Hippocratic texts to show how and to what extent different authors dealt with this opposition. Discussion of this evidence is important not only for the students of ancient medicine but also for philosophers who can use it as background for the construal of later arguments regarding the opposition between tyche and design. S.'s analysis of the concept of techne is taken up, again with valuable quotations, in the commentary section, pp. 325-27.

Section 1.2 of the Introduction deals with the difficult question of the relation between techne and akribeia. S. combines the evidence from later philosophical texts (notably the Philebus) with earlier evidence from poetry and drama, and of course from the Hippocratic texts, in order to support his view that "by the end of the fifth century BC there had been developed a widespread conception of what might be called an exact techne". S. follows up this question with evidence from later sources in his appendix on "VM and the imprecision of medicine". Most important for the development of S.'s interpretation is his section on "medicine and the 'inquiry into nature'", where he provides evidence for the impact of peri physeos historia on early medical thought. This discussion forms the basis for a crucial part of S.'s interpretation regarding the identity of the opponents of VM. Central to S.'s approach is his argument that VM does not object to the use of hypotheseis in general -- in fact, he agrees that such procedures are appropriate to the study of remote objects, such as the heavens --, but to the use of hypotheseis where direct, "inductive" observation would be more appropriate. Related to this argument is S.'s interest in early attempts at demarcation (and hence also definition) of the medical profession from other fields of inquiry, such as cosmology and philosophy. Indeed, VM contains one of the earliest attestations of the substantive philosophie; S.'s extended comment ad loc. is particularly enlightening.

In section 3 of his introduction, S. attempts to place the author in the broader intellectual context of his time. S.'s discussion of the importance of Sophistic culture accords with recent interpretations, though those who are unfamiliar with new developments in scholarship on the Sophists would probably welcome more background information and bibliography on the subject. Of particular importance here are S.'s arguments in support of his suggestion that "VM was intended for oral delivery" (p. 36), which of course raises the question of who the audience of this and also of other Hippocratic works were. As to the question of possible influence by other philosophers, S. is skeptical. He suggests a number of useful parallels, but, given the large number of possible candidates, he is reluctant to conclude that any particular author had a specific impact on our text. It therefore comes as no surprise that S. does not follow Lloyd's influential article "Who is attacked in On Ancient Medicine?",2 which suggested that Philolaus, or other Pythagoreans influenced by him, were the targets of VM's criticism. Whereas Lloyd is interested in identifying the immediate target of VM's "attack", S. uses evidence from various texts of the Hippocratic Corpus as well as from the Anonymus Londinensis to show that the author is not criticizing a specific text or thinker at all but rather a general trend or tendency in the medicine of his time (p. 56). Both approaches are legitimate, but what lends S. greater plausibility is his view that the target of the Hippocratic author is not confined to those who have spoken or written about medicine. S.'s appreciation of the oral character of the Hippocratic text leads naturally to his suggestion that graphike in chapter 20 must be rendered as "the art of writing" (instead of painting, which is adopted by both Jouanna and Festugière on the basis of the chapter's relevance to Empedocles).

S.'s reading of the text is particularly careful and subtle. His knowledge of the medical writers allows him to avoid anachronisms and to reconstruct an extremely helpful context for our understanding of the work. Thus, instead of just answering the old questions about the text (such as "who is attacked on ancient medicine?", "who is the author of the text?", or "what is the date of VM?") S. points to their limits and raises new ones which may prove stimulating for further research. The translation is elegant and at the same time close to the demanding Greek. The original text he prints is that of Jouanna, with occasional variations. I did not detect any errors in the Greek, though there were some typos in the English.

S.'s book is the first commentary of VM in English. It was preceded by two important French studies, namely the editions, with introductions and commentaries, by A.-J. Festugière (Paris, 1948) and J. Jouanna (1990, in the series of Les belles lettres). S. acknowledges his debt to both, and regards his work closest "in concerns and spirit" to the former (preface, p. x). In comparison to the earlier commentaries, S. is much more interested in placing VM in the tradition of Greek philosophy. Moreover, given how he has benefited from research subsequent to Festugière but also has made substantial new contributions of his own, one can see why this new publication will become a standard reference book in the field.


1.   See J. Cooper, "Method and science in On Ancient Medicine", in Interpretation und Argument, ed. H. Linneweber-Lammerskitten and G. Mohr, Würzburg: Königshaunsen and Neumann, 2002. Reprinted in revised and expanded form in Knowledge, Nature and the Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
2.   G.E.R. Lloyd, "Who is attacked in On Ancient Medicine?" Phronesis 8 (1963), repr. with an introduction in Methods and Problems in Greek Science, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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