- Legible Signs:Science and Medicine in Early American Culture
In “The Importance of a Theory of Signs and a Critique of Language in the Study of Medicine,” a supplementary essay appended to C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards’s 1923 The Meaning of Meaning, physician F. G. Crookshank observed: “there is to-day no longer any Science of Medicine, in the formal sense. . . . [T]here is no longer any organized or systematized corpus, or formulated Theory . . . to form an integral part of Natural Philosophy” (337). Instead, then and even more now we have a healthcare profession that consists of a congeries of technical specialties and a field, once dominated by anatomy and physiology, that has moved through microbiology to neuroscience and molecular biology. As my colleague Joel Levine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine has remarked, the “linkage between clinical observation and discovery is largely gone, replaced by a flawed assumption that basic science experiments, conceived far from the bedside, can be retrofitted into practice and improve disease outcomes.” No wonder that many people in the industrialized world seek an alternative holistic healthcare practitioner instead of a biomechanic. They don’t just want to be fixed; they want someone to help them make sense of their bodies.
It was not always so. In the seventeenth century, as classical Aristotelian and Galenic models began to crumble in the face of the New Learning, the sciences (including natural philosophy, natural history, and medicine) sought replacement paradigms, that overused term popularized by Thomas Kuhn, first in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and subsequently in revised papers [End Page 569] published as The Road since Structure (2000). We now forget that Kuhn’s groundbreaking book was not a standalone volume but part of a larger, multivolume project whose ambitious title communicates scientists’ desire for a Grand Theory: International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Kuhn showed us how to move aside the gauzy veil that idealized “pure science” and medicine, in what historian Steven Shapin has characterized by the title of his recently collected essays: Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as If It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (2010). Bodies and authority, of course, were central to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Michel Foucault’s project, initially in History of Madness (1961), later in The Birth of the Clinic (1963), subsequently giving birth to three generations of scholars in gender, sexuality, disability, and medical humanities studies, representing a kind of extended family of objects of study and methods of analysis.
De Beauvoir’s and Foucault’s grandchildren include the authors of the books reviewed here. Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (2011) reminds us that, pace our current political discourse in which science and religion are seen as genetically opposed, early-modern natural philosophy emerged from religious aspirations, and the empirical methods of science were employed as part of a transatlantic evangelical Protestant search for signs of God. Cristobal Silva’s Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative (2011) invites us to consider just how embodied were the theological debates of Puritan New England when signs of disease appeared. And directing our gaze southward, Christopher Iannini, in Fatal Revolutions: Natural History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of American Literature (2012), shows us “circumatlantic” debates about the emblematic and symbolic significance of nature in the late colonial period and the early republic (13). All culture is local, each book implies by examining the ways in which knowledge was created in specific places. All three remind us of the ways in which sciences and medicine are fundamentally semiotic enterprises reading legible signs, and these studies are also invested in the relevance of past discourses for current debates.