Lecture by PD Dr. med. Walter Bruchhausen (RWTH Aachen) – Erklären und Verstehen fremder Medizin: Klassifikation von Heilkunde zwischen Szientismus und Kulturalismus

A report by Valeria Zubieta Lupo.

On the 29th of January the Research Training Group 1876 "Early Concepts of Man and Nature: Universal, Local, Borrowed" and the Interdisciplinary Working Group "Alte Medizin" invite
PD Dr. med. Walter Bruchhausen from the RWTH Aachen to give a lecture entitled "Erklären und Verstehen fremder Medizin: Klassifikation von Heilkunde zwischen Szientismus und Kulturalismus".

In his lecture, PD. Dr. Bruchhausen focused on the historical development of the view of foreign medicine. Furthermore, he analyzed aspects of medicine that brought and bring easily misunderstanding and hence misapplication or fallacious approaches. Finally, PD Dr. Bruchhausen addressed to the problem of using explanatory models in the research of foreign medicine.


Foreign medicine was and is particular challenging because it is one of the fundamental issues, which every society faces and deals with. The different approaches to battle disease is conditioned by the cultural and social context, likewise is the study of foreign medicine.

The research of foreign medical perspectives has been influenced by the central conflict between religious and scientific interpretations. This reality has also faced and faces the dualism of humanist methods and theories against a scientific dominant perspective (Fn. 1). This situation arose especially with the successes of scientifically oriented medicine, which will ask for the "scientifically provable" approach to heal and explain perception of illness, plant's effect, ritual treatment, etc. (Fn. 2). As a consequence, medicinal knowledge that was not based on these principles was depreciated, and the research was led to opposite extremes.

In the 1970, out of these problematics emerged of the Edinburgh-based school the so-called "strong programme". It proposed that all knowledge could be explained from its social condition (Fn. 3). With it, all questions about non-social activity were excluded.

Scientific heritage

The idea that ancient and foreign are almost identical, was strongly influenced during the 19th century by the so-called unilineal evolution theory or classical social evolution, which believed that Western culture was the highest point of social evolution. A general three-stage development for medicine - magic, religion, and science - was established, and further complemented by Edward Tylor with a fourth and first stage: pre animistic, before Magic (Fn. 4). The reason why this idea widespread was that doctors dominated the research of history of medicine and foreign medicine.

Later, in the first half of the 20th century, the need to understand people's customs in the colonies and the critics towards the unlineal evolution theory led to structural functionalism, which addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its elements (norms, customs, traditions and institutions). After the Second World War, structural functionalism was in rapid decline, and developed into cultural relativism, which was in part a response to Western ethnocentrism. Thus, foreign medicine was understood as part of a local context.

In 1997, Arthur Kleinman showed his skepticism about the results of working with such models and Systems (Fn. 5). In fact, Bruchhausen warned us that a responsible approach to foreign or ancient medicine should always keep both approaches in mind and should treat them as complementary perspectives. 

Topics of misuse and misunderstanding

In order to improve the own medical praxis, the western scientific society, started using different, foreign and ancient medicine as a source of new knowledge. However, a lack of knowledge about foreign or ancient medicine can easily lead to fallacious conclusions, which may result for instance in misuses and misunderstandings.

PD Dr. Bruchhausen gave some examples of how of foreign medicine is misused and misunderstood: It has been and it is used as a pharmacological reservoir. The "traditional" selection of medicinal plants has been overlooked more than once in the search of its effectiveness. The term "supernatural" has been and is still used to define medicine that is considered incomprehensible for western beliefs. Psychogenic healing effects, such as the placebo effect, are still being debated by the scientific world. 

The limited used of explanatory models

Finally, the research of foreign and ancient medicine, made by humanist scholars, should not be focusing on the evidence of effectiveness. Rather it should be an attempt of understanding and interpreting it in the best possible and objective manner.

[1] PD Dr. Bruchhausen refered in his lecture to Dilthey's distinction of the 1900.
[2] Le Dantec, F. 1911:  "La Grande Revue".
[3] Collins, H. M. 1981: "Introduction: Stages in the empirical programme of relativism". In: Social studies of science Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 3-10.
[4] Taylor, E. 1871: "Primitive Culture", London.
[5] Kleinman, A. 1997: "Writing at the Margin", Berkeley/Los Angeles/London.