Medicine and tradition
Does medicine treat patients or combat illness? Are patients completely autonomous individuals or do they form part of a natural, social and cosmic environment? Is illness caused simply by the intrusion into the body of an outside agent -a virus or a demon?- or is it the sign of an imbalance, a disrupted harmony which the body tries to rectify, where necessary with medical assistance? What role should be played in treatment by knowledge that can be acquired, codified and taught, as opposed to hands-on experience arising from direct contact between practitioner and patient?
These are some of the many questions raised in the presentissue. Our contributors, who come from different cultural backgrounds, do not claim to offer hard and fast answers. Instead they put these issues in the different-sometimes very differentperspectives of their respective traditions and doctrines, composing a panoramic picture of medical practice in which knowledge and faith, the culture of the community and personal contact, can sometimes go hand in hand.
Until recently, the approach of modern Western medicine has been radically different from that of all other cultures. The Western art of healing is based on a body of scientific knowledge which views the human body's organs, functions and ailments as phenomena governed by physical, physiological and genetic laws and therefore independent of cultural and local contexts. In the Western tradition treatment means using knowledge of these laws, often backed by sophisticated techniques, to neutralize ailments. Things are starting to change, however, and it is increasingly recognized that other forms of medicine have something to offer or at least that certain questions must be asked.
Nobody would dream of denying the beneficial effectsin some cases immense of modern medicine. But the excesses to which it can and sometimes does lead are equally plain to see. Is there nota risk of dehumanization inherent in mobilizing a battery of technical resources on patients while disregarding their mental outlook, their culture, their psychological, moral and spiritual resources, their dignity and willpower, their emotional environment and their attitudes to life and death?
Perhaps so-called traditional forms of medicine still have much to teach us...