Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 May 2011
The concept of knowing is fundamental to the way we conceptualize the world around us – and to the way we discuss it. Being aware of what we know and do not know shapes our social and cultural landscape, situates us in relation to our neighbours, and, to paraphrase Francis Bacon's famous aphorism, either gives us power or deprives us of it. Unsurprisingly, the nature and properties of knowledge and knowing have been a commonplace throughout much of Western philosophy, playing a key role in both philosophy and theology since antiquity. In the sciences, the pursuit of new knowledge has been a central feature since the early modern period.
In medicine, perhaps more than in any other field, the traditional understanding of knowledge has consisted of two complementary properties: episteme, theoretical knowledge, and techne, knowledge associated with skill and practical ability. Medical practitioners have always acknowledged the need for both, but the understanding of how the two best relate to one another has been a point of great contention. During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the divide between theory and practice formed one basis for defining the relative roles of medical practitioners (see, for example, Siraisi 1990; Getz 1998; and French 2003). In this framework, university-trained physicians represented the epistemic side of medical knowledge, drawing on Aristotelian natural philosophy to understand the complicated theories of humoral balance that explained most ailments.