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Aisthêsis and askêsis: Inward Attentiveness and Embodiment in Galen’s Pulse-Lore

Jessica Wright

“Agathinus says indeed that the contraction of the pulse is imperceptible (ἀναίσθητον), but Herophilus argues throughout as if he perceives it (ὑπὲρ ἀισθητῆς). Truly, it is difficult, even impossible, to believe one over the other … both having trained (γεγυμνασμένων) their faculties of reason and perception (τὴν αἴσθησιν) over a long time; indeed, it seemed fair that I should first hone (ἀσκῆσαι) my sense of touch to detect (αἰσθάνεσθαι) small differences.” (Galen, Peri Diagnôseôs 1.3, Kühn 8.786-7)

Galen’s pulse experiment illustrates his preoccupation with touch. Medical theory and reason provide guidelines and signposts, but personal observation is conclusive (e.g., Mixtures 2). Here, Galen is entering into a long-standing debate between so-called Rationalists and Empiricists, and it is striking that he employs empirical observation to support the pulse theory of Herophilus, whose anatomical focus was rejected by Empiricist writers. Also striking is the subject he chooses for observation—himself. In order to understand the positions that Herophilus and Agathinus respectively represent, Galen applies himself to the sensing of his own pulse, and little by little discovers that both dilation and contraction become distinct. This quasi-epiphanic experience is not just about acquiring anatomical knowledge: self-observation, for Galen, is a process of training (γεγυμνασμένων, ἀσκῆσαι) his psychic faculties. This marks an important shift: whereas the object of medical research, like the Hippocratic patient, is typically the body of another, in this experiment Galen applies the doctor’s observation to himself.

            Kuriyama has contrasted the body, rendered eloquent by the pulse, to the opacity of the “pulseless soul.” (Kuriyama, 18). Yet, as his comparative study of pulse-lore suggests, the distinction is rarely so clear. A rapid pulse, for example can be construed as a symptom of heightened emotion. Galen’s psychophysiological model of the human gives this type of interpretation particular explanatory power. We might compare, therefore, his emphasis upon training the perceptive faculty with the language of askêsis that he employs in his philosophical text, Peri Alupêsias, ‘On the Avoidance of Grief’. This letter describes Galen’s cultivation of ἀλυπία ‘freedom from distress’, despite the loss of precious possessions in the fire of 192 CE. His method recalls the teachings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: he resolves “to train (ἀσκεῖν) my imaginative faculties (φαντασία)  for every terrible thing in order to endure it with moderation … For by following closely the quality of my condition, I accurately sense (αἰσθανομαι ἀκριβῶς) what condition I have in body and soul (κατὰ τὸ σῶμα καὶ τὴν ψυχήν).” (Peri Alupêsias 74, trans. Rothschild and Thompson 2011).

            Dual identity as philosopher-physician is fundamental to Galen’s self-presentation. In the overlapping vocabulary of aisthêsis and askêsis, he integrates the bodily semiotics of the physician with the self-scrutiny and self-care characteristic of ancient philosophy. The body of the physician, as ὁ αἰσθητής (perceiver) and αἰσθητός (perceived), is thereby positioned at the heart of medical training and the philosophical project to comprehend the embodied self.

Session/Panel Title

Aisthêsis: Sense and Sensation in Greco-Roman Medicine

Session/Paper Number

9.4

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