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Cutting Words: Polemical Dimensions of Galen's Anatomical Experiments

Luis Alejandro Salas

Galen of Pergamum (129- ca. 216 CE) often writes about the need for experimentation, peira, in epistemic medical claims (e.g., Pecc.Dig. V 68; SMT XI 459-61; Comp.Med.Gen. XIII 376; Hipp.Med XVIIb 61-2). In these contexts and others, Galen's discussion of experimentation and of his experiments regularly is part of a polemic against rival theorists, in which knowledge production is a means to an end. To what extent are the heuristic and agonistic functions of Galen's anatomical experiments separable? How does experimentation function in Galen's text? In this paper I will focus on the social function of Galen's experiments on voice production (AA II 667-96), the femoral artery (AA II 646-50, Art.Sang. IV 731-6), and the vesicoureteral valves (Nat.Fac. II 34-38). Absent formal credentialing bodies, medical authority in the Greco-Roman world was partly a function of one's success in a transactional and unregulated medical marketplace. I show how Galen's demonstrations combined second century display culture with agonistic elements already present in Greek intellectual prose to perform a licensing function for his medical practice. I argue that Galen replicates this function in and through his narrative by incorporating the reader into the documented performance of his medical demonstrations, as a hetairos and kritikos.

            Galen's experiment on voice production is often said to be his most powerful victory in the battle over the physical location of volition, a controversy intimately linked with the larger post-Hellenistic epistemological battle over the nature of medical knowledge. Galen's experiment on the femoral artery is structured so as to refute Erasistrateans claims that the coats of the artery are responsible for the movement of blood. In the broader context of Galen's anatomical program, this experiment discredits Erasistratean claims about the contents of arteries, which challenge Galen's physiological views. Finally, Galen's experiment on the vesicouretal valves in Nat.Fac. II targets contemporary Asclepiadeans but ultimately sets its sights on the incoherence of a reductive corpuscular theory, including Methodists in its area of effect.

            Experimentation is a flashpoint for Galen's criticism of his rivals: Dogmatists failed to test their theoretical claims empirically; Methodists, on account of their reductive views on the nature of disease, eschewed experiment and experience; and Empiricists while they privileged experience and direct observation, had so limited themselves theoretically that they could not test educated conjectures about illness in order to cope with unknown maladies. Many of Galen's anatomical demonstrations pose such conjectures, lay out a series of tests to confirm them and, in so doing, refute his rivals. It is easy for us to lose sight of the difficulties involved in putting many of Galen's anatomical observations to therapeutic use, given the frequency of radically invasive procedures in contemporary medical practice. What use is Galen's close observation and discussion of the formation of the embryo in an ancient context except to address the progression of organ development, a point of contention with Peripatetic philosophers? What practical purpose could a deep knowledge of cardiac and neural anatomy have served, on the whole, except to discredit cardiocentrists and put the physician's knowledge of the body on display as a means of establishing one's credentials?             Anatomical performances were a display of the practitioner's knowledge and command of the body. Even if the anatomical knowledge commanded by the performer did not have direct therapeutic application, it nonetheless showed that the performer's command over the domain in which disease was found. In the three anatomical cases I have mentioned, Galen effects a relationship with the reader through second person address, vivid anecdote, and didactic intimacy. In this sense, Galen instructs his reader not only in anatomical practice but also in professional authority. 

Session/Panel Title:

Experimentation: Querying the Body in Ancient Medicine

Session/Paper Number

85.1

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