HOLISM, CHINESE MEDICINE AND SYSTEMS IDEOLOGIES: REWRITING THE PAST TO IMAGINE THE FUTURE

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This chapter explores the articulations that have emerged over the last half- century between various types of holism, Chinese medicine and systems biol- ogy. Given the discipline’s historical attachments to a definition of ‘medicine’ that rather narrowly refers to biomedicine as developed in Europe and the US from the eighteenth century onwards, the medical humanities are not the most obvious starting point for such an inquiry. At the same time, they do offer one advantage over neighbouring disciplines like medical history, anthropology or science and technol- ogy studies for someone like myself, a clinician as well as a historian and anthropologist: their strong commitment to the objective of facilitating better medical practice. This promise furthermore links to the wider project of critique, which, in Max Horkheimer’s definition of the term, aims at change and emancipation in order ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’. If we take the critical medical humanities as explicitly affirming this shared objective and respon- sibility, extending the discipline’s traditional gaze is not a burden but becomes, in fact, an obligation.

With that in mind, this chapter seeks to accomplish three inter-related goals. It is first an inquiry into the historical processes whereby Chinese medicine, holism and systems biology have come to be entangled with each other in the present. The term holism is not originally Chinese and was only applied to Chinese medicine from the 1950s onward. Whether or not systems biology, the computational and mathematical modelling of complex biological systems, is holistic, as some of its proponents claim, also remains a contested issue. Holism clearly means different things to different people. Yet, in the early twenty-first century, those engaged in constructing an interface between Chinese medicine and systems biology widely agree that their project not only honours the holistic foundations of their respective traditions, but also is, in fact, driven by this shared commitment to holism and the development of a scientifically based personalised medicine. This raises the question of how this consensus was achieved and what it denotes.

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