Diagnosing Bodies in a Messy Reality: an ethnographic philosophy of scientific taxonomy, medical practices and epistemic iteration

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Helene Scott-Fordsmand


University of Cambridge


DKK 700,000




Internationalisation Fellowships


It's just a box that we made up, and then a lot of things fit into it - a surgeon once told me, in a surprisingly relaxed tone, explaining a diagnostic category called impingement syndrome. The project focuses on the intersection between patient bodies and diagnostic categories. Refusing the classical dichotomy between the messy 'personal' aspect of medicine (represented by the patient) and the tidy 'scientific' taxonomy of disease (represented by diagnostic categories), I aim to unfold complexities of the diagnostic process. The project revolves around an empirically grounded conceptual analysis of the ways that concrete bodies and abstract categories become part of the epistemic practice in medicine. Doing so, it will provide important insights into medical knowledge and practice.


The concept of diagnosis is a central component of medicine: a diagnosis fills the knowledge gap between the occurrence of a suffering patient and the need for targeted points of intervention. Previous philosophical work on diagnosis has largely concerned itself with methodological issues on how to arrive at the 'right' diagnoses (e.g., induction or probabilistic reasoning?), but overlooks the extent to which diagnostic categories are plastic. Concrete patient bodies might never fit pre-set categories, and diagnoses may be asserted or made for pragmatic reasons. To properly understand what a diagnostic category is, and how diagnostic processes unfold, there is thus a need for asking more exploratively about how diagnostic categories are used, and what it means for them to be 'right'.


The project's interests are conceptual, and the overarching approach is philosophical. Acknowledging that the analysis of the project depends on proper acquaintance with the nuances of actual medical practice, I will, however, incorporate empirical material into my conceptual analysis. I will do so, using 'ethnographic philosophy': a method which works by bringing a philosophical concept - in this case, that of 'epistemic iteration' - into a concrete empirical context - medical practice - and then lets the nuances of this context resist the philosophical notion: providing occasions for conceptual development and philosophical insight. Specifically, I will work with concepts from philosophy of medicine and philosophy of science and conduct fieldwork at an orthopaedic surgery department.

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