In this OUC-WEH Joint Seminar, Russell Powell explores the concept of 'disease'
Despite several decades of debate, the concept of disease remains hotly contested. The debate is typically cast as one between naturalism and normativism, with a hybrid view that combines elements of each staked out in between. In light of a number of widely discussed problems with existing accounts, some theorists argue that the concept of disease is beyond repair and thus recommend eliminating it in a wide range of practical medical contexts. Any attempt to reframe the ‘disease’ discussion should not only answer the more basic skeptical challenge, but it should also include a meta-methodological critique guided by our pragmatic expectations of what the disease concept ought to do given that medical diagnosis is woven into a complex network of healthcare institutions. In this paper, I attempt such a reframing, arguing that while prevailing accounts do not suffer from the particular defects that prominent critics have identified, they do suffer from other deficits—and this leads me to propose an amended hybrid view that not only places objectivist approaches to disease on stronger theoretical footing, but also satisfies the institutional-ethical desiderata of a concept of disease in human medicine. Nevertheless, I do not advocate a procrustean approach to “disease.” Instead, I recommend disease concept pluralism between medical and biological sciences in order to allow the concept to serve the different epistemic and institutional goals of these respective disciplines.