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Pierre Jean Cabanis (1757-1808)

Pierre Jean Cabanis was the best-known philosopher of the medical revolution that is associated with France in the late 1700s. Cabanis was a ‘sensualist’. That is, he followed the Enlightenment philosophers Condillac and John Locke in theorising that the impressions received by the senses were the building blocks of all knowledge. Cabanis applied these ideas to the reform of hospitals and medical education.

To the sensualist, observation was at the centre of medicine. This tradition extends back to Hippocrates, who is said to have invented the true method of observation. Cabanis and his contemporaries, not surprisingly, spoke of ‘picturing’ disease and, in their time, illustrated medical books, not surprisingly, became more common. The instruction of young physicians, however, did not come from books alone. According to Cabanis, learning was undertaken at the bedside. As a result, he promoted clinical schools of medicine as had already been introduced at French military hospitals.

Despite his revolutionary approach to medicine, Cabanis did not always appreciate what science had to offer. He was frequently critical of the relationship between chemistry, physics and medicine. He even went so far as to doubt the use of William Harvey’s discovery of circulation to medicine. Ultimately, however, his sceptical approach to medical knowledge would overturn his errors. In the same way, the French Revolution, which originally sought to abolish hospitals, improved them and made them central to medicine.

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M S Staum, Cabanis: Enlightenment and Medical Philosophy in the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980)