Medical Semiotics: A Revisitation and an Exhortation

Medical Semiotics: A Revisitation and an Exhortation

Robert Colaguori (University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada) and Marcel Danesi (University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 8
DOI: 10.4018/IJSVR.2017010102


Medical semiotics, as a branch of general semiotics, has never really gained a firm foothold in either semiotics itself or medical science. Despite the fact that the discipline of semiotics traces its roots to the medical domain in the ancient world, it has been largely relegated to the margins, with several key exceptions starting with Jakob von Uexküll and more recently Thomas A. Sebeok and the biosemiotic movement. However, there is no evidence that it is a significant and growing autonomous area of research either within biosemiotics or medical practice. The purpose of this paper is to revive interest in medical semiotics examining at the historical principles that would make it highly relevant today in the global village where conceptions of disease and health are in constant flux.
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The Semeion, The Symptom, And The Syndrome

As is well known, the term semeiotics (now spelled without the “e” as semiotics)—from Greek sêmeiotikos “observant of signs”—was coined by Hippocrates to designate the study of the warning signs produced by the malfunctioning human body. Hippocrates argued that the particular physical form or manifestation that a symptom takes—which he called a semeion (“mark”)—constitutes only one of the primary clues the physician requires in order to diagnose its source. The other clues come from physician-patient discourse, which allow the practitioner to corroborate or modify the diagnosis. This makes medicine as much of an interpretive art as a biological science. The visible features of the semeion announce, so to speak, that something invisible is present in the body; the dialogue provides a means of interpreting the patient’s description in concrete terms As Hippocrates understood, people do not say or do anything accidentally. With this method he established medicine as a diagnostic “semeiotic” science based on both the detection and interpretation of bodily signs through both biomedical analysis and patient-physician dialogue.

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