The Focus of Biological Medicine – the Clinical Body

The focus of biological medicine is the ‘clinical body’. This clinical body is not the actual body of any individual human being – not my body or yours. Instead it is a body constituted entirely by a body of knowledge – specifically the body of knowledge accumulated in the form of medical terms and textbooks and imparted through medical and clinical training. The ‘gaze’ of the physician derives entirely from this body of medical and clinical knowledge – and is directed only at the ‘clinical body’. It is a purely clinical gaze – one which turns the body into an object of medical-scientific examination and clinical testing.

The clinical ‘objectification’ of the body through biological science and medicine totally separates the human body from the human being – both in theory and practice. It encourages patients to distance themselves from their own bodies and to see their illness itself as an impersonal object or thing – ‘something’ which is ‘wrong with me’ and which has come about – and can get ‘better’ or ‘worse’ – in a way that essentially has nothing to do with any ‘me’. Medical treatment is seen as having the power to identify and eliminate this ‘thing’ and, like mummy, to ‘make it go away’ or ‘make it better’.

The physician’s interest is also in feeling that they have this power – the power to get rid of something, make it go away or make it better. The fact is however, that the patient’s subjectively felt dis-ease, distress, discomfort or even pain is not essentially any ‘thing’ at all. It can no more be some ‘thing’ that can be found inside the patient’s body than a grief-stricken heart can be found through a cardiogram or by prising open a patient’s chest in surgery. And its meaning is nothing that can be measured.

“How does one measure grief? Obviously we cannot measure it at all. Why not? Were we to apply a method of measurement to grief, this would go against the meaning of grief and we would rule out in advance the grief as grief.”

Martin Heidegger

Indeed, the very space in which the patient’s dis-ease or discomfort, grief, pain or despair is felt is not itself a clinically observable, measurable, organic or physical space. Instead it is an invisible, non-physical space – comparable to the invisible inner space of meaning that lies behind a word. Yet no amount of ‘scientific’ knowledge, investigation or analysis of a book’s ‘body’ of paper and chemical ink marks (or of electronic pixels on a screen of text) will ever reveal ‘evidence’ of the world of meaning its words arise from, express and communicate.

Similarly, no amount of clinical knowledge of the human body’s organic structure and diseases can ever reveal ‘evidence’ even of the very existence of the human being whose body it is –let alone discern the larger life meaning of their felt dis-ease.

Through its exclusive focus on diagnosing and treating the ‘clinical body’, neither the individual’s felt body, the individual human being nor the individual world of meaning in which they live – actually have any place in biological medicine at all. Consequently, biological medicine – no matter how much treatment if gives to the clinical body – cannot actually ‘cure’ a single human being. Instead only the patient’s illness can do that – through recognition of its meaning for the patient as a human being.


For more information on the history of biomedical Medicine see Foucault, Michel The Birth of the Clinic

%d bloggers like this: