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Reconciling art and science in the era of personalised medicine: the legacy of George Canguilhem.

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BACKGROUND: Biomedicine, i.e. the application of basic sciences to medicine, has become the cornerstone for the study of etiopathogenesis and treatment of diseases. Biomedicine has enormously contributed to the progress of medicine and healthcare and has become the preferred approach to medical problems in the West. The developments in statistical inference and machine learning techniques have provided the foundation for personalised medicine where clinical management can be fully informed by biomedicine. The deployment of precision medicine may impact the autonomy and self-normativity of the patients. Understanding the relationship between biomedicine and medical practice can help navigate the benefits and challenges offered by precision medicine. METHODS: Conventional content analysis was applied to "Le Normal and le Pathologique" (Canguilhem G. The Normal and the Pathological. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1991) and further investigated with respect to its relationship with techne and precision medicine using PubMed and Google Scholar and the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to search for the following keywords singularly or in combination: "Canguilhem", "techne", "episteme", "precision medicine", "machine learning AND medicine". RESULTS: The Hippocratic concept of techne accounts for many characteristics of medical knowledge and practice. The advances of biomedicine, experimental medicine and, more recently, machine learning offer, in contrast, the model of a medicine based purely on episteme. I argue that Canguilhem medical epistemology establishes a framework where episteme and data-driven medicine is compatible with the promotion of patient's autonomy and self-normativity. CONCLUSIONS: Canguilhem's medical epistemology orders the relationship of applied medicine with experimental sciences, ethics and social sciences. It provides guidance to define the scope of medicine and the boundaries of medicalization of healthy life. Finally, it sets an agenda for a safe implementation of machine learning in medicine.


Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank the Von Hügel Institute Artificial Intelligence working group. In particular, I am grateful to Vittorio Montemaggi, Philip McCosker, Maria Burke, Gill Goulding, John Warner and Lidia Ripamonti for comments and helpful discussions. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and feedbacks.

Funder: Cancer Research UK; doi:


Epistemology (K01.468), Experimental Medicine (H01.770.644.145), Medical Philosophy (K01.752.667), Humans, Animals, Precision Medicine, Health Occupations, Biomedical Research, Health Facilities, Health Status, Lepidoptera

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Philos Ethics Humanit Med

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Springer Science and Business Media LLC