The 124th Peking University Medical Humanities Forum: Interdisciplinarity and the Health Humanities

Lecture Information:

Time: March 8, 2024 (Friday) 10:00-12:00

Venue: Room 716, Yifu Teaching Building

Speaker:  Professor Ronald Schleifer (University of Oklahoma)

Moderator: Associate Professor Huang Rong (School of Health Humanities, Peking University)

Lecture Title: Interdisciplinarity and the Health Humanities: Inferential Thinking in the Human Sciences and in the Clinic


This talk by Professor Ronald Schleifer grows out of his work, Literature and Medicine (written with Jerry Vannatta, MD [2019]) and Literary Studies and Well-Being: Structures of Experience in the Worldly Work of Literature and Healthcare [2023], which is an open-access book available from Bloomsbury). In this presentation, Schleifer examines what he and Dr. Vannatta call “the complexity of clinical medicine” in dialogue with video testimonials from Dr. John Stone (cardiology), Dr. Abraham Verghese (internal medicine), and Dr. Rita Charon (internal medicine), and Dr. Vannatta himself; and then, following the work of the nineteenth-century philosopher, logician, and polymath, Charles Sanders Peirce, he examines the relationship between health and a sense of wholeness. Peirce argues that deduction and induction, two forms of inferential thinking, focus, respectively, on abstract “definitional” facts and empirical matters-of-fact, while a third form of inference, which Peirce calls “abduction” or “hypothesis formation,” deals not with facts but with qualities.  Strategies to recognize and respond to qualities in our thinking, Schleifer suggests, help us to apprehend wholeness in our clients and our work as doctors and teachers. Induction, he argues, classifies, while hypothesis explains. The distinction between classification and explanation can help us understand – and teach – medical diagnosis in a systematic fashion. The framework for the presentation is the nature of intellectual disciplines – the predictability inherent in the nomological (“law like”) sciences (e.g., mathematical physics and chemistry), the classification inherent in the social sciences (e.g., sociology or epidemiology), and the qualitative explanation inherent in the human sciences (e.g., the humanities). All three of these disciplinary approaches to the world are necessary for the complexity of clinical medicine, and together – Schleifer argues – they realize “practical reasoning” in the clinic (“practical reasoning” is a translation of Aristotle’s classical conception of phronesis). In so doing, the presentation examines the ways in which inferential thinking in the clinic engages “law-like” knowledge, social understanding, and emotion and empathy.