Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 169–180 | Cite as

‘The analytic–synthetic distinction and conceptual analyses of basic health concepts’

  • Halvor Nordby
Scientific Contribution


Within philosophy of medicine it has been a widespread view that there are important theoretical and practical reasons for clarifying the nature of basic health concepts like disease, illness and sickness. Many theorists have attempted to give definitions that can function as general standards, but as more and more definitions have been rejected as inadequate, pessimism about the possibility of formulating plausible definitions has become increasingly widespread. However, the belief that no definitions will succeed since no definitions have succeeded is an inductive objection, open to realist responses. The article argues that an influential argument from philosophy of language constitutes a more fundamental objection. I use disease as an example and show that this argument implies that if a common understanding of disease can be analysed into a definition, then this is a non-trivial definition. But any non-trivial analysis must be viciously circular: the analysis must presuppose that disease can be defined, but this is what the analysis is supposed to yield as a result. This means, the article concludes, that disease and other controversial health concepts do not have analyses grounded in a common language. Stipulative and contextual definitions can have local significance, but the normative roles of such definitions are at the same time limited.


conceptual analysis disease doctor–patient interaction illness normativity 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Health and Social workThe University College of LillehammerNorway
  2. 2.Department of Health Management and Health EconomicsThe University of OsloOsloNorway

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