Today, we watch a play within a play. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'm on a computer bulletin
board that deals with rare books. The postings
lurch through a wild array of issues -- some
serious, some frivolous. And they throw light on an
People go at questions two ways. Some say, "Let's
think about it." Others say, "Let's go and look."
Given any question, a Platonist wants to think it
over. An Aristotelian expects to find a body of
Questions are what electronic bulletin boards are
all about. One person asks, ten people answer. As
that happens, the Platonists gravitate toward
speculation and possibilities. The Aristotelians
want clear questions and hard answers.
Someone recently posted a question about a notation
in an old book. A 16th-century author had
identified himself as a "Beyder Artzeney Doctor."
What did that mean?
Answers poured in from all over the world. People
speculated about medieval German. Did Beyder mean
"of the" or "both"? Did Artzeney mean "medicine,"
"doctor," or "art"? The smoke gradually cleared. It
meant a doctor of two kinds of medicine, but what
two kinds: surgical, homeopathic, iatrochemical?
So I printed out the whole conversation, all 32
pages. The Platonists had been in hog heaven. The
Aristotelians were understandably fed up with all
that speculation -- half of it wrong.
Now the crowning irony: The term "Beyder Artzeney
Doctor" was first used by the 16th-century
Paracelsus thought and wrote like a Platonist, but
he acted like an Aristotelian. He united the
scholastic Platonist medicine of the Church with
the empirical medicine of the barber surgeons.
His two medicines represented two wholly different
means for seeking the truth. No one liked him for
that. All through Central Europe they ran him out
of towns for his trouble.
In perfect counterpoint, the Aristotelians on the
rare book network rose up in anger. As the Beyder
Artzeney discussion wound down, they erupted. " ...
this subject has been exhausted," cried one. "How
many rare book people does it take to screw in a
German Phrase?" asked another.
So the Platonists shut up. Now they wait quietly
for the next delicious question. And it will come.
The fight will erupt again, just as it has been
doing ever since Plato and Aristotle.
But while the acrimony subsides, we remind
ourselves what the original "Doctor of Two
Medicines," Paracelsus, knew: we have to unite
contemplation with observation -- speculation with
conclusion. We're out of balance without both. It
really takes doctors of both kinds to create real
answers for our complex questions.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The electronic bulletin board is called ExLibris. It
embodies a very high level of expertise in many
things -- chemical processes to preserve leather and
to make paper, the forensics of theft and forgery,
the identification of anything ever printed, and so
The municipal physician at Augsburg made
Paracelsus's claim official when he addressed him
as "beider arznei doctor" [both kinds of medical
doctor] in an introductory letter (Debus, A.G.,
The English Paracelsians. New York:
Franklin Watts, Inc., 1965, p.43.) That was a
different spelling but the same idea. Language was
in considerable flux in those days.
For more on Paracelsus (from the Catholic
Encyclopedia), see the website
For images of Paracelsus, click
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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