Preeminent philosophers debate nature of disease and grief in three-day conference at UB

Release Date: June 25, 2015

Poster for the PANTC conference.
“We usually have different keynoters each year. But Boorse had so much fun at last year’s conference he invited himself back this year.”
David Hershenov, chair, Department of Philosophy
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The nation’s two most prominent philosophers of medicine will present their divergent views of health, disease and grieving as part of a three-day conference on bioethics and the philosophy of medicine to be held July 30 to Aug. 1 in Park Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus.

The third annual PANTC conference is free and open to the public, and includes complimentary servings of breakfast and lunch.

Jerome Wakefield, professor of social work at New York University and the Conceptual Foundations of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, and Christopher Boorse a professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware, will discuss their own and offer critiques of the other’s theory of disease beginning at 1:30 p.m. on July 31 as the first of two keynote presentations.

Wakefield and Boorse have a second keynote debate on grief and pathology to close the conference at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 1.

A complete schedule of the conference presentations is available at

“We usually have different keynoters each year,” said David Hershenov, chair of the UB College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Philosophy. “But Boorse had so much fun at last year’s conference he invited himself back this year.”

Boorse is a naturalist about health and disease, Hershenov says.

He defines disease (or his preferred term, pathology) broadly to include any absence of health or abnormal function that compromises survival or reproduction. His influential bio-statistical theory (BST) determines normal function based on statistical reference classes, asking what is typical for people of a specific age and gender.

Boorse’s contributions to the theory of disease are so well respected that The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy in a 2014 issue said that “philosophers of medicine must now either work within Boorse’s theory or explain why not.”

For the PANTC Conference, that task will fall to Wakefield, whose Harmful Dysfunction Analysis (HDA) argues that a disease implies dysfunction, but must also cause harm to the individual.

According to HDA, someone like Mary Mallon, history’s Typhoid Mary, did not have a disease since she was an asymptomatic carrier of the bacteria that caused typhoid fever in others.

For their second keynote on grieving, Boorse and Wakefield debate whether the grieving process is a pathology or a normal function.

Boorse sees grief as a wound, but Wakefield believes normal grief, like that which follows the death of a loved one, is a properly functioning healing mechanism, a view contrary to the American Psychiatric Association, which in 2013 controversially dropped the bereavement exclusion from depression-like symptoms that sometimes accompany grief.

That exclusion, effective in 2013, immediately pathologized thousands of people who previously did not have a disorder.

Talks from other guests over the three days begin at 10 a.m. on July 30 and include subjects on abortion, the emotion ontology and defining death for the purpose of organ procurement.

The PANTC conference is presented annually by Plato’s Academy, North Tonawanda Campus, a philosophy reading group comprised of Western New York graduate students and professors.

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