doctrine of signatures

usually i just delete email forwards, but today grace's mom sent me an interesting one outlining how the medicinal use of different foods can be determined by their shape and similarity to parts of the human body. naturally, i was more than skeptical, but noticed at the bottom of the email a line about the "doctrine of signatures".

looking it up, i found that in the middle ages most people believed that the use of certain plants and herbs could be determined by the careful study of their growing location and physical characteristics, the idea obviously complemented by their faith- a divine god leaves a road-map for use within the thing itself. for example, plants bearing a dark red color must be used for treating blood diseases, plants with yellow flowers for jaundice, etc. this is mildly interesting, although i'm sure the email stretched the truth a little far, claiming things such as "a tomato has four chambers and is red. the heart is red and has four chambers. all of the research shows tomatoes are indeed pure heart and blood food.", which is most likely a case of some facts fitting the theory.

nowadays, we pay very little attention to these sorts of resemblances, mostly thinking them old wives tales. barring the question of their veracity, an interesting point is raised by foucault in the wikipedia article noting that believing in a doctrine of signatures allowed people to organize the symbols in the world around them and extract useful knowledge. actually, we still do this everyday, although with a much more complex set of symbols, and much of modern design is built around the idea that the purpose of the object should be embedded into the form. implicitly the doctrine of signatures has resonated through our cultural conciousness, and we're imitating the same methods in order to be understood.

full text of email

doctrine of signatures
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