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Doctrine of Signatures

Posted by novice_2009 zone 6b (My Page) on
Thu, Jul 2, 09 at 19:57

Before weighing in on this, do a little research. Native Americans were using this method long before their unfortunate contact with Europeans. This philosphy goes back as far as the early 16th century. Remember, also, that some names given to plants and herbs have stuck, as they are still used for that part of the body.
So, Doctrine of Signatures- is there some truth there?


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

The doctrine is best regarded as an interesting part of herbal lore for historical purposes. Those people today who are into the belief that "God put herbs here to serve our purposes" will still find it relevant.

"The doctrine of signatures is recognized by scientists as superstition. Because the links are not causal, any links are purely coincidental and can be disregarded. There is no evidence that plant signatures helped in discovery of medical uses of the plants. The signatures are described as post hoc attributions and mnemonics. [3]

Others point out that there may, in some cases, be rational explanations for the apparent success of the doctrine of signatures in predicting the medical properties of certain plants. For example, a thorny plant may be likely to have immune-boosting compounds as well, because both relate to the environment in which the plant grows, i.e., one in which there are many microbial and animal threats and where the plant needs both forms of protection to survive."

Here is a link that might be useful: Doctrine of Signatures


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

I thought you might find this interesting! Instead of quoting sources, do a little research, and tell me your opinion. What do you think about it?


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

"There are more things in heaven and earth,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

I don't think everything can be explained by science, so my answer is "could be".


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

"As above, so below;
The superior rests on the inferior."
Attributed to archaic scientific thought & apparently believed by several founding fathers of the USA. (A sign of their concepts appears on the one dollar bank note, with an eye shining over a pyramid in the "great seal.")
Happy 4th of July, 2009 to the US of A.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

That eye and pyramid on the dollar bill have been the source of endless fodder for conspiracy theorists. ;)

I mentioned what I thought about the "doctrine of signatures" in the first two lines of my previous post. I find it interesting to look at a Pulmonaria leaf and wonder why the ancients thought that it resembled a human lung (I've seen plenty of actual lungs, and any resemblance is fanciful at best). But I'm not about to make decisions on using herbs based on a 16th century source thinking that the plant resembled part of the human body, any more than I'd trust in bloodletting, alchemy or other superstitions of the time.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

As a cultural device to help associate plants with uses, it makes sense. If a plant sorta looks like the heart or liver, and it is used for those organs, why not develop something that reinforces the link based on shape? It is similar to the constellations in the sky - Orion and the Big Dipper exist to facilitate pattern recognition. No bears in space - or if there are, no particular reason to look in the constellations of Ursula.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

On the other hand, we don't depend on the position of Orion or the Big Dipper for anything as important as our health, so that analogy doesn't quite make it.

The Doctrine of Signatures, like much of early primitive medicine, developed out of post hoc reasoning. If someone was sick and got better after eating a certain plant, why then the plant must have been responsible for his improvement! (especially if the person was influential or had a good publicist). For these folks, correlation was proof of causation, never mind any kind of systematic search for the truth. And if to someone's fanciful way of thinking the plant resembled a human organ, well that must be proof too! (one wonders how often this resemblance was concocted after the fact).

Even modern-day alt med advocates have trouble buying the Doctrine of Signatures. These folks for instance have an interesting takedown of the Doctrine, despite their own problems overhyping the effects of certain vegetables, fruits and nuts.

I'm sure one response to all this is to say that well, these foods are good for you, so why can't we overlook the exaggerated and false statements made about them? The answer to that is while good nutrition is important, it's not the only factor in maintaining health and treating disease. Trusting in all those wild claims can have a major downside.

I doubt one would be able to find any respected modern scientific herbalists who urge us to base our use of herbs on how the ancients believed they resembled human organs.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

>> so that analogy doesn't quite make it.

Always the contrarian. Your snippet from wikipedia acknowledged the possible mnemonic value of the system. Yes, if taken literally, the doctrine of signatures is a post-hoc fallacy. But not everyone takes it literally.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

A memory aid to tell us what goes with what is only useful if there's a rational basis to it, which as you indicate there isn't. The section of the Wikipedia article I quoted does not state that scientists think the Doctrine of Signatures makes sense as a mnemonic device - only that it has been used for that purpose.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

>> A memory aid to tell us what goes with what is only useful if there's a rational basis to it, which as you indicate there isn't.

Not at all, you don't get it ... once a plant acquires a reputation as being beneficial for the liver or lungs, if it kinda looks like the liver or lungs, it makes sense to call it a liverwort or lungwort as a mnemonic. If a plant used for the liver doesn't resemble the liver, oh well, call it something else and ignored the doctrine of signatures.

St. John's Wort provides another example of this - William Coles wrote "The little holes whereof the leaves of Saint Johns wort are full, doe resemble all the pores of the skin and therefore it is profitable for all hurts and wounds that can happen thereunto." At the time that Coles said this, SJW had been used for many centuries for treating the skin - the skin metaphor was used to link the patterns seen on the leaves (useful for proper identification) with the fact that it was used for skin conditions, and usually applied as a balm or liniment.

That type of mnemonic doesn't have to prove itself at the 0.05 level to be useful - if the wife says to pick up a few things at the store on the way home, thinking of an egg broken on the head can help remember that item on the list. It doesn't matter if the image of broken eggs on my crown is irrational or even false ... the mental picture is still useful.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

eric, actually astronomers use ursa major(big bear) and orion(the hunter) all the time as reference as to where in the sky an object can be found. The sky is divided up into map segments that are the old constellations and are still considered as such. The sky is also divided up into minutes and hours. The 2 divisions are equal to hours and minutes and degrees as is earthly
maps. If someone tells me Alpha ursa major is on the horizon. I know exactly where to look because i know where to find Ursa Major( the big dipper) by eyesight, by binoculars, or by telescope.
What makes anyone say this is not important? you would still be in a little cave somewhere in Germany, if someone had'nt mapped out the sky and discovered that we could navigate by the stars. I thought alchemy was modern medicine.LOL
Which i am curious where did the names for body parts come from? And what do these names mean. Maybe the anatomy was named after the plants.LOL


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

..."once a plant acquires a reputation as being beneficial for the liver or lungs, if it kinda looks like the liver or lungs, it makes sense to call it a liverwort or lungwort as a mnemonic."

These days, many of us are more interested in whether the plant actually is useful for treating something, not the reputation it acquired in, say, the 1600s, when goofy beliefs about all sorts of things were prevalent. Again, the Doctrine of Signatures only makes sense if you're convinced that a Supreme Being placed plants on earth for the benefit of mankind and gave hints as to which were medically useful by making them resemble human parts.

Although you'd expect that a master creator would have done a better job horticulturally simulating human organs.

Are there any respected modern science-based herbalists who tell us to follow the Doctrine of Signatures? Somehow I doubt this. :)


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

>>Are there any respected modern science-based herbalists who tell us to follow the Doctrine of Signatures? Somehow I doubt this. :)

Yes - but not the doctrine of signatures as you mis-state it!

Bradley Bennet, an ethnobiologist at Florida International University, has a view of the doctrine that is based on actual scholarship, not on repeating old ideas of what the doctrine was or wasn't... his ideas are given more credence among herbalists than your simplistic rejection:

    The Doctrine of Signatures (DOS) is found throughout the world. Most dismiss it as a "primitive" or "prescientific" idea. Despite its long history, the doctrine has had little critical review. A careful evaluation of signatures suggests four things. (1) There is no evidence that morphological plant signatures ever led to the discovery of medicinal properties. Considering DOS in this manner is unproductive and largely untestable. (2) Signatures are post hoc attributions rather than a priori clues to the utility of medicinal plants. (3) It is productive to redefine signatures to include organoleptic properties associated with therapeutic value. Plants with strong odors or bitter tastes, for example, commonly are found in pharmacopoeias. (4) DOS should be considered for what it primarily isa way of disseminating information. DOS fundamentally is a mnemonic and, therefore, is exceedingly valuable in traditional cultures.

People who rely on finding and using plants need to know a about thousands of plants. A mnemonic system is valuable to such herbalists and hunter-gatherers. Nothing wrong with also using a taxonomic key sometimes, now that they have been invented. ... but even modern taxonomists develop heuristics, rules of thumb, and unusual analogies to help them quickly and efficiently recognize plants.

The famous Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard discussed the tendency to misunderstand and arrogantly dismiss the doctrine of signatures in "The Jew and the Jew Stone." Although he subscribed to some of the unsubstantiated beliefs about the doctrine, his approach to it is still rather different (and more useful) than yours, eric.

    "I question our usual dismissal of this older approach as absurd, mystical, or even prescientific (in any more than a purely chronological sense)...But how can we blame our forebearers for not knowing what later generations would discover? We might as well despise ourselves because our grandchildren will, no doubt, understand the world in a different way....If we dismiss such former systems as absurd because later discoveries superseded them, or as mystical in the light of causal systems revealed by these later discoveries, then we will never understand the antecedents of modern views with the same sympathy that Croll sought between weapon and wound and that Kircher proposed between human organs and healing plants."


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

That's quite a long, tortuous route to take to re-state a simple truth - the Doctrine of Signatures doesn't have value in guiding our use of herbs.

Your first link posits a "traditional cultural value" to the DOS. The second implies that we aren't respecting those "traditional values" by dismissing the DOS.

Hey, tradition is fine, as I indicated in my first post about the DOS' historical interest. But for systematically ensuring optimal health care, it's vital for any system to discard outmoded and ineffective treatments and values and encourage proven new ones. This can be difficult in mainstream medicine, of course, but the problem is substantially worse in alternative medicine where there is 1) adherence to religious and mystical explanations for phenomena, and 2) a general assumption that ancient and primitive cultures have harnessed simple, wildly effective treatments that modern man doesn't properly appreciate.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

>> That's quite a long, tortuous route to take to re-state a simple truth - the Doctrine of Signatures doesn't have value in guiding our use of herbs.

No, the doctrine can be quite valuable for storing and communicating information about herbs. If we are to discuss the caricature of the DOS you presented, then we agree that the ideas you are presenting are useless. But the utilization of the doctrines of signatures through history is quite different from how you portray it. To answer the original question that started this thread: yes, there is some truth there - but not as a representational system, not as a predictive system.


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typo correction

>> but not as a representational system, not as a predictive system.

correction: "but as a representational system, not as a predictive system."


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

Native Americans were using this method long before their unfortunate contact with Europeans.

Oh really? Which tribes, and how do you know this? Yes, this is a trick question.

I know of one plant called "bad eye" in the local Indian dialect because it is covered by tiny hairs and if you handle the plant and rub your face the hairs make your eyes itch for a few days.

However, that hasn't stopped the uneducated herbalists from claiming that the name means it's a traditional cure for eye ailments.

Another is called "old man's friend" ... leading to claims it's a longevity herb, or for improving erections. It's actually a mild laxative, and used that way by elderly people whose sedentary lifestyle leads to occasional constipation. A cup of that beats a bowl of prunes.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

lazygardens, It's nice to know there is an intelligent person here who can talk everday english. and can know something that is'nt fed to them from only a certain type of book. IS'NT THAT REFERRED TO AS A CLOSED MIND. LOL
Does anyone know what language body part names come from and how they came about? Apparently the know it alls don't know.


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RE: Doctrine of Signatures

Luckygal, why are you misquoting Shakespeare at us? Science is very open ended to the existence of other things, so it is unlikely that that applies, if you take the time to read Hamlet perhaps you will have a better understanding of that line, and perhaps be less quick to quote it.

Others, I think that the docterine of signatures is most often reported as "plants look like what they heal" rather than "these hundred some odd plants heal these hundred some odd ailments, you can remember because that is what they look like", it makes no sense to call the second a doctrine, and omnibus perhaps.

Lazygardens, I like that counterexample

Goshen, Capslock is not our friend, I would also encourage you to look more indepth into the concept of an Opewn mind


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