Modes of understanding and mindfulness in clinical medicine

Beginning with a case vignette, this paper uses a semiotic approach to analyze several different kinds of understanding used in clinical medicine. By outlining semiotic structures, four distinct modes of understanding can be defined: (1) the representational mode, corresponding to scientific medicine; (2) the pragmatic mode, constituting the basic standpoint of medicine; (3) the hermeneutic mode, underlying the empathic, humanistic spirit of medicine; and (4) the ontologic mode, associated with both the ethical and ritual aspects of medicine. Clarifying the relationship between these modes avoids common confusions in clinical situations. Although experienced clinicians intuitively use these different modes, they do not necessarily reflect upon them. They are instead mindful of them, and this unique multi-modal consciousness, I suggest, provides a model for integrating theory and practice.
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