Pharmakon (philosophy)

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The chemical structure of Morphine
Morphine is an example of the idea of Pharmakon

Pharmakon, in philosophy and critical theory, is a composite of three meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat.[1] The first and second senses refer to the everyday meaning of pharmacology (and to its sub-field, toxicology), deriving from the Greek source term φάρμακον (phármakon), denoting any drug, while the third sense refers to the pharmakos ritual of human sacrifice. A further sub-sense of pharmakon as remedy which is of interest to some current authors is given by the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek–English Lexicon as "a means of producing something".[2]

In recent philosophical work, the term centers on Jacques Derrida's "Plato's Pharmacy",[3] and the notion that writing is a pharmakon. Whereas a straightforward view on Plato's treatment of writing (in Phaedrus) suggests that writing is to be rejected as strictly poisonous to the ability to think for oneself in dialogue with others (i.e. to anamnesis), Bernard Stiegler argues that "the hypomnesic appears as that which constitutes the condition of the anamnesic"[4]—in other words, externalised time-bound communication is necessary for original creative thought, in part because it is the primordial support of culture.[5]

Michael Rinella has written a book-length review of the pharmakon within a historical context, with an emphasis on the relationship between pharmakoi in the standard drug sense and the philosophical understanding of the term.[6]

Adrian Mróz, a Polish-American philosopher and musician, analyses its application to art and argues that pharmakon is any physical, mental, or behavioral object[7] which can cut (techne). In other words, pharmaka are agential and responsible for changes in consciousness.[8]

Connections to other philosophical terms[edit]

Derrida uses pharmakon to highlight the connection between its traditional meaning and the philosophical notion of indeterminacy:

"[T]ranslational or philosophical efforts to favor or purge a particular signification of pharmakon [and to identify it as either "cure" or "poison"] actually do interpretive violence to what would otherwise remain undecidable."[9]

However, with reference to the fourth "productive" sense of pharmakon, Kakoliris argues (in contrast to the rendition given by Derrida) that the contention between Theuth and the king in Plato's Phaedrus is not about whether the pharmakon of writing is a remedy or a poison, but rather, the less binary question: whether it is productive of memory or remembrance.[10][fn 1] Indeterminacy and ambiguity are not, on this view, fundamental features of the pharmakon, but rather, of Derrida's deconstructive reading.

In certain cases it may be appropriate to see a pharmakon as an example of anthropotechnics in Sloterdijk's sense of the term – part a "project of treating human nature as an object of deliberate manipulation."[12] This is consistent with the way in which Plato's "noble lie" is understood by Carl Page – namely, as a pharmakon, with the philosopher in the role of moral physician.[13][14] Relatedly, pharmakon has been theorised in connection with a broader philosophy of technology, biotechnology, immunology, enhancement, and addiction.[15][16][17][18]

Further illustrative examples[edit]

Gregory Bateson points out that an important part of the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy is to understand that alcohol plays a curative role for the alcoholic who has not yet begun to dry out.[1] This is not simply a matter of providing an anesthetic, but a means for the alcoholic of "escaping from his own insane premises, which are continually reinforced by the surrounding society."[19] A more benign example is Donald Winnicott's concept of a "transitional object" (such as a teddy bear) that links and attaches child and mother. Even so, the mother must eventually teach the child to detach from this object, lest the child become overly dependent upon it.[20] Stiegler claims that the transitional object is "the origin of works of art and, more generally, of the life of the mind."[20]: 3 

Example usage[edit]

In political theory[edit]

Emphasizing the third sense of pharmakon as scapegoat, but touching on the other senses, Boucher and Roussel treat Quebec as a pharmakon in light of the discourse surrounding the Barbara Kay controversy and the Quebec sovereignty movement:

"Pharmakon was usually a symbolic scapegoat invested with the sum of the corruption of a community. Seen as a poison, it was subsequently excluded from a community in times of crisis as a form of social catharsis, thus becoming a remedy for the city. We argue that, in many ways, Quebec can be both a poison and a remedy in terms of Canadian foreign policy."[21]

In medical philosophy[edit]

Persson uses the several senses of pharmakon to "pursue a kind of phenomenology of drugs as embodied processes, an approach that foregrounds the productive potential of medicines; their capacity to reconfigure bodies and diseases in multiple, unpredictable ways."[22] Highlighting the notion (from Derrida) that the effect of the pharmakon is contextual rather than causal, Persson's basic claim – with reference to the body-shape-changing lipodystrophy experienced by some HIV patients taking anti-retroviral therapy – is that:

"the ambivalent quality of pharmakon is more than purely a matter of ‘wrong drug, wrong dose, wrong route of administration, wrong patient’. Drugs, as is the case with anti-retroviral therapy, have the capacity to be beneficial and detrimental to the same person at the same time."[22]

In media philosophy[edit]

It may be necessary to distinguish between "pharmacology" that operates in the multiple senses in which that term is understood here, and a further therapeutic response to the (effect of) the pharmakon in question. Referring to the hypothesis that the use of digital technology – understood as a pharmakon of attention – is correlated with "Attention Deficit Disorder", Stiegler wonders to what degree digital relational technologies can "give birth to new attentional forms".[5] David Foster Wallace alludes to the idea of a pharmakon in televised celebrity:

The self-conscious appearance of unself-consciousness is the grand illusion behind TV's mirror-hall of illusions; and, for us, the Audience, it is both medicine and poison.[23]

In post-metaphysical philosophy[edit]

The following quote from Gianni Vattimo serves as an epigraph for Santiago Zabla's remarks on the "pharmakons of onto-theology". To continue the theme above on a therapeutic response: Viattimo compares interpretation to a virus; in his essay responding to this quote, Zabala says that the virus is onto-theology, and that interpretation is the "most appropriate pharmakon of onto-theology."[24]

[O]ne cannot talk with impunity of interpretation; interpretation is like a virus or even a pharmakon that affects everything it comes into contact with. On the one hand, it reduces all reality to message – erasing the distinction between Natur and Geisteswissenschaften, since even the so-called "hard" sciences verify and falsify their statements only within paradigms or pre-understandings. If "facts" thus appear to be nothing but interpretations, interpretation, on the other hand, presents itself as (the) fact: hermeneutics is not a philosophy but the enunciation of historical existence itself in the age of the end of metaphysics[.][25]

Zabala further remarks: "I believe that finding a pharmakon can be functionally understood as the goal that many post-metaphysical philosophers have given themselves since Heidegger, after whom philosophy has become a matter of therapy rather than discovery[.]"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence", in the Jowett translation of Phaedrus on Wikisource; "οὔκουν μνήμης ἀλλὰ ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον ηὗρες" in the 1903 Greek edition.[11]


  1. ^ a b Pharmakon (pharmacologie)
  2. ^ φάρμακον in the online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek–English Lexicon
  3. ^ Derrida, Jacques (1981), "Plato's Pharmacy" In: Dissemination, translated by Barbara Johnson, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 63–171
  4. ^ Stiegler, Bernard (2010). What makes life worth living: On pharmacology. Cambridge, UK: Polity. p. 19. ISBN 9780745662718.
  5. ^ a b Stiegler, Bernard (2012). "Relational ecology and the digital pharmakon". Culture Machine. 13: 1–19.
  6. ^ Rinella, Michael A (2010). Pharmakon: Plato, drug culture, and identity in ancient Athens. Lexington Books.
  7. ^ Bianchini, Samuel; Quinz, Emanuele (2016). Behavioral Objects. Sternberg Press.
  8. ^ Mróz, Adrian (2020). "Behaving, Mattering, and Habits Called Aesthetics. Part 2: Theoretical Cays of Phenomenologically Making-Sense". The Polish Journal of Aesthetics. 57: 88. doi:10.19205/57.20.4.
  9. ^ Stiegler, Bernard (2011). "Distrust and the Pharmacology of Transformational Technologies". Quantum Engagements: 28.
  10. ^ Kakoliris, Gerasimos (2014). "The "Undecidable" Pharmakon: Derrida's Reading of Plato's Phaedrus". In Hopkins, Burt; Drummond, John (eds.). The new yearbook for phenomenology and phenomenological philosophy. Vol. 13. Routledge.
  11. ^ Plato, Phaedrus 275a, Platonis Opera, ed. John Burnet. Oxford University Press. 1903.
  12. ^ Rée, Jonathan (2012). Book review: You must change your life by Peter Sloterdijk,
  13. ^ Page, Carl (1991). "The Truth about Lies in Plato's Republic". Ancient Philosophy. 11 (1): 1–33. doi:10.5840/ancientphil199111132.
  14. ^ Rinella, Michael A (2007). "Revisiting the Pharmacy: Plato, Derrida, and the Morality of Political Deceit". Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought. Brill. 24 (1): 134–153. doi:10.1163/20512996-90000111.
  15. ^ Alexander Gerner, Philosophy of Human Technology,
  16. ^ Staikou, Elina (2014). "Putting in the Graft: Philosophy and Immunology". Derrida Today. Edinburgh University Press. 7 (2): 155–179. doi:10.3366/drt.2014.0087.
  17. ^ Alexander Gerner, Enhancement as Deviation
  18. ^ Meyers, Todd (2014). "Promise and Deceit: Pharmakos, Drug Replacement Therapy, and the Perils of Experience". Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Springer. 38 (2): 182–196. doi:10.1007/s11013-014-9376-9. PMID 24788959.
  19. ^ Bateson, Gregory (1978). Steps to an ecology of mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc. p. 317. ISBN 978-0-87668-950-9.
  20. ^ a b Stiegler, Bernard (2010). What makes life worth living: On pharmacology. Cambridge, UK: Polity. ISBN 9780745662718.: 1–3 
  21. ^ Boucher, Jean-Christophe; Roussel, Stéphane (2007). "From Afghanistan to "Quebecistan": Quebec as the Pharmakon of Canadian foreign and defence policy". In Daudelin, Jean; Daniel, Schwanen (eds.). Canada Among Nations, 2007: What Room for Manoeuvre?. McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 130. ISBN 9780773533967. JSTOR j.ctt80kb6.
  22. ^ a b Persson, Asha (2004). "Incorporating Pharmakon: HIV, Medicine, and Body Shape Change". Body & Society. Sage Publications. 10 (4): 45–67. doi:10.1177/1357034X04047855.
  23. ^ Wallace, David Foster (1993). "E unibus pluram: Television and US fiction". Review of Contemporary Fiction. 13: 151.
  24. ^ Zabala, Santiago (2007). "Pharmakons of Onto-Theology". In Zabala, Santiago (ed.). Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo. McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 231. ISBN 9780773531437.
  25. ^ Vattimo, Gianni (2005). "The Age of Interpretation". In Rorty, Richard; Vattimo, Gianni; Zabala, Santiago (eds.). The future of religion. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231509107.