A new approach to defining disease

Mary Jean Walker, Wendy A. Rogers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


In this paper, we examine recent critiques of the debate about defin- ing disease, which claim that its use of conceptual analysis embeds the problematic assumption that the concept is classically struc- tured. These critiques suggest, instead, developing plural stipulative definitions. Although we substantially agree with these critiques, we resist their implication that no general definition of “disease” is possible. We offer an alternative, inductive argument that dis- ease cannot be classically defined and that the best explanation for this is that the concept is structured as a cluster. We further argue that we do not need to reject the possibility of defining the general concept “disease” to legitimate developing stipulative definitions of disease that are relative to particular purposes. A cluster definition of disease is compatible with contextually motivated definitions, which may be considered précisifications of the more general cluster concept.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)402-420
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Medicine and Philosophy
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Disease definition
  • Concept analysis

Cite this