History, Philosophy, and Science of Herbalism

Eye-opening - Fundamental - Essential

Explore herbal medicine's historical, philosophical, and scientific foundations, including ancient nature-based methods.
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History, Philosophy, and Science of Herbal Medicine

In this introductory class, we delve into the historical, philosophical, and scientific foundations of herbal medicine. We explore ancient methods for understanding plant uses, including observations from nature, the doctrine of signatures, and insights from dream-time or visions. These approaches engage our fundamental human faculties, such as sensory awareness, intuition, and imagination.

History, Philosophy, and Science of Herbal Medicine

This is a brief, introductory class on the origins, history, philosophy and science of herbal medicine. We will begin with the most ancient techniques for understanding plant uses: watching what animals used, the doctrine of signatures, and learning from dreamtime or visions.  These three methods involve the use of the most basic human faculties: sensory awareness of the environment, intuition, and imagination or dream.

Spiritism, Humoralism, and Energetics

Historians of science generally begin the tracing of the history of medicine with the method called “spiritism” (getting information from spirits).  When this is well-established there is often a movement towards a theory or philosophy of herbalism and the organism.  This stage is called “humoralism” since it usually involves the idea that health is based on the correct admixture of “humors” or substances (blood, bile, phlegm). The modern version of this is called “energetics” and is based more on fire and water, or heat and moisture.  This is the type of concept we find in Greek, Ayurvedic, and Chinese medicine, which are based on hot or cold, damp or dry, the four or five “elements,” etc. It is also what we find in the Native American sweat lodge or the Finnish sauna: warm the center, thin the fluids, keep open the pores of the skin, mucosa, and membranes.

Similars and Contraries

Another approach is based on a knowledge of the “essence” or basic personality/archetype/spirit of a plant and its correspondence to constitutional types, organ systems and functions, and energetics in human beings. This gave rise to the doctrine of similars (like treats like), which also arose out of the doctrine of signatures. Experience also gave rise to the doctrine of contraries (hot to cold, damp to dry, etc.) This is what we naturally do: when cold we warm, when dry we hydrate. Both approaches are correct although they are often looked upon as opposites (hard to explain!)

Holism and Reductionism

The idea of the essence grew into alchemy or the practice of looking inside of things for the spirit or the fundamental ingredient. This led to chemistry and pharmacology, also to the doctrine of reductionism that rules in science: knowledge is found in the smallest particle. But this is only half the story - and the lesser half at that. Knowledge is found in the whole, holism.

The Wisdom and License of Nature

These doctrines – the knowledge of the essence, the signature (representing the essence), cure by contrary, by similar, are founded upon the laws of Nature. This is the path of Wisdom...and more particularly, of “the Wisdom of Nature.” There is an Old, Old Path that distills the wisdom out of experience and this is called “the Way of the Turtle.” The motto of Original Turtle, who has been with us since the beginning of time, is “everything you always knew to be true is true.” Turtle represents what is true in creation. The Old, Old Path is one of the primal paths back to the spirit. When we follow the Way of the Turtle we can receive from the hand of the Living Nature the “inner medical license” and the “mantle of responsibility and authority.” Mother Nature is saying: “you are my true offspring and are obedient to my laws and I acknowledge you as a healer.” So this is the guiding principle of our school: the Wisdom of Nature.

Meanwhile, science proceeded on, without asking Nature’s permission. This led to the splitting of all things, even the atom. It also lead to the creation of medicine based on principles that we must accept and learn from – biochemistry, pharmacology – but which we must be careful to subordinate to the guiding hand of the Living Nature.

Different Kinds of Science

Science is not the sole possession of “scientists;” the knowledge indigenous to every culture in the world constitutes some kind of orderly knowledge and deserves respect and study. There are, therefore, different kinds of science, which historians have divided into: rational (logic, mathematics), empirical (experience-based), experimental (replicable), intuitive (holism, essence), visionary (imagination, dreamtime, spiritism, psychicism – Edgar Cayce), and authoritative (tradition, history, peer-review, “the authority of science,” for good or bad).


Support Materials

365pages of historical manuscripts 
(not downloadable)


5 hours of teaching

Pay Once = One Year Access

1 year to view and review content, ask questions and discuss

This is for you if you...

want to explore the roots of herbal medicine through a comprehensive study of its history, philosophy, and science.
enjoy learning a variety of perspectives and approaches in herbalism, from historical spiritism to modern energetics.
want to understand the evolution of herbal philosophies like humoralism and their relevance in various traditional medicines, including Greek, Ayurvedic, and Chinese traditions.

Upon completion, you will...

have a profound understanding of herbal philosophy and science, from the ancient humoralism to modern energetics and beyond.
have a deeper appreciation for what it took to get to the point where we can combine the best of the modalities developed and preserved over centuries.
understand the different kinds of science, from rational and empirical to experimental, intuitive, visionary, and authoritative.


Matthew Wood, MS

Matthew Wood has been a practicing herbalist for over forty years. He is an internationally known
teacher and author with more than ten books to his credit, including The Book of Herbal Wisdom, 
The Earthwise Herbals, Holistic Medicine and the Extracellular Matrix, and A Shamanic Herbal 
(July 2024). Matthew has an MSc in herbal medicine from the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine 
(accredited, U. of Wales). He lives in the Midwest.
Additional insights from Guest Instructors representing a variety of herbal history perspectives:
  • Macey Flood - Historian
  • Chris McPadden - Herbalist
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History, Philosophy, and Science of Herbalism

Pay homage by learning the origins of so much of what we study at the Matthew Wood Insititute of Herbalism.

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