A Remembrance by Dr. James A. Overton:
Dr. Cesare Romagnoli died last week after a long fight with cancer. He was a radiologist by vocation, a philosopher by disposition, a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy by invitation, and a good friend by innate talent. I cannot do justice to the complex person that he was and the rich life that he lived, but I want to share some part of what he shared with me.
I met Cesare in 2008, during my first year of the PhD in Philosophy at Western. We both attended a workshop on biomedical ontologies — formal terminology systems that help humans and machines communicate more clearly. He had long been dismayed by lazy thinking and writing in medicine, and wanted to see how the community of doctors, technicians, nurses, and patients could do better. Barry Smith, the philosopher running the workshop, dismissed one of Cesare’s questions as “too philosophical”, a snub that he bore proudly and repeated often. That meeting led to the most challenging and productive collaboration of my career, giving me the skills and confidence to pursue philosophy beyond the university.
Cesare studied philosophy in his native Italy, including a memorable course with Umberto Eco that introduced him to semiotics. His philosophical influences were many and diverse, from Thomas Aquinas to Annemarie Mol, but in recent years he found a kindred mind in Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce and Cesare were both eclectic, wide-ranging thinkers, seeing connections everywhere, and sometimes having difficulty convincing others of the similarities they saw. Cesare was first drawn to Peirce’s semiotics and image-based reasoning, which he applied to the interpretation of medical images. Later, he focused on Peirce’s pragmaticism and logic of abduction, seeing in them the keys to clearer thinking in medicine.
Our collaboration began by applying biomedical ontologies to prostate cancer, leading us to build a prototype of a visual, interactive structured reporting system. We thought and wrote together about the nature of “artifacts” in medical images, on philosophy and medical imaging more broadly, and on applying Peirce’s thinking to radiology. We rarely worked alone — Cesare invited anyone who showed interest to join us, and I am grateful to everyone who did. In all of our work, we strove to make a two-way connection: enriching medicine with careful thinking from philosophy, and enriching philosophy with practical applications from medicine. This made Cesare a natural fit in the newly-formed Rotman Institute.
In August, tenacious in the face of his failing health, Cesare gave his final presentation to a group of students at the Robarts Research Institute. In his characteristic style, the talk began with a quotation from Aquinas: “Veritas est adequatio rei et intellectus” (Truth is the conformity of things and intellect); continued by comparing two fictional detectives: the overly-simplistic deduction of Sherlock Holmes and the rich, holistic approach of Jules Maigret; touched on a parallel with Tycho Brahe and Kepler; and closed with an explanation of Peirce’s iterative logic of abduction, deduction, and induction. The title summed up my friend’s thinking better than anything else I can write, adapting Peirce’s courageous first principle of reason: “Never Block the Road of Inquiry”. Embrace our fallibility, but persevere; do not block the way with dogma, tradition, taboo, or complacency; never rest content with the answers that we have, but trust that every genuine question can be answered.
Cesare is survived by his wife Claudia, his four children, and a wide circle of friends, colleagues, and patients whose lives he made better.
A list of Dr. Romagnoli’s recent philosophical collaborations can be found on his Rotman Institute member page.