‘Pharmakon’: the cure or the poison?

‘Pharmakon’: the cure or the poison?

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The ancient Greek word “pharmakon” is paradoxical and can be translated as “drug,” which means both “remedy” and “poison”.

In “Plato’s Pharmacy”, Derrida traces the meanings assigned to “pharmakon” in Plato’s dialogues: remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint. Derrida notes:

«This pharmakon, this “medicine”, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence».

Derrida points out that the problem of restricting the multiple meanings of a given word is clearly a problem of translation, for the translator must choose, as in the case of “pharmakon”, to either translate it as remedy or as a poison.

From the same root derives another word, “Pharmakos” (Greek: φαρμακος), which becomes later the term “pharmakeus”, meaning druggist, poisoner, by extension, wizard, magician or sorcerer.


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