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Phenomenology’s contribution to health and illness

A new book on phenomenology and illness entitled Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness is now out, with a chapter by Life of Breath Principle Investigator Havi Carel and PhD student Tina Williams. The book’s editor, Professor Kevin Ahois the author of Existentialism: An IntroductionHeidegger’s Neglect of the Body, and co-author of Body Matters: A Phenomenology of Sickness, Illness, and Disease. He writes…

The new edited collection Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness, part of Rowman and Littlefield International’s New Heidegger Research series, gathers together a group of leading figures such as Havi Carel, Shaun Gallagher, Drew Leder, Matthew Ratcliffe, John Russon, Jenny Slatman, Robert Stolorow, Fredrik Svenaeus, and Kristin Zeiler who draw on the methods of existential and hermeneutic phenomenology to illuminate the lived-experience of illness. One of the primary aims of the collection is to challenge the detached and objectifying standpoint of mainstream medical science in an effort to deepen and broaden our understanding of health and illness and offer more sensitive and humane approaches to healthcare. To this end, the volume is not so concerned with the application of medical science to fix the biological body. Rather, the essays are focused on the body as it is lived, and the various ways in which the lived-body’s relationship to the world is modified and disrupted in illness.

The volume is conceived in four parts. Part one, “New Currents in Existential Psychiatry,” examines contemporary issues in the interpretation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness, the relationship between mental illness and authenticity, and the importance of situating the experience of psychopathology within the context of a life-world. The second part of the book, “Phenomenologies of Anxiety, Pain, and Death,” explores existential, diagnostic, and relational issues associated with experiences of chronic pain, live organ donation, medically unexplained syndromes (MUPS), and the meaning of death.  The third part of the volume, “Ethics, Medicalization, and Technology,” consists of chapters devoted to the intersection of themes in biomedical ethics, phenomenology, and technology studies. In this section, Havi Carel and Tina Williams continue their Wellcome Trust research for the Life of Breath project.

Their chapter, entitled “Breathlessness: From Bodily Symptom to Existential Experience,” employs the methods of phenomenology to expose the limitations in reductive treatment models for respiratory disorders. By focusing on how the experience of breathlessness and panic anxiety associated with these disorders can fundamentally alter a patient’s relationship to the world, Carel and Williams forward a contextualized treatment model that attends to the situated experience of the patient to regain a measure of responsibility and ownership over his or her illness. The volume’s final part, “Existential Health,” turns to the ways in which the methods of phenomenology can be employed to critique an overly instrumental and technical approach to healthcare aging and to reframe our current understanding of what it means to be healthy.

The essays in Existential Medicine illuminate a growing and increasingly influential area of research for philosophers, biomedical ethicists, medical humanists, and health care practitioners. Drawing on the insights of phenomenology, the authors expand our understanding of ‘what it feels like’ to be ill and the ways in which illness disrupts our relationship to the world.

The chapter by Havi Carel and Tina Williams is available to read Open Access. Please contact [email protected] for information.

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