Subjectivity and Self-reflection: The Humanities Perspective on Illness

The Medical Humanities Lecture series that has been running throughout 2014/15 begun with Dr Angela Woods discussing her use of phenomenological investigations into auditory verbal hallucinations, followed by Dr Saurabh Mishra’s exploration of middle class anxieties in British India over the widespread adulteration of dairy products. This article will be discussing the last two talks given by Professor Havi Carel on 26 November, and Professor Brendan Stone on 3 December. These two seemingly different, but relatable, lectures demonstrate how the humanities could offer a unique perspective in approaching medicine.

[pull_quote align=”left”]”An unwanted diagnosis has the power to interrupt ordinary living, acting as ‘a forceful invitation to philosophise’.”[/pull_quote]

As a philosopher, Havi took interest in illness as a life event that forces individuals to rethink their own lives, beliefs, and values. While acknowledging the clear downsides of having an illness and that the vast majority of people would rather live without them, the act of recognising the reality of being ill forces one to face deep existential themes, such as our own mortality and the fallibility of our bodies. She argued that illness has an edifying potential that can invite the ill person to appreciate things we take for granted, especially after being diagnosed with a serious illness, or given a poor prognosis. An unwanted diagnosis has the power to interrupt ordinary living, acting as ‘a forceful invitation to philosophise’.

Coming from the background as a scholar of contemporary literature, Brendan deconstructed autobiographical journals written during times of severe mental distress to assess the impact that narrative writing has on personal identity. By targeting the self as the object of analysis, he understood that sufferers of mental illnesses could gain refuge in the act of writing down their daily experiences. As psychiatric disorders are commonly known to disturb one’s sense of self-identity, writing has the potential for them to defend, or even construct, a general awareness of their own selves in the face of mental instability.

[pull_quote align=”right”]”As psychiatric disorders are commonly known to disturb one’s sense of self-identity, writing has the potential for them to defend, or even construct, a general awareness of their own selves in the face of mental instability.”[/pull_quote]

Both talks struck a chord with the listeners because the two speakers connected their projects with their own experiences. The core content of Brendan’s lecture was a detailed analysis of his own personal journal that he kept from his experiences with depression during his late teens, a turn of events in his lecture that deeply moved the audiences that were there. His focuses on unpublished journals naturally led to him take advantage of his own material from the past. The journal did not explore the author’s experiences of mental illness deeply, but instead focused on spontaneous thoughts and feelings, and detailed descriptions of hospital life.

Arturo Espinosa by Edmund Husserl.

Edmund Husserl Watercolour by ARTURO ESPINOSA, 24 Dec 2012. [License: CC-BY 2.0].

Havi’s project was inspired by her experiences of being diagnosed with a lung disease, an episode in her life that she describes in her critically acclaimed book, Illness: The Cry of the Flesh (2013). She explores the different ways that illness altered her relationship with herself and others, and concluded that ‘I learned to love what I still had.’ It was the threat of bodily decline and premature death that drove her to seek ways to enjoy everything she still has and to learn to live in the present. Havi’s philosophy calls on us to re-examine the attitude of denial that many healthy young people have towards ageing and death, characterised by the line ‘I hope I die before I get old’ from The Who’s ‘My Generation’.1.

The emphasis on the idea of subjectivity is strong in Havi and Brendan’s talks. Their research relies on phenomenology, a philosophical method developed in first half of the twentieth century by philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology has been influential in re-framing central philosophical problems through the study of consciousness and lived experience. The idea that illness is intrinsically negative because it causes pain and suffering is challenged by Havi’s suggestion that illness also has the surprising capacity, which is often overlooked or turned into cliché, to be life-affirming. This method of approaching individual experiences without imposing assumptions is reflected in Brendan’s approach to written narratives.

By adopting phenomenology as a method, both speakers were critiquing the limits of subsuming illness under certain fixed frameworks. Descriptions that only accounted for bodily symptoms are insufficient because they fail to grasp what the sufferer of the illness is going through. Brendan warned against the ‘toxicity of social-cultural narratives’, on how popular accounts of many mental diseases are often trivially anecdotal or wholly fictional, undermining the diversity and the complexity of having an illness. Havi Carel and Brendan Stone’s different approaches to their respective diseases are tied by the focus on the sufferer’s perceptions as the primary subject of the study of illness. They serve as an example of how the humanities can contribute to a new understanding of medicine.


1. Havi Carel, Illness: The Cry of the Flesh (Durham, 2013), p. 8.