Sunday, 10 May 2009

phenomenology or Phenomenology of illness?

Distracted at home by other books that had to be read for work, I took Havi Carel’s slim book called simply Illness on my short walking trip last week (Carel, H. (2008) Illness, Stocksfield: Acumen). I first met Havi at one of Rachel Cooper’s one day workshops on philosophy of psychiatry at Lancaster. It must have been in 2007. We had an argument (a friendly argument, that is) walking back from lunch about the prospects of biological functions to naturalise illness. The third thing I noticed about her, however, was that she had an oxygen cylinder in a backpack.

Reading her book, however, I realise that this cannot have been as long after she’d found out that she had a life-threatening illness as I seem to have assumed. The book is a meditative reflection almost forced from her by a serious medical diagnosis (of the disease LAM) received under less than ideal conditions (though there could be no ideal conditions compatible with the diagnosis itself) on 10 April 2006. Its aim is a kind of phenomenology of illness. But what is particularly compelling about it is that, with one exception, the chapters are driven more by a description of the lived experience of illness (‘phenomenology’, perhaps) than by an explicitly philosophical agenda (‘Phenomenology’).

The one exception is a (necessary, albeit) chapter on fearing death which takes Epicurus and Heidegger and unpacks their ideas. The agenda in that chapter is thus set by those past philosophers and it’s perhaps significant that their arguments seem less compelling, less true, than everything else in the book. I’ve never understood why our understanding of being rather than non-being requires that we actually inevitably die. Why isn’t the fact that we were once not alive or even the mere possibility that we might not have lived enough? A decent argument (from Heidegger rather than Carel in the first instance) would help.

In all the other chapters, philosophical ideas are organically woven into a narrative which is driven by a first personal account. This first person approach is obviously the best way to give the book its substance and force but it came as a bit of a shock to me. I had expected a drier and a more explicitly scholarly book. But that would have been much less good. Instead the analysis – and this is the challenge for philosophy – has to cope with the enormity of the experience whose description (especially the two Horrible Men) rings completely true. Havi outlines a possible philosophically-informed response based on the chapter mentioned above. (That is why it is necessary for the overall argument.)

In the end, I’m not sure that philosophy (perhaps ‘Philosophy’ would be better) is up to the job. Just as the sceptical challenge seems more potent than any philosophical answer to it (cf McGinn on trust of philosophical problems over solutions), so the existential predicament Havi describes seems more potent than any philosophical response to it. Whilst she has cruelly had the nature of that predicament forced more urgently on her than it is on most people, it’s the predicament we all face. So this is a bit of a problem.