Wednesday 28 November 2007

Everyday illness phenomenology

I’ve spent the last couple of days suffering a standard autumnal cold. The striking thing about such a normal experience is how bizarre aspects of it are. There is, for example, something quite unique about how it feels to begin to fall asleep during the daytime when one is escaping from the experience of illness which is so different from normal lazy post-prandial dozing. There is also something quite reassuring about making up a fire and settling down in front of a film (I tried Blue Velvet last night: not the best film for a cold, in fact) knowing that one isn’t up to doing any work or anything else practical. That is a kind of first person experience of illness as excuse.

But the oddest experiences for me are those that characterise sleeping badly at night and realising, for example, that one has been thinking nonsense for the last hour (literally things that make no sense though one hadn’t noticed it), or becoming convinced that getting to sleep involves some sort of quite other project or achievement (does this only happen to me?). These slightly shivery experiences are so different from the everyday experiences of thoughts going well and suggest a kind of fragility of the every day case (so in fact akin to the fragility of the everyday suggested in Blue Velvet after all).

It would be good to find a published account of the phenomenology of the common cold, to see what it is like for others. It would be a version of Jaspers’ account of static understanding: grasp of the very nature of what it is like (perhaps nothing else!) to be subject to fragmented and uncanny thoughts. But given that the phenomena only come along when one is not in the most objective of states, it’s hard to know how they could ever be accurately recorded. And that problem seems to me to generalise to other cases of fragmented and unusual thought processes or experiences.

My thoughts about my own coldiness are, however, rather put into perspective by the news that Peter Lipton, Chair of Cambridge HPS and who saved my PhD, died suddenly in his early fifties from a heart attack a couple of days ago. It’s very sad and quite shocking news.