Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 47-56

First online:

The body as object versus the body as subject: The case of disability

  • Steven D. EdwardsAffiliated withCentre for Philosophy and Health Care, University College of Swansea

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This paper is prompted by the charge that the prevailing Western paradigm of medical knowledge is essentially Cartesian. Hence, illness, disease, disability, etc. are said to be conceived of in Cartesian terms. The paper attempts to make use of the critique of Cartesianism in medicine developed by certain commentators, notably Leder (1992), in order to expose Cartesian commitments in conceptions of disability. The paper also attempts to sketch an alternative conception of disability — one partly inspired by the work of Merleau-Ponty. In particular, three key Cartesian claims are identified and subjected to criticism. These are as follows: (a) The claim that the body is an object, (b) what is termed here ‘the modularity thesis’, and (c) the claim that the body cannot be constitutive of the self (i.e. since the soul/mind/brain is). In opposition to these claims, it is argued that the body is properly viewed as a subject; that there are neither purely mental, nor purely physical disabilities; and that selves are constituted, at least in part, by their bodies.

body disability Merleau-Ponty medical model