Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 345–357 | Cite as

Illness, phenomenology, and philosophical method

  • Havi Hannah CarelEmail author


In this article, I propose that illness is philosophically revealing and can be used to explore human experience. I suggest that illness is a limit case of embodied experience. By pushing embodied experience to its limit, illness sheds light on normal experience, revealing its ordinary and thus overlooked structure. Illness produces a distancing effect, which allows us to observe normal human behavior and cognition via their pathological counterpart. I suggest that these characteristics warrant illness a philosophical role that has not been articulated. Illness can be used as a philosophical tool for the study of normally tacit aspects of human existence. I argue that illness itself can be integral to philosophical method, insofar as it facilitates a distancing from everyday practices. This method relies on pathological or limit cases to illuminate normally overlooked aspects of human perception and action. I offer Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the case of Schneider as an example of this method.


Phenomenology Illness Embodiment Pathology Philosophical method Merleau-Ponty Schneider Distancing Limit case 



This paper was written during a period of research leave funded by the Leverhulme Trust. I am grateful to the Trust for awarding me a fellowship. I would like to thank Eran Dorfman, Michael Lewis, Darian Meacham, Samir Okasha, and Matthew Ratcliffe for commenting on the paper. I also thank Antonio Casado da Rocha, Arantza Etxeberria, Jeremy Simon, and two anonymous reviewers, as well as audiences in Durham, UWE, Bristol, and the Philosophy of Medicine Roundtable 2011, San Sebastian, Spain, for helpful comments on this paper.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of BristolBristolUK

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