Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 36, Issue 6, pp 391–410 | Cite as

Putting phenomenology in its place: some limits of a phenomenology of medicine

  • Jonathan ShollEmail author


Several philosophers have recently argued that phenomenology is well-suited to help understand the concepts of health, disease, and illness. The general claim is that by better analysing how illness appears to or is experienced by ill individuals—incorporating the first-person perspective—some limitations of what is seen as the currently dominant third-person or ‘naturalistic’ approaches to understand health and disease can be overcome. In this article, after discussing some of the main insights and benefits of the phenomenological approach, I develop three general critiques of it. First, I show that what is often referred to as naturalism tends to be misunderstood and/or misrepresented, resulting in straw-man arguments. Second, the concept of normality is often problematically employed such that some aspects of naturalism are actually presupposed by many phenomenologists of medicine. Third, several of the key phenomenological insights and concepts, e.g. having vs. being a body, the alienation of illness, the epistemic role of the first-person perspective, and the idea of health within illness, each bring with them new problems that limit their utility. While acknowledging the possible contributions of phenomenology, these criticisms point to some severe limitations of bringing phenomenological insights to bear on the problems facing philosophy of medicine that should be addressed if phenomenology is to add anything substantially new to its debates.


Phenomenology Philosophy of medicine Naturalism Disease Illness Normality 



I would like to thank Andreas De Block, James DiFrisco, and Jeff Sholl for their critical and ultimately helpful comments on previous drafts. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers of this article for their useful suggestions. This research was undertaken as part of a post-doctoral position funded by the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-Vlaanderen (Research Foundation-Flanders).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Logic and Analytic Philosophy, Institute of PhilosophyUniversity of Leuven (KU Leuven)LeuvenBelgium

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