Rejecting Medical Humanism: Medical Humanities and the Metaphysics of Medicine


The call for a narrative medicine has been touted as the cure-all for an increasingly mechanical medicine. It has been claimed that the humanities might create more empathic, reflective, professional and trustworthy doctors. In other words, we can once again humanise medicine through the addition of humanities. In this essay, I explore how the humanities, particularly narrative medicine, appeals to the metaphysical commitments of the medical institution in order to find its justification, and in so doing, perpetuates a dualism of humanity that would have humanism as the counterpoint to the biopsychosociologisms of our day.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    F Nietzche, The Birth of Tragedy, eds. R Geuss and R Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

  2. 2.

    M. Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Stambaugh (New York: SUNY Press, 1996), pp. 67–71.

  3. 3.

    J Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003).

  4. 4.

    A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). See also his Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

  5. 5.

    I mean discipline in the Foucauldian sense, as in those who discipline.

  6. 6.

    F. Bacon. The New Organon, eds. L. Jardine and M. Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2000), pp. 60, 221.

  7. 7.

    E. Krakauer, “Prescriptions: Autonomy, Humanism, and the Purpose of Health Technology,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 19: 535.

  8. 8.

    See A. Bleakley, R. Marshall, and R. Bromer, “Toward an Aesthetic Medicine: Developing a Core Medical Humanities Curriculum,” Journal of Medical Humanities 27 (4): 197–213 as a counterpoint to this dose mentality.

  9. 9.

    M. Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, ed. DF Kreli and trans. F.A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 250.

  10. 10.

    R. Charon, “Narrative Medicine: Form, Function, and Ethics,” Annals of Internal Medicine, 134 (1): 83–87.

  11. 11.

    R. Charon, “Narrative Medicine: A Model for Empathy, Reflection, Profession, and Trust,” Journal of American Medical Association, 286 (15): 1897–1902.

  12. 12.

    Ibid, p. 1900.

  13. 13.

    Ibid, p. 1901.

  14. 14.

    Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” p. 251.

  15. 15.

    Charon, “Narrative Medicine: A Model for Empathy,” p. 1897.

  16. 16.

    Ibid, p. 1897.

  17. 17.

    Ibid, p. 1898.

  18. 18.

    Ibid, p. 1898.

  19. 19.

    Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” p. 218.

  20. 20.

    M. Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, trans. AM Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1973).

  21. 21.

    JP Bishop, “The Broken Body and the Disabled Body: Reflections on Disability and the Objects of Medicine” in Theology Disability, and the New Genetics: Why science needs the church, edited by John Swinton and Brian Brock (London: T and T Clarke, 2007).

  22. 22.

    C Newell, “Disability, Bioethics, and Rejected Knowledge,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31 (3): 269–283.

  23. 23.

    T Koch, “Bioethics as Ideology: Conditional and Unconditional Values,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31 (3): 251–267.

  24. 24.

    G Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. K Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

  25. 25.

    P Churchland, The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).

  26. 26.

    GL Engel, “The Need for a New Medical Model: A Challenge for Biomedicine,” Science 196 (4286): 129–36.

  27. 27.

    Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” p 228.

  28. 28.

    Ibid, p. 229.

  29. 29.

    S Crites, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, eds. S Hauerwas and LG Jones (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eedrmans, 1989), pp. 65–88.

  30. 30.

    Charon, “Narrative Medicine: Form, Function, and Ethics,” p. 83.

  31. 31.

    R Charon and M Montello, Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics (London: Routledge, 2002).

  32. 32.

    HL Nelson, ed., Stories and Their Limits: Narrative Approaches to Bioethics (London: Routledge, 1997).

  33. 33.

    T Greenhalgh and B Hurwitz, Narrative Based Medicine: Dialogue and Discourse in Clinical Practice (London: BMJ Books, 1998).

  34. 34.


  35. 35.

    Charon, “Narrative Medicine: A Model for Empathy,” p. 1898.

  36. 36.

    Ibid, p. 1898.

  37. 37.

    I am referring to Bacon’s famous saying that the benefit of humankind is the purpose and round of all science.

  38. 38.

    Charon, “Narrative Medicine: A Model for Empathy,” p. 1899.

  39. 39.

    DG Hamilton, “Believing in Patients' Beliefs: Physician Attunement to the Spiritual Dimension as a Positive Factor in Patient Healing and Health,” American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care 15 (1998): 276–9.

  40. 40.

    As translated and quoted by J Faubian in the general introduction to Foucault’s Death and the Labyrinth. (London: Continuum, 2004). Bottom of page xix, footnote.

  41. 41.

    Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” pp. 228–229.

  42. 42.

    JP Bishop and F Jotterand, “Bioethics as Biopolitics,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31 (3): 202–212.

  43. 43.

    See Foucault, Birth of the Clinic and M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1970).

  44. 44.

    G Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

  45. 45.

    Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” p. 222.

  46. 46.

    Ibid, p. 217.

  47. 47.

    G Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. P Patton (London: Continuum, 1994).

  48. 48.

    Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” p. 217.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jeffrey P. Bishop.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bishop, J.P. Rejecting Medical Humanism: Medical Humanities and the Metaphysics of Medicine. J Med Humanit 29, 15–25 (2008).

Download citation


  • Medical humanities
  • Narrative medicine
  • Humanism
  • Anti-humanism