Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 147–155 | Cite as

The doctor and the literary text — potentials and pitfalls

  • Rolf Ahlzén


Expectations are growing that literature may contribute to clinical skills. Narrative medicine is a quickly expanding area of research. However, many people remain sceptical to the idea of literature having a capacity to “save the life of medicine”. It is therefore urgent to scrutinize both the arguments in favour of and those against the potential of literature for increasing medical understanding. This article attempts to do this. It does in fact support the assertion that literature is important, but it stresses precisely its character of potential. There is no simple connection between acquaintance with literary texts and understanding of the different aspects of medical work. Much more need to be known about the conditions which allow the experiences residing in texts to be transformed into lived personal knowledge.

ambiguity clinical encounter experience literary text perception potential understanding 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ahlzén, R. and C-M. Stolt: 2001, 'Poetry, Interpretation and Unpredictability: A Reply to Neil Pickering', Medical Humanities 27, pp. 47–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Booth, W.: 1988, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  3. Charon, R.: 2000, 'Reading, Writing and Doctoring: Literature and Medicine', The American Journal of Medical Sciences 319 (5), pp. 285–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Elam, K.: 2001, Emotions as a Mode of Understanding: An Essay in Philosophical Aesthetics. Uppsala: Uppsala University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Evans, M.: 2001, 'The Medical Body as Philosophy's Arena', Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 22, pp. 17–32.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Gadamer, H-G.: 1989, Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward.Google Scholar
  7. Greenhalg, T. and B. Hurwitz: 1998, Narrative Based Medicine: Dialogue and Discourse in Clinical Practice. London: BMJ Books.Google Scholar
  8. James, H.: 1907, The Art of the Novel. New York.Google Scholar
  9. Lagercrantz, O.: 1985, Om konsten att läsa och skriva. Stockholm: W&W.Google Scholar
  10. Langer, S.: 1942, Philosophy in a New Key. A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Cambridge, Mass.Google Scholar
  11. Midgeley, M.: 2001, Science and Poetry. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Nussbaum, M.: 1990, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. O'Brian, P.: 1991, Desolation Island. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  14. Pickering, N.: 2000, 'The Use of Poetry in Health Care Ethics Education', Medical Humanities 26, pp. 31–36.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Scott, A.: 2000, 'The Relationship Between the Arts and Medicine', Medical Humanities 25, pp. 3–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Svenaeus, F.: 1999, The Hermeneutics of Medicine and the Phenomenology of Health: Steps Towards a Philosophy of Medical Practice. Linköping Studies in Art and Science.Google Scholar
  17. Toulmin, S.: 1993 'Knowledge and Art in the Practice of Medicine: Clinical Judgement and Historical Reconstruction', in: C. Delkeskamp-Hayes and M.A. Gardell (eds.), Science, Technology and the Art of Medicine. Dordrecht: Kluwer Acad Publ., pp. 231–249.Google Scholar
  18. Tranströmer, T: 1964, Sanningsbarriären. Stockholm: Bonniers.Google Scholar
  19. Trautman, J.: 1982, 'The Wonders of Literature in Medical Education', Mobius 2, pp. 23–31.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rolf Ahlzén
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Humanistic MedicineKarolinska InstituteStockholm
  2. 2.Division of Environmental SciencesUniversity of KarlstadKarlstadSweden

Personalised recommendations