This morning I woke up with a sore throat. I think it might be a pre-summer cold, but then it might be due to the fact that I tend to sleep with my mouth open. Either way, when I woke up, my throat felt like it was on fire.
My morning illness got me thinking about something. I don’t think in the entire time that I studied philosophy that I ever read anything any philosopher had to say about being sick. After all, the first physicians were philosophers — they must have had something to say about it. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wrote
what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life.
I had figured that thinking about illness and disease is at least as important as thinking about phenomenalism or Fregean truth-functional statements, so I decided to spend a little time trying to find out what philosophers have to say about the state of ill-health.
I wish I looked this good with a sore throat
I already knew that Aristotle (and ancient Greek philosophers in general) wrote about matters of health and medicine — Aristotle wrote about (everything) causes, including his theories of the causes of disease. The ancient Greek Philosopher Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Medicine” (and also for the Hippocratic Oath) established medicine as a discipline separate from philosophy. And the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina (also known by the Latin name Avicenna) not only wrote extensive treatises on topics ranging from philosophy to medicine, astronomy, logic, and physics, but also Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (1025) was the standard text used in Medieval universities. The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) is not only one heck of a political philosopher, but was one of Europe’s most respected physicians… even if he didn’t have a medical degree.
Ok, so what does this mean?
After looking for information about philosophy and medicine for approximately fifteen minutes, I concluded that any one who spends even a minimal amount of time on Google can find the philosophical history of modern medicine. But the history of the study of illness wasn’t really telling me what to think about my sore throat. I was still wondering: what do philosophers have to say about illness and disease?
This is what I found:
When philosophers think about illness, disease, and health, philosophers often ask questions like, “what is health?”, “Are disease-causing entities real?”, and whether a reductionist approach to medicine is correct. While I was reading about ontological and epistemological debates concerning the metaphysical status of “disease-causing entities” I couldn’t help from thinking about what Wittgenstein said about philosophy needing to be about improving our thinking about everyday life. I know that discussing epistemology is all in good fun for philosophers, but is this really helping me get any closer to getting rid of my present malady?
Not really, no.
I think this is why, when we think about illness, disease, suffering, and death, we often look to New Age metaphysicians rather than to philosophical metaphysicians. A philosopher might be good for a debate about “the diminution of complex objects or events to their component parts.”, but if I’m thinking about healing and/or the origin or end of suffering, I might open up a book written by Dr. Wayne Dyer rather than by Aristotle.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that philosophers have missed the mark entirely on matters on medicine (although I will say so about philosophers and philosophy of religion). Philosophers in the field of medical ethics question and debate issues of every day medical and philosophical importance: abortion, euthanasia, organ donations, stem cell research, quality of life, end of life — even the doctor-patient relationship (itself). I know that when I read Peter Singer’s writings on suffering or on irreversibly brain damaged patients, think about the pros and cons of universal health care, or when I hear the words “death panels”, that someone is making not only a statement about modern medicine, but about medical ethics as well.
All of this still does absolutely nothing for my sore throat.