‘Medical humanities’ is the name given to a so-far rather diverse field of enquiry. Its object is medicine as a human practice and, by implication, human health and illness, and the enquirers are, basically, people working from the perspectives of humanities disciplines. Thus ‘medical humanities’ denotes humanities looking at medicine, looking at patients, and – crucially – looking at medicine looking at patients. The way medicine conceives and represents patients shows up in the way that it treats patients.
Therefore ‘medical humanities’ isn’t the name of a further humanities discipline, but is simply the name of a field of enquiry, albeit a very significant and intriguing one. The disciplines actually involved in it are familiar humanities and social sciences disciplines, having in common both an interest in individual experience (which in this context means individuals’ experiences of health, illness, disability, diagnosis, treatment and care), and a recognition that subjective experience can be a legitimate source of knowledge.
At present, history, literature studies, theology, anthropology and philosophy are prominent among the disciplines that engage in medical humanities. If they act separately and in isolation from one another, then ‘medical humanities’ is just a list. But it becomes far more interesting when these disciplines’ perspectives are combined a genuinely interdisciplinary way.
Humanities disciplines have looked at medicine for some time already – in medical ethics (bioethics). At stake in medical ethics is one of the central kinds of value in human relations, ethical (moral) values. However there are other values than ethics, and there are other enquiries than value enquiry. Philosophy has played a central role in medical ethics to date and, in some ways, ‘medical humanities’ begins as a widening of the scope and methods of medical ethics. Philosophy has value-enquiry among its central undertakings – but has always recognised a wider range of values than just the ethical.
In medical ethics, other humanities disciplines joined philosophy in looking for a richer way of tackling normative questions about what doctors ought to do. Similarly in ‘medical humanities’ a range of humanities disciplines join together in looking for more richly-textured ways of understanding medicine as a practice, and understanding health, illness and medical care in relation to individual subjective experience. One of the most interesting challenges in terms of interdisciplinarity will be to embrace biological scientists in co-enquiry with us as humanities scholars. Taking embodied human nature seriously in the medical context requires aspects of scientific literacy as well as existential literacy, and it requires bringing them together creatively.
This is a challenging task but one that is worthwhile and important in the search for more realistic expectations of the contribution of medicine to human flourishing.
HME, March 2009