When meeting new people I often get asked what I do. ‘Philosophy?’, people sometimes say in response, ‘it sounds very interesting but what do you do with it?’. In some circles, philosophy is seen as impractical, abstract, even useless. I think that the opposite is true. For me, philosophy is the most practical of all disciplines and I have put it to a severe test. Seven years ago I was diagnosed with a serious lung condition, and initially things looked very bleak. My entire life was put on hold and all that was solid was suddenly thrown up in the air. How long will I live? What sort of life will I have? Will I suffer pain and indignity? Who or what will guide me through the biggest personal crisis I have ever had to face?
I turned to philosophy, the discipline I have studied and worked in for ten years, and expected answers, support, practical wisdom. But the philosophical terrain suddenly seemed barren, devoid of meaning. I needed help with the here and now, not with abstract metaphysical questions or universal generalisations. It was me, here, now, facing a crisis.
I recalled Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story (The Death of Ivan Ilyich), to whom the generalisation ‘all humans are mortal’ seemed perfectly true. But Ilyich still rebelled against this truth when applied to himself: he was not ‘man in the abstract’! He was ‘a creature quite, quite different from all others’. I, too, found it hard to apply the general truth to myself. The intellectual understanding was blocked by feelings of horror and helplessness. I was trapped.
I began to think about the ways in which philosophy could help in such an impasse. I started to see that philosophical ideas from phenomenology, as well as philosophical work on death and wellbeing were pertinent, relevant and most importantly, helpful. Through the use of philosophy I became able to view the medical focus on disease in a wider context, develop an understanding of illness as a life-changing event, and rethink my relationship to space, time, and the social world.
I was greatly comforted by the Stoics’ call to live in the present. I used Heidegger’s analysis of human life as ‘being towards death’. Although death is always present as a finite horizon of all life, says Heidegger, that presence can be productive, urging us to appreciate the here and now. These insights came from philosophy and offered solace and hope in the most concrete way. They are explored in my book, Illness.
The saying that health is ‘the most important thing’ is both true and untrue. Of course good health is a pre-condition for many good things in life. But life without health, with illness, disability and uncertainty, can be meaningful, rich, and even happy. This understanding was achieved through the use of philosophy, which shows its concrete practical side in times of distress. Instead of thinking about philosophy as the least practical of disciplines, I now think it is very useful indeed.
Havi Carel is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Illness (Acumen 2008)
Join her for a discussion with Jules Evans on Wednesday 6th February about how philosophy can be used as a tool to cope with serious illness and face our mortality more positively. Click here for more information and to book.