The philosophical role of illness – and how it can teach us to live reflectively
Serious illness is a great calamity. It is unwelcome, violent, frightening and painful. If it is life threatening, it requires the ill person and their loved ones to confront death. Illness causes pain, anxiety, incapacitation; it limits what the ill person can do. It can cut a life short, stop plans in their tracks, and detach people from life, suspending the previous flow of everyday activity. In short, illness is almost always unwelcome but must be endured, as it is also unavoidable. We “each owe nature a death”, as Freud put it.But illness also has revelatory power. It pushes the ill person to the limit and reveals a great deal about us, how we live, and the values and assumptions that underpin our lives. Illness can also provide both philosophical motivation and instruction, by pointing to our habits and assumptions and putting them into question. So we should consider illness as a legitimate and useful philosophical tool.
What kind of a philosophical tool is illness? First, illness uncovers aspects of embodied experience with tremendous force. It shows us the frailty and failure of the flesh, revealing dimensions of human existence that are both tacit and surprising. Illness is therefore an opportunity for us to reflect on the nature of such bodily existence, its limits, and how it conditions our lives. Second, illness is (at present) an integral part of biological life and so must be taken into account when considering human life, values, meaning and social arrangements. We are all destined to die, and most of us will fall ill (or are ill) in the process. This is a significant fact about human life that both structures and delimits it. Third, illness has what I call a ‘distancing effect’. It withdraws us from previous habits, routines and practices, which become impossible in illness, and forces us to reflect on those habits and practices. Illness can destroy the expectations we have about our life, such as assumptions about how long we might live and how independent we should be, and in this way reveals the values we take for granted, many of which are only articulated explicitly when one falls ill.
In short, illness leads us to question how we live, why we live as we do, and how we might continue to do some things within the constraints of illness. Illness is a challenge, a demand, that requires a reflective response. Illness radically changes our relationship to our body, environment, and social world. It changes our attitude towards time and the future. It often forces us to consider what is important and what is trivial. It can furnish us with new clarity and focus, and it can lead us to appreciate things we were previously too busy to notice. As such, illness can awaken reflection in the ill person simply by forcing change on that person. This reflection is, simply put, philosophising. So, for me, illness is a unique form of philosophising. We normally think of philosophising as a chosen activity, not something that can be forced on someone. But in the case of illness, the ill person is thrust into great uncertainty, anguish, incapacity, and anxiety and these may lead that person to ask philosophical questions about justice, luck and misfortune, autonomy and dependence, and about the meaning of their life.
Illness is a violent invitation to philosophise. It arrives, unwelcome, wreaking havoc on a previously ordered life, and throws into the air many of our assumptions and ideas about what our life could and should be like. As such, it may be an effective philosophical tool that can yield important insights. Illness can call for more radical and personal methods of doing philosophy. It can affect the philosophical concerns of the ill person. It triggers reflection on finitude, disability, suffering and injustice. It can also change the urgency and salience of particular philosophical topics.
Of course, illness won’t do this in every case. If the illness is too painful or debilitating, there is no room for reflection. If the sorrow and trauma are too great, there can be no “post-traumatic growth”, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it. But in other cases, illness can be a transformative experience, as philosopher L.A. Paul defines it. It can alter what we know and what we value in ways that are deeply life-changing.