Let’s not forget that humans are imbued with humanities

The potential to be blinded by science and the need for synergy with humanities was noted by the great philosopher Immanuel Kant (above) no mean scientist himself

The potential to be blinded by science and the need for synergy with humanities was noted by the great philosopher Immanuel Kant (above) no mean scientist himself

Tue, Jul 1, 2014, 01:00

The newest architectural gem in Trinity College Dublin is the award-winning Long Room Hub, a slim and elegant presence inserted among classical, neoclassical and modern buildings.

Just as its many windows offer unexpected vistas onto this beautiful campus, its activities have injected fresh energy into interdisciplinary research and public engagement among the arts and humanities, led by its director, Prof Jürgen Barkhoff.

Last week the Hub hosted the most substantive and successful foray to date in Ireland into the medical humanities. This field of research has a vital role in calibrating the vast enterprise of healthcare by applying the lens of humanities and the social sciences.

This is not to deny the enormous progress that has been made in the basic and applied sciences, but rather to recognise that scientists often approach problems with set ideas and biases that can obscure true meanings and relevance of the matter at hand. In addition, huge commercial interests often skew the directions of medical research away from the person and towards profit.

The potential to be blinded by science and the need for synergy with the humanities was noted long ago by the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, no mean scientist himself, who stated that our reason must approach science in order to be taught by it: not in the character of a pupil who agrees to everything the master likes, but as an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer the questions he himself proposes.

And many such questions were proposed at the colloquium, largely based on philosophy but also engaging with European researchers in literature, film studies, art history, social sciences, nanoscience, medicine and nursing.

The point of departure was the increasing impact of science on the identity of our bodies, viewed predominantly through phenomenology. This approach, as expertly introduced in an overview by Prof Dermot Moran of University College Dublin, is the deceptively simple-sounding task of describing the world as it is, with an emphasis on examining the structures of consciousness from within.

The phrases of the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty – “My body is the common fabric into which all objects are interwoven” and “One’s body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system” – neatly catch its imperatives of subjectivity, perception and consciousness.

The power of this approach to capture the wonder of the human condition was palpable in many of the presentations. My own role as a gerontologist was to emphasise that the future of the body is that of the ageing body, with its particular combination of toughness and frailty.

Bizarre speculation

The topic of post- or trans-humanism – what becomes of our bodies if we increasingly add, alter or adapt them, as taken to extremes in movies such as Robocop – seems to attract often bizarre speculation, and speakers generally treated it with due caution.

However, in an incisive presentation Prof Stuart Murray from Leeds University, forcefully pointed out that many visions of transhumanism are quasi-eugenic in nature, negating the inevitable disability that we all have, or will have.

The first day ended with a truly bizarre and unsettling interview in Dublin’s Science Gallery with Orlan, a French performance artist who uses cosmetic surgery as a central point in her performances.

A short film about dramatic, if basic, reconstructive surgery in an Indian leper colony underlined the narcissistic and self-indulgent nature of her art.

Other presentations at the conference included an intriguing project on the phenomenology of auditory hallucinations, hearingthevoice.org; the evolution of Marcel Duchamp’s final major art work, the undermining of certainty in our bodies with illness, and a thought-provoking overview of how microchimerism, the presence of cell lines in our bodies that originate from others – shifts the conventional view of “self v other” to the view that normal “self” is constitutively chimeric.

It was deeply refreshing to participate in these two days of medical humanities research, focusing on deep topics and asserting its critical importance. The engagement of Irish philosophers with meaning and purpose in the worlds of health and illness was particularly impressive, and the broader enmeshing or entangling of the humanities and healthcare was reassuring and exciting in equal measure for the future of research in the medical humanities in Ireland.

A version of this column originally appeared as a British Medical Journal blog. Prof Des O’Neill is a consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine. His book, Ageing and Caring: A Guide for Later Life, is published by Orpen Press

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