Standing on the shoulders of giants

Dr Havi Carel

Havi Carel writes: Five years ago I was diagnosed with a lung condition. My life was thrown into the air. The ground was snatched from under my feet. I had an existential crisis in the deepest sense of the word. I turned to philosophy, thinking: if philosophy has nothing to offer me at this critical juncture of my life, what is the point of pursuing it? In the same way that I reached out to my friends and family, I reached out to Aristotle, Epicurus, and Merleau-Ponty. And I was not disappointed. The richest and most important philosophical work I have done emerged from this juncture between the personal and what is often taken to be the most abstract of subjects: philosophy.

Philosophy helped me make sense of my situation by taking the constricted concepts and dry medical language which was routinely used to describe my illness and using phenomenology to connect them to the actual experience of being ill. Philosophy helped me broaden my conception of time, re-examine my values, and think peacefully about my death. What more could one ask for.

Once I made the connection between the personal and the philosophical, using the bridge that is phenomenology, I started working in earnest on the most meaningful academic project I have been engaged in. With the help of an AHRC grant, I began to explore systematically the riches philosophy may offer people in my situation. This proved to be a fruitful exploration indeed. I proposed using philosophy for patient support, through specialised workshops drawing on philosophical ideas. I speak to health professionals about philosophy, about the lived experience of illness, about the metaphysical underpinnings of their understanding of the mind-body relationship. I teach medical students using phenomenological insights about illness.

I hope this work has ‘impact’. I hope it demonstrates the value philosophy has to society, to wellbeing, to institutions like the NHS. But most of all I hope it shows what is much harder to quantify: the wealth of ideas contained in philosophy and their continued and utmost relevance to our lives. I stood on the shoulders of giants and was able to smile again largely because of this advantage. I hope our society will continue to stand collectively on the shoulders of Plato, Hume, and Kant, and to recognise the importance of both the academic study of philosophy – scholarly and specialised – as well as the presence of philosophical ideas in their varied shapes and forms, in society’s institutions.

To find out more about why Philosophy Matters, attend the Annual Royal Institute of Philosophy Event on Monday 21 March in Bristol.

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