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Patient and Healthcare Professional Narratives: Phenomenology

The Silverman Center at Gumberg

The Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center was founded in 1980 at Duquesne University by Dr. Amedeo Giorgi and Dr. John Sallis. It was an expression of the phenomenological orientation of the University's philosophy and psychology departments. The late president of Humanities Press, Simon Silverman, was the Center's first major benefactor and so the Center proudly bears his name.

The collection is devoted to the phenomenological movement that was inaugurated at the turn of the century by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, and is still ongoing today, and to two precursors, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Phenomenology is conceived by the Center rather broadly, embracing, for example, existentialism and other contemporary Continental schools.

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Phenomenology: Principles

Photo courtesy of frted, Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

"[Phenomenology] should be critical and nondogmatic, shunning metaphysical and theoretical prejudices, as much as possible, and seeks to be guided by that which is actually experienced, rather than by what we expect to find given our theoretical commitments. It asks us not to let preconceived theories determine our experience, but to let our experience inform and guide our theories. ...[P]henomenology is concerned with attaining an understanding and proper description of the experiential structure of our experiential life; it does not attempt to develop a naturalistic explanation of consciousness, nor does it seek to uncover its biological genesis, neurological basis, psychological motivation, or the like.

...When we perceive, judge, or evaluate objects, a thorough phenomenological examination will lead us to the experiential structures and modes of understanding to which these types of appearance are correlated. We are led to the acts of presentation - the perception, judgment, or valuation - and thereby to the experiencing subject (or subjects) in relation to whom the object as appearing must necessarily be understood. By adopting the phenomenological attitude we pay attention to how public objects (trees, planets, paintings, symphonies, numbers, states of affairs, social relations, etc.) appear. But we do not simply focus on the objects precisely as they appear; we also focus on the subjective side of consciousness, thereby becoming aware of our subjective accomplishments and of the intentionality that is at play. In short, phenomenology must be understood as a philosophical analysis of the different types of world-disclosure (perceptual, imaginative, recollective, etc.), and in connection with this as a reflective investigation of those structures of experience and understanding that permit different types of beings to show themselves as what they are."

Zahavi, D. "Phenomenology of Consciousness." In Encyclopedia of Consciousness. Oxford: Elsevier Science & Technology, 2009.

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Phenomenology and the Health Sciences

Phenomenology is primarily descriptive, but its descriptive nature can also function critically.  In the Health Sciences, phenomenology is critical of scientific perspectives that focus on the body as only a material object only knowable through empirical science and only treatable through physical remedies like medicine or surgery.  It recognizes that illness is not only physical in an objective sense: illness is a lived experience of the embodied, feeling self.  Phenomenology in the Health Sciences is concerned with the lived body and its experience of health and illness.

Phenomenology also respects the wide diversity in the human experience of illness.  While phenomenology would traditionally seek to articulate an “universal essence” of the lived body’s experience of suffering from a given illness, more postmodern approached would respect the many essences that a given experience and others like it can have.  So while illnesses are defined medically around common causes, symptoms, and treatments, phenomenology realizes that illness occurs in diverse individuals who can experience illness differently.  So phenomenological medicine, in addition to its empirical scientific work, will also examine the diverse reactions of the people who do the suffering.  In this way first-person narratives of the experience of illness can make very significant contributions to a phenomenological understanding of the ill self that will create understandings that will benefit both the patient and health care workers who will attend the patient as a whole person.

Perhaps the primary lesson that phenomenology in the Health Sciences offers to health care practitioners is that medical treatment is treatment not only or even primarily of a physical and biological organism but treatment of a living and experiencing person: a person who is feeling, who is embodied, who is in various relationships, who has a particular history, and who lives a life structured by certain meanings in a world structured by certain meanings.  Thus when an individual relates his or her lived experience to a health science practitioner, that practitioner can begin to understand the unique perspective of that individual.  The practitioner can strive to provide emotional, psychological, and spiritual support, in addition to medical support, and help the individual to make meaning of the trauma of sickness.

Acknowledgements are owed to Dr. Jeffrey McCurry, Director of the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center, for providing significant contributions to this page.

Subject Guide

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David Nolfi

Phenomenology and the Health Sciences in Quotation

Seriously ill people are wounded not just in body but in voice. They need to become storytellers in order to recover the voices that illness and its treatment often take away.

  • Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller (1995)