Illness as unhomelike being-in-the-world: Heidegger and the phenomenology of medicine

Med Health Care Philos. 2011 Aug;14(3):333-43. doi: 10.1007/s11019-010-9301-0.


In this paper, an attempt is made to develop an understanding of the essence of illness based on a reading of Martin Heidegger's pivotal work Being and Time. The hypothesis put forward is that a phenomenology of illness can be carried out through highlighting the concept of otherness in relation to meaningfulness. Otherness is to be understood here as a foreignness that permeates the ill life when the lived body takes on alien qualities. A further specification of this kind of otherness can be found with the concept of unhomelike being-in-the-world. Health, in contrast to this frustrating unhomelikeness, is a homelike being-in-the-world in which the lived body in most cases has a transparent quality as the point of access to the world in understanding activities. The paper then proposes that the temporal structure of illness can be conceptualised as an alienation of past and future, whereby one's past and future appear alien, compared with what was the case before the onset of illness. The remainder of the paper follows two paths as regards the temporality of illness. The first path explores the temporality of the body in relation to the temporality of the being-in-the-world of the self. One way of understanding the alienating character of illness is that nature, as the temporality of our bodies, ceases to obey our attempts to make sense of phenomena: the time of the body no longer fits into the time of the self. The second path explored in the paper is that of narrativity. When we make sense of the present, in relation to our future and past, we do so in a special manner, namely, by structuring our experiences in the form of stories. Illness breaks in on us as a rift in these stories, necessitating a retelling of the past and a re-envisioning of the future in an effort to address and change their alienated character. These stories, however, never allow us to leave the silent otherness of our bodies behind. They are stories nurtured by the time of nature at the heart of our existence. It is then claimed that the idea of life's being a story must be understood in a metaphorical sense, and an exploration of how phenomenology addresses the metaphoric quality of its conceptuality is ushered in. It is pointed out that metaphors can be systematically related to each other and that they always have a founding ground in the orientation and basic activities of the lived body. Therefore, if the concepts used in working out a phenomenological theory of health and illness are, to a certain extent, metaphorical, one could, nevertheless, claim that the metaphoric qualities of the phenomenological concepts are primary in referring back to the lived body and the way it inhabits the world.

MeSH terms

  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Self Concept
  • Social Isolation