Health and philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but you will be surprised at just how much they have in common.
For over four hundred years Western philosophers have divided themselves into two broad camps. There are those who argue that our bodies and our minds are two separate – albeit connected – entities, and there are those who take the opposite view, arguing that mind and body together constitute a united and organic whole. And yes, we could use the word holistic here.
This is a huge divide in philosophical thinking and it is one that is traceable all the way through to the depersonalized delivery of contemporary medicine. The Cartesian split between mind and body (named after The French Philosopher René Descartes) is all-too evident in treatments that separate the disease from the patient and focus on symptoms and outcomes rather than actual human experiences of ill health.
A cynic might point to the number of people who describe out of body experiences whilst they are in hospital. Emotional or spiritual aspects of a person might as well leave the building, never mind the person’s body. Your conventional hospital simply isn’t the place for them.
In contrast, the holistic position derives from the much celebrated 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who had no time for Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ branch of philosophy at all. For Spinoza, mind and body were wholly indivisible in the self.
Slowly, the logic of Spinoza is beginning to be accepted within the medical fraternity. But the penetration is limited and the pace of its uptake is still painstakingly slow. But bitby bit, as scientific advances run into blind alleys, the spiritual and the mindful are finding a place in modern healthcare. Whether it is acupuncture for the relief of nerve pain, meditation and hypnosis as alternatives to anaesthetics, or psychic readings as part of a diagnostic strategy, practices that once were dismissed as something less than folklore are being shown to deliver genuine healing benefits.
If we step back and look at that picture what emerges is a story that demonstrates the incredible force of the Cartesian way of thinking in the Western world. What appear today as ‘alternative’ treatments or lifestyle choices are, as often as not, derived from a completely different cultural environment. Spinoza’s objection to Descartes was a very local western European exchange. In contrast, the way Oriental, Indigenous American, African and Polynesian cultures considered what it meant to be ill in very different ways, and in terms that neither of those esteemed thinkers would even begin to recognise.
The Western, Cartesian way of thinking has delivered incredible medical advances, and this article is not intended to deny that in any way. Rather, what it is here to do is to highlight just how much of our thinking is governed by our cultural histories. And to go beyond that, it is to show that we do not need to be restricted by the thinking that produced them.
In a globalised 21st century world, where communication is universal and immediate, we enjoy unprecedented access to the full gamut of human knowledge and experience. To limit our thinking in the battle against illness, disease and suffering to just one corner of that rich tapestry is to needlessly restrict our options.
At a time when the human population is greater -and is growing at a faster – than it has ever done, we need to access each and every resource at our disposal. Conventional Western medicine is both incredibly expensive and needlessly limited. In some cases – especially in the area of mental health – fully ratified alternatives are available. All we need is the mind-set to be able to put them into practice.
And believe it or believe it not, that starts with a question of philosophy.