The Limits of Narrative: Provocations for the Medical Humanities

The role of narrative in the medical humanities, and the field of medicine and healthcare more broadly, has been a source of fascination for me throughout my time at the Centre for Medical Humanities. Over the past year I’ve presented papers exploring ‘The Limits of Narrative’ at Havi Carel and Rachel Cooper’s fantastic Concepts of Health and Illness conference in Bristol last summer and at the Beijing Forum in November.

It was wonderful in Beijing to discuss these ideas with Claire Hooker, Senior Lecturer in Medical Humanities at the University of Sydney, and John Harley Warner, Professor of History at Yale University. Claire made the inspired suggestion that together we develop our papers into articles for the Medical Humanities Journal, and invited Professor Paul Ulhas Macneill from the National University of Singapore to join in submitting a quartet of papers critiquing the ways in which the humanities is conceptualised and mobilised within the field.

John’s article, The humanising power of medical history: responses to biomedicine in the 20th century United States, is now available online; Pauls’ paper, “Art and Medicine: A Challenging Relationship” and Claire’s paper, “Medical Humanities as Expressive of Western Culture,” co-authored with Estelle Noonan, will both be available soon.

My contribution has just become available and the abstract appears below. Given its ambition is to stimulate debate, I will look forward to some critical commentaries over the months to come!

The limits of narrative: provocations for the medical humanities: This paper aims to (re)ignite debate about the role of narrative in the medical humanities. It begins with a critical review of the ways in which narrative has been mobilised by humanities and social science scholars to understand the experience of health and illness. I highlight seven dangers or blind spots in the dominant medical humanities approach to narrative, including the frequently unexamined assumption that all human beings are ‘naturally narrative’. I then explore this assumption further through an analysis of philosopher Galen Strawson’s influential article ‘Against Narrativity’. Strawson rejects the descriptive claim that “human beings typically see or live or experience their lives as a narrative” and the normative claim that “a richly Narrative outlook is essential to a well-lived life, to true or full personhood”. His work has been taken up across a range of disciplines, but its implications in the context of health and illness have not yet been sufficiently discussed. This article argues that ‘Against Narrativity’ can and should stimulate robust debate within the medical humanities regarding the limits of narrative, and concludes by discussing a range of possibilities for venturing ‘beyond narrative’.

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About Angela Woods

Editor-in-Chief, The Polyphony Deputy Director, Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University
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