Inventions of the Text Seminar Series 2010-2011: The Uses of Literature

Imaginative Worlds: Medical Humanities and ‘the uses of literature’ Corinne Saunders, Michael Mack & Angela Woods: Centre for Medical Humanities

Tuesday 25 January, 6.30 pm (please note later start time)
Hallgarth House, Hallgarth Street, Durham. All welcome.

The Medical Humanities is an emerging interdisciplinary field of enquiry in which humanities and social sciences perspectives are brought to bear upon an exploration of the human side of medicine, broadly conceived. Literary studies has been a key contributing discipline to the development of this field; however, driven as it has been by the imperatives of medical education, the Medical Humanities has tended to value literature mainly as a form of training (in how to be empathetic, to tolerate ambiguity, to develop ‘narrative competence’ in the context of clinical practice). The central argument of this paper is that a more sophisticated account of the ‘uses of literature’ in the Medical Humanities is needed if the field is to continue to flourish. To that end, our paper, which is very much a work in progress, takes some first steps in the attempt to rethink the role of literature in understanding medicine and, indeed, human experience. Beginning with an overview uses of literature dominant in the Medical Humanities, we then explore alternative approaches by looking at the imaginative worlds of pre-modern literature and the Zuckerman novels of Philip Roth.

Corinne Saunders is Professor in the Department of English Studies, Associate Director of the Centre for Medical Humanities, and Director of the Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. A key focus of her current work is the study of pre-Cartesian models of mind-body-affect and their links with contemporary neuroscience. Michael Mack is a Reader in the Department of English Studies and the Centre for Medical Humanities. He is currently completing a book about how literature changes the way we think.  Angela Woods is a Lecturer in Medical Humanities whose first book The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clinical and Cultural Theory is forthcoming in 2011.

For the full 2011 programme please see


Gavin Miller · January 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm

This is very important debate — one that’s been long overdue, in my opinion. There are certain concepts being used in the educational side of medical humanities with rather too much innocence. “Empathy” is one of these ideas. Reading imaginative literature promotes “empathy”, and so medical students can be made better doctors by being prescribed storybooks and poems.
Just two (out of an indefinite number) of questions:
1) If literature is going to be prescribed as a form of preventative art therapy to medical students, has it been shown that medical students and doctors do actually lack capacity for empathy with sick people? There’s seems to be a kind of clinical psychology at work here: that if doctors are (perceived as) uncaring, it is because they have suffered some kind of loss of their faculty for empathy. But is the problem in the psychology of doctors, or in the norms (implicit and explicit) of medical practice? And is offering a course in literature a form of art therapy, or way of beginning to offer different expectations — an implicit instruction to be more caring?

2) How ethically significant is “empathy” anyway? Philip Mercer has argued that knowing another’s state of mind, and also knowing it imaginatively (via empathic “fellow feeling”) isn’t enough to establish a moral/ethical relationship to that other person. One has also to be altruistically concerned for their well-being. (Consider the example of a skilled torturer who is superbly empathetic, who relishes imaginatively the sufferings of the victim — but who continues to torture because he/she has no concern for that person).

amw · January 26, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Hi Gavin,

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts about the ‘literature and medicine’ question. It was particularly interesting for us to start exploring these ideas within the context of an English department seminar series entitled ‘The Uses of Literature’ and I feel there is much more we still have to think about!

In response to your observations, some of the reading I have done into the origins of the medical humanities (intimately linked as it is to shifts in medical education in the US) suggest it really arises in response to perceived changes in the way medicine is practiced from the turn of the century onwards. The rise of biomedicine and its emphasis on standardisation, scientific method and observation, the control trial, the laboratory, etc was viewed – even by men who passionately believed in it – as endangering the ‘art of medicine’ and the human dimensions of its practice. So it was these great learned men of scientific medicine who first institutionalised the reading of literature in medical schools, though whether or not empirical research has been recently undertaken to test whether this long-standing assumption about the empathy-reducing effects of said practices is well-founded I do not know…

On the question of empathy, you may have already found Jane’s wonderful and much-debated piece in the Lancet’s “Art of Medicine” series on “The Dangerous Practice of Empathy“:

More too to be done on this topic!

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