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Heidegger and “House”

The twofold task in working out the question of American medicine

By Leigh E. Rich and Jack Simmons

“To the things themselves!”
— Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 1927

“How can I tell what’s real and what’s not?”
— Dr. Gregory House, “No Reason,” episode no. 224, May 23, 2006

In 1927, Martin Heidegger published Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), an ambitious work designed to “raise anew” and “work out” the “forgotten” philosophical “question of the meaning of Being and to do so concretely.” In the treatise’s opening pages, Heidegger reprimands contemporary philosophers not only for abandoning Being “as a theme for actual investigation” (unlike their ancient Greek counterparts) but also for allowing a “dogma” to develop that ultimately “declares the question … superfluous” and “sanctions its complete neglect.” The question of the meaning of Being is for Heidegger, however, “the fundamental question” and, “of all questions, both the most basic and the most concrete.” Heidegger takes his colleagues to task for presupposing “the belief that an inquiry into Being is unnecessary” on the mistaken grounds that its “universality” renders it “indeterminate,” “indefinable,” or “self-evident.” Instead, Heidegger suggests these very “prejudices … have made plain not only that the question of Being lacks an answer, but that the question itself is obscure and without direction.”

The same perhaps could be said of health, health care, and medicine, particularly within the American health care reform debate. This century-long deliberation, reaching as far back as 1912 when former president and Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt called for national health insurance, rarely attends to the question of the meaning of these entities. Politicians and other participants in the discussion, like Heidegger’s errant philosophers, seem to presume them to be “indeterminate,” “indefinable,” or “self-evident,” leaving them unexamined and unresolved. What is health? Is it “merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” as a technocratic biomedicine has long defined it, or, rather, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being,” as the World Health Organization nebulously purports? And how does the American medical system help its citizens acquire, preserve, or restore it? Even the health care reform bills signed into law in March 2010 fail to investigate the meaning of health, health care, and medicine and focus primarily on health care as a fiscal issue. This continued neglect thwarts a true understanding of these entities and may contribute to the ongoing and growing health disparities in the United States. [continued …]

Read the full article

Rich, Leigh E., and Jack Simmons. 2011. Heidegger and “House”: The twofold task in working out the question of American medicine. Film and Philosophy 15: 49–69.

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