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The heart in medicine, history and culture
  1. Therese Feiler1,
  2. Joshua Hordern2
  1. 1 Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat München, Munich, Germany
  2. 2 Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Therese Feiler, Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen, Muenchen, Germany; therese.feiler{at}

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The heart is of perennial interest and needs (almost) no introduction. In moments of anticipation, fear, stress or joy, the beating heart draws us back deep into our physical existence. A central organ of the animal body, it has of course also been of great medical interest. Yet, despite or perhaps because of its felt immediacy, the heart points beyond the limitations of the body. The heart is a metaphor, a symbol and a trope across time and cultures. Layers of history—theological, philosophical, cultural, even political—shape the way we understand, treat and speak by means of the heart.

Today, the natural organic heart is no longer regarded as the centre of the person, the ‘sun’ of the body’s cosmos, or the sine qua non of personal integrity. In fact, there is a gap between people and their hearts. Frequently this is associated with Cartesian medical reductionism, but from the papers in this special issue it emerges that people may be alienated from their heart in other ways. However, from this gap new possibilities of thinking about ourselves, but also medical-technical developments spring. The aim of this collection therefore is to examine, first, why and how this gap between people and their hearts has developed in Western medicine and culture. This is not just a critique of reductionism, but involves also an appreciation of where cardiology and related medical disciplines stand—and where they could move. The second aim is to explore what can be made of that gap between people and their hearts. Which existing religious or philosophical approaches can describe important anthropological aspects, phenomena or experiences that bridge the gap, but which seem to have been lost? Some aspects of the heart ‘haunt’ us, as Joshua Hordern puts it in his contribution.

Cardiac surgeon David K.C. Cooper shows in his …

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  • Presented at This article is part of 'The Heart in Medicine, History and Culture' issue.

  • Contributors TF wrote the body of the editorial. JH added information and provided corrections.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.