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Illness as a phenomenon of being-in-the-world with others: Plato’s Charmides, Kleinman and Merleau-Ponty
  1. Susan Bredlau
  1. Department of Philosophy, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Susan Bredlau, Philosophy, Atlanta 30322, USA; sbredla{at}


Plato’s Charmides, I argue, is a remarkably productive text for confronting and questioning some common presuppositions about the body and illness, particularly when we take seriously Socrates’ claim that healing Charmides’ headaches requires first examining—and perhaps healing—his soul. I begin by turning to the work of the psychiatrist and medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman to argue that even if the pain Charmides experiences is more ‘physical’than ‘mental’, a physical exam and physical intervention alone will not necessarily be effective in treating his headaches. Next, I turn to the work of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his discussion of the phenomenon of the ‘phantom limb’ to argue that the body, rather than simply being a physical object is, instead, primarily an experiencing subject; the body is fundamentally our way of having a world. Furthermore, illness, rather than being conceived of as either a physical or mental disorder, should instead be understood in terms of a person’s being-in-the-world with others. Finally, I return to Plato’s Charmides and argue that, just as the phantom limb reflects the destruction of a specific way of being-in-the-world with others, Charmides’ headaches reflect the construction of a specific way of being-in-the-world with others.

  • philosophy of medicine/health care
  • medical anthropology
  • greek history
  • medical humanities
  • psychiatry

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  • 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 Not required.

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