Medicine and the Humanities: A Collaboration

Medicine and the Humanities: A Collaboration

Discussant remarks, First Friday presentations, Department of English, University of Arizona


Introduction:  Dr. Tilly Warnock, professor emerita, University of Arizona

Speakers:  Dr. Ron Grant, director, University of Arizona Medical Humanities Program

Dr. Rishi Goyal, Ph.D.

Professor Fenton Johnson, discussant


Recent years have witnessed the rise of scientists writing as Renaissance men – I choose the gender deliberately, since I know of no women entrants in this field.  If this is true, I suspect it’s because women come intuitively to a more complex understanding of reality than one based solely in empiricism.  These great scientists, having achieved prominence in their chosen disciplines – e.g., Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, or cognitive scientist Steven Pinker – write about issues rooted in the arts and humanities with little or no serious study of these disciplines.  In Consilience, for example, Dr. Wilson claims that science will someday reveal the precise combination of chemicals and synapse firings that produced Milton’s Paradise Lost.   “When we have unified enough certain knowledge,” he writes – that is to say, enough facts – “we will understand who we are and why we are here.”  In his current bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker claims that civilization – which we are to understand means “Western civilization” – has reduced violence, even as he never mentions the bloody record of European colonizers against Native peoples or the unhappy fact that fascism and Nazism arose in what was arguably the most civilized European nation.

We who teach in the arts and humanities know the problem here.  It’s rooted not in empiricism, a noble way of encountering reality, but in sloppy critical thinking.  These brilliant men of reason have not cultivated the discipline required to negotiate what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human hawt in conflict with itself.”  They bring a chronometer and a measuring rod to the timeless, infinite territories of the soul, when an evening spent in the company of Shakespeare or George Eliot or Toni Morrison or W.H. Auden or Sor Juana Inez or Matisse or Mozart or Scott Momaday would offer more appropriate and revelatory access.

How are artists and humanists to respond?  One means of addressing that question lies, I think, in medicine, because the healing arts inevitably bring reason into an intimate encounter with the heart.  Medicine brings science into direct engagement with the most profound issues of the human condition.  Genentech may develop tests to predict my unborn child’s sexual identity or the likelihood of Down’s syndrome, but I am most likely to have these tests administered in my doctor’s office.  Science can develop drugs to treat HIV, but I will have them prescribed by a doctor, with whom – at least in the ideal – I will discuss the behavior that led to their prescription.

In The Courage to Be, published in 1952, the great theologian Paul Tillich anticipated this development.  In the passage that, significantly, incorporates the title of his book, he writes,


This is why, more and more, representatives of medicine generally and psychotherapy specifically ask to cooperate with philosophers and theologians.  .  .  .  The medical faculty needs a doctrine of man in order to fulfill its theoretical task; and it cannot have a doctrine of man without the permanent cooperation of all those faculties whose central object is man.   . . . Both the help given to man and the doctrines about man are a matter of cooperation from many points of view.  Only in this way is it possible to understand and to actualize man’s power of being, his essential self-affirmation, his courage to be.


It should be a source of pride for us that integrative medicine, a manifestation of the collaboration Tillich describes, has a primary base at the University of Arizona, where the medical school has seen fit to cultivate collaboration between the disciplines through its Medical Humanities Program.  I’m honored to have had Dr. Grant among my first students at the U of A, to have been invited to participate in this discussion, to join the chorus welcoming Dr. Goyal to the Department, and to seed our discussion by posing the first question:

The humanities notably concern themselves with death as much as life – the Roman poet Cicero famously said that to study philosophy is to learn how to die.  And yet contemporary medicine is preoccupied with life to the exclusion of dying.  What is the proper place of the study of dying in a discipline whose goal is to preserve and enhance life?

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