MUSING | The Philosophy of Illness

“Until we are sick, we understand not.” – Keats

“Illness forces us to pay attention to our bodies, in and by themselves. We get a sense of the thickness of our flesh, and sometimes, even the body as experiencing its own organs.[1] In remembering, we come back to the things that matter.”[2] This could not be more significantly true in regards to trauma and illness, but how does illness affect not only the body in which it invades, but the act of remembering and, subsequently, our understanding of time through the lens of our own life span?

A.N. Prior argued the following after a painful event, “One says, e.g., “Thank goodness that’s over,” and [this]...says something which it is impossible that any use of a tense less copula with a date should convey. It certainly doesn’t mean the same as, e.g., “Thank goodness the date of the conclusion of that thing is Friday, June 15, 1954,” even if it be said then. (Nor, for that matter) does it mean, “Thank goodness the conclusion of that thing is contemporaneous with this utterance.” Why should anyone thank goodness for that?”[3]

Illness is an interesting eyeglass with which to reflect on the notion of time, as this notion becomes most prevalent within these extreme examples. We can look at an illness as a clear illustration of linear time with a distinct past, present and future. The trauma serves as the present, the diagnosis the past and the prognosis the future. Through each step of the instance, the sick person (as well as those nearest to them) is well aware of time; and in some cases, how much was (or almost) lost or how very little of it is left. Further, through illness, many come to the first true realization that they are going to perish (of the future); and this is a reminder of our initial acknowledgement of time: we are born, we exist, we die.

H. Bergson believed that the passage of life was continuous; because to live is to grow old, time reveals itself partly in the way one experiences one’s inner life. “This inner life,” he wrote, “ may be compared to the unrolling of a coil, for there is no living being who does not feel himself coming gradually to the end of his role.”[4] Contrary to Bergson’s theory of the continuous flow of time, Immanuel Kant’s theory can be deduced essentially in spatial terms; “For in order to make even internal change thinkable we must represent time (the form of inner sense) figuratively as a line, and the internal change by the drawing of this line (motion) and so we are obliged to employ external perception in order to represent the successive existence of ourselves in different states.”[5] Kant’s statement would suggest that memory is experienced in different ways and that once a moment has passed, it can never be experienced the same way again. While he may go further to iterate that this concept would prove that the past cannot be regained, this can also explain how our memories (let alone our bodies and experiences) are altered and/or deteriorated both positively and negatively due to illness.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes a special note of morbid motility, and illness in general, as a total way of being-in-the-world.[6] This is recognized in how we move and interact with world, or the lack of this intentional movement abilities brought on by illness. Healthy individuals are not forced to be driven by concrete movements that require laborious mental acts or blind physical actions (habitual body memories) in order to perform motions. Illness greatly detracts from our expectations for the future and our ‘horizon of possibilities.’ Additionally, illness forces us to be indeterminately caught up in the present, unable to consider the past as whole (separate from the direct situation) or envision a future as anything more than an emaciated extension of the present.[7]

In comparison to the inadequacy of Descartes’ view on the union of the body & mind,[8] Merleau-Ponty responds that we must discard the well-entrenched idea that reflexes are ‘blind processes’; instead, at all levels of life we must speak of a certain manner of ‘being-in-the-world.’[9] Bodily injury can bring to light our bodily intentionality towards an indistinguishable respectivity towards the world. Truly, the notions of health, disease and recovery are the embodiment of the past, present and future.

Conversely, illness can also be such a haunting experience that pervades our present so much so that it remains as part of the structure of our ‘habited body.’ So much so that to the extent that it becomes rooted in our biological existence, our personal existence becomes inherently precarious; yet we hide this precariousness from ourselves by mostly repressing the organism (trauma) and reducing the past to a collection of ideas and images. Such phenomena of [illness or injury] can reawaken us to the actual character of the past and thus allow us to appreciate the role that our body plays in our being-in-the world. Since emotion and memory can bring about the phenomena of [illness and injury], it becomes evident that we can experience a ‘former present’ rather than merely recollecting or having an idea or image of it.[10] This concept demonstrates the extent to which a past experience of illness can remain emotionally involved in our present lives. Our exact memory of that event ‘reopens time’, evokes a certain time, and invites us to relive it.

Aristotle considered illness as a state of flux, and deemed it an enormous influence on memory– (and this is why memory does not occur in those who are in some trouble, or because of their time of others, because of wearing down and because of the hardness [illness] of what receives the affection, the imprint is not produced.)[11] In particular, the eikon begins to move from the realm of the psychological into the realm of the physiological. The mental image becomes acutely influenced by the surfaces within the now ill body. Interestingly, due to illness, our memories are now, perceivably, moving.

Traumatic body memories arise out of moments of duress and bear down on one’s lived experience; the past invading our present. Edward S. Casey states that illness creates episodic memories that plague and disrupt the history of our bodies, clearly illustrating both the cause and the effect of the trauma. Memories of illness seem to be more vivid and detailed, particularly when the mind has suppressed specific ones in order to protect itself. In this regard, disabling illness is a significant contrast to our body memory (which acts habitually). We often attempt to push these memories to the peripheral, habitual layer in an attempt to marginalize the sting of their effects. How do we know when a trauma is just too much for us to deal with and it must be tucked away? What determines when we are able or ready to face it head on? Does our memory do this intrinsically to protect us? It would appear as if the trauma itself that has directly affected our body memory, breaking it into parts so that is ineffective and irregular.

Mark C. Taylor raises a ruthlessly contrasting idea that sickness is indeed not episodic, but instead chronic. He asserts that the body always inevitably betrays, and that betrayal is disease. “When disease inevitably appears as sickness, it is nothing new, for I finally realize that it has always been arriving – arriving from the beginning, indeed even before the beginning.” To acknowledge such a betrayal is to confess, “I am sick, always already sick.”[12] How does this idea affect our ideas of traumatic body memories as discussed by Casey? Do they continue to exist if we think of them as constant vs. sporadic, and then, are they still even considered to be traumatic? These moments would no longer be life threatening or life changing if we are prepared to encounter them; it erases the division and quiets the drama usually associated with these kinds of events. “Disease,” he concludes, “we eventually learn, is chronic; it is as endless as time itself."[13]

Images all by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (from top to bottom): Untitled (It's Just a Matter of Time), 1992, billboard, dimensions vary with installation, Installation view: Cambridge Train Station, Cambridge, UK, March 30 - May 4, 2002, © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation; Untitled, 1991, billboard, dimensions vary with installation, Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser, © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation; Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, candies: individually wrapped in multicolored cellophane, endless supply: dimensions vary with installation with ideal weight 175 lbs., promised gift of Donna and Howard Stone, photo: Erinn M. Cox, artwork © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation; Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990, wall clocks, 13 1/2 x 27 x 1 1/4 inches, Edition of 3, 1 AP, © 2016 The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; Untitled (Golden), 1995, strands of beads and plastic track, dimensions vary with installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, through prior gift of Solomon R. Guggenheim; The Art Institute of Chicago, through prior gift of Adeline Yates; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through prior gifts of J. D. Zellerbach, Gardner Dailey, and an anonymous donor; partial gift of Andrea Rosen in honor of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 2008, © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation / Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Installation view: Paired, Gold: Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Roni Horn, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 2, 2009–January 6, 2010. Photo: David Heald © SRGF; Untitled, 1991, screenprint on paper: 161 stacked sheets, 3 5/8 x 21 3/4 x 16 1/2 inches, edition unique, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, Saul and Ellyn Dennison, 2008, © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation / Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

*Author’s note: Artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres was an American artist born in Cuba who I believe was conceptually addressing illness and its emotional and psychological impacts in very interesting ways and this is why I posted several images of his work with this musing. My thoughts should in no way be interpreted as critique of or description for his work.

If you would like to know more about Gonzalez-Torres, visit: or or the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, or the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Footnotes: [1] Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) 174.; [2] Edward S. Casey, preface, xiii.;[3] A. N. Prior, “Thank Goodness that’s Over.” Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy XXXIV (1959) 17.; [4] Thomas J. Cottle, “The Time in Youth.” The Personal Experience of Time. eds. Bernard S. Gorman and Alden E. Wessman (New York: Plenum Press, 1977) 164, quoting H. Bergson from Matter and Memory. (New York: Humanities Press. 1964) 140. [5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1934) Chapter ii, Section 4.; [6] Monika Langer, A Guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Tallahassee: The Florida State University Press, 1989) 43, see M. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception 98-147 where he discusses the spatiality of the body itself and motility.; [7] Monika Langer, 46, see M. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception 98-147 where he discusses the spatiality of the body itself and motility.; [8] This is noted in Langer’s argument, p.29, see footnote nos.1-6, quoting Descartes’ ‘Sixth Mediation,’ from Mediations on First Philosophy: Descartes ‘[begins] by observing the great difference between mind and body. Body is of its nature always divisible; mind is wholly indivisible.’ He notes that ‘although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body,’ if one loses a limb one is ‘not aware that any subtraction has been made from the mind.’ Thus Descartes is led to assert ‘the total difference between mind and body’ and too ‘observe that [the] mind is not directly affected by all parts of the body; but only by the brain, and perhaps only by one small part of that – the alleged seat of common sensibility’. Moreover, since any given disturbance in the part of the brain that directly affects the mind can produce only kind of sensation…many as a compound of body and mind cannot but be sometimes deceived by his own nature. For some cause that occurs, not in the foot, but in any other of the parts traversed by the nerves from the foot to the brain, or even in the brain itself, may arouse the same disturbance as is usually aroused by a hurt foot; and then the pain will be felt as [though] it were in the foot, and there will be a ‘natural’ illusion of sense. This presses the observation that the union in question is ‘primitive’ and that the soul’s way of moving the body is simply through gravity.; [9] Monika Langer, 31.; [10] Monika Langer, 33.; [11] Richard Sorabji, Aristotle on Memory. (Providence: Brown University Press, 1972) De Memoria et Reminiscentia, 450a32.; [12] Mark C. Taylor, nOts. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993) 215-216.; [13] Mark C. Taylor, 253.

Bibliography: “Aristotle (3840322 BCE): General Introduction.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 10 April 2006 <>.; Apostle, Hippocrates G. (transl.) Aristotle’s Physics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1969.; Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.; Cottle, Thomas J. “The Time in Youth.” Gorman and Wessman 163-189.; Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authenticity, From Kierkegaard to Camus, Problems of Modern European Thought. London, England: Rutledge, 1995.; Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1934.; Langer, Monika. A guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Tallahassee, FL: The Florida State University Press, 1989.; Madison, Gary Brent. The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Series in Continental Though: V. 3. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981.; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1962.; Prior, A.N. “Thank Goodness that’s Over.” Philosophy; The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy No. XXXIV (1959): 12-17.; Sorabji, Richard. Aristotle on Memory. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1972.; Taylor, Mark C. nOts. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

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