Illness and the social self (upcoming Uehiro lectures)

The annual Uehiro lectures will take place in Oxford next week. This year, they are by Richard Holton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Their topic interests me because I feel strongly that we need to start looking differently at various forms of illnesses.

Not everything that looks broken is broken. Not everyone who appears ill is ill. And illness has a tendency to take over our lives and define who we are. In some cases, that may be fitting but in many (most?) others, it is not.

This year’s lecture series focuses on the theme “Illness and the social self”. I would have loved to attend, but am out of the country at the moment.

Who we are depends in part on the social world in which we live. In these lectures I look at some consequences for three mental health problems, broadly construed: dementia, addiction, and psychosomatic illness.

Lecture 1 takes place on Monday 21 May:

“Dementia & The Social Scaffold Of Memory
Loss of memory is a central feature of dementia. On a Lockean picture of personal identity, as memory is lost, so is the person. But the initial effect of dementia is not the simple destruction of memory. Many memories can be recognized with suitable prompting and scaffolding, something that thoughtful family and friends will naturally offer. This suggests a problem of access. More radically, if memory itself is a constructive process, it suggests a problem of missing resources for construction – resources which can be provided by others. This applies equally to procedural memories—to the practical skills likewise threatened by dementia. This leads us away from a narrowly Lockean approach: the power to recognize a memory, or exercise a skill, may be as important as the power to recall; and contributions from others may be as important as those from the subject.”

Lecture 2 will be held on Tuesday 22 May:

“Addiction, Desire, And The Polluted Environment
Much recent work on addiction has stressed the importance of cues for the triggering of desire. These cues are frequently social. We have a plausible theory of this triggering at the neurophysiological level. But what are the ethical implications? One concerns the authority of desire: maximizing the satisfaction of desires no longer looks like a obvious goal of social policy once we understand the dependence of desires on cues. A second concerns an addict’s responsibility in the face of cues. I suggest that the provision of cues can be thought of as akin to pollution, for which the polluter may bear the primary responsibility. I spell out some of the political implications and ask whether there are good grounds for extending the argument to the cues involved in obesity.”

Wednesday offers an unrelated presentation titled “Sleep softly: Ethics, Schubert and the value of dying well”, an interdiscplinary collaboration on music, mortality and ethics.

Lecture 3 on the annual Uehiro lecture series is scheduled for Thursday 24 May, on the topic of illness and attitude:

“Many illnesses have been thought—controversially—to have a psychosomatic component. How should we understand this? Sometimes a contrast is made between organic illness and mental illness: psychosomatic illnesses are the latter masquerading as the former. But if the mental is physical, and hence organic, this will not help. An alternative approach distinguishes between symptoms that are influenced by the patient’s attitudes, and those that are not; psychosomatic illnesses are marked by the former. Does this make the class too wide? Suppose I aggravate a bad back by refusing to exercise, falsely expecting the exercise to be dangerous. My symptoms are influenced by my attitude: are they therefore psychosomatic? I suggest that there is no sharp cut-off. I examine the role of attitudes in various illnesses, including addiction, focussing on the ways that social factors affect the relevant attitudes. I ask whether recognition of a continuum might help lessen the stigma that psychosomatic illness has tended to attract, and suggest other ways that treatment might be more attuned to these issues.”

You can book online: here.

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