Materialism in the Body

Brooke ReBarker
Professor Rivkin-Fish and Professor Thrailkill
ENGL 264/ANTH 272
25 January 2020
Materialism in the Body
In Arthur Kleinman’s first chapter of The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Meaning, and the Human Condition, he refers to the Western biomedical process as a “radically materialist pursuit of the biological mechanism of disease” (Kleinman, 9). In this definition, ‘materialist’ is expressed as the desire and value for physical comfort and health in the body that clinicians prioritize when treating a patient. Kleinman argues that biomedicine focuses on the biological symptoms in the body rather than the psychological or social aspects that influence illness experiences that accompany disease. He defines the materialist view as believing “that symptoms are clues to disease, evidence of a ‘natural’ process, a physical entity to be discovered or uncovered…this is a way of thinking that fits better with the secure wisdom of physical science than with the nervous skepticism of the medical profession” (Kleinman, 17). He describes that physicians are searching for the biological problem that they have the potential to solve with medicine but this becomes challenging to understand in cases of chronic illness because there is no biological or material cure. He describes that this materialist view is problematic because it is excluding extremely important experiences of illness and it dehumanizes patients down to their diseases. In chronically ill patients, this materialist pursuit is devastating as physicians perceive themselves as unable to help in their suffering. He argues “the biomedical system replaces this allegedly ‘soft’, therefore devalued, psychosocial concern with meanings with the scientifically ‘hard’, therefore overvalued, technical quest for the control of symptoms” (Kleinman, 9). He describes that overlooking the psychosocial and only focusing on symptoms does not provide a proper understanding of each person’s specific illness experience. This value of material and scientific understandings of the body are essential for curing diseases but other healing beliefs and aspects of the psychosocial should also be incorporated into caring for the ill.

Kleinman, Arthur. “Meaning of Symptoms and Disorders”. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Meaning, and the Human Condition. Basic Books, 1998, pp. 1-30.

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