Compassion, Necessity, and the Pharmakon of the Health Humanities

  • Graham McCaffrey University of Calgary, Faculty of Nursing
Keywords: Health humanities, compassion, empathy


Health humanities is an emergent interdisciplinary field drawing on existing traditions of using resources from the arts and humanities in the education of health professionals. Cultivation of compassion is often cited, though not without some debate, as a fit goal for the health humanities. In this paper, I undertake a critical reappraisal of the presumed link between health humanities and compassion. Firstly, I propose a model of the health humanities that takes up Derrida’s figure of the pharmakon, as polyvalent medicine or poison (among other meanings). Unlike Derrida, however, I treat the pharmakon as a substance, even when referring to arts and humanities. I then offer examples of negative effects of the pharmakon that both attest to its potency and unsettle comfortable assumptions that it is necessarily benign. Finally, I take up themes from Simone Weil’s reading of the Iliad to propose that necessity may be a useful alternative, or addition, to the ways we think about the goals of the health humanities 

Author Biography

Graham McCaffrey, University of Calgary, Faculty of Nursing


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