CHHS Research Seminar (online) – Dr Anthony Fernandez

On Wednesday, 2 June Dr Anthony Fernandez spoke at the Centre for Health, Humanities and Science Research Seminar. The title of his talk was ‘How to Empathize by Objectifying’.

In the literature on empathy in medicine, it’s common to contrast empathic openness with an objectifying attitude. In empathic openness, the clinician perceives the patient as an embodied subject expressive of intentions, desires, and emotions. In an objectifying attitude, on the other hand, the clinician perceives the patient as a mere body or as an organism with a physiological dysfunction. Beginning with the phenomenological studies of Drew Leder and S. Kay Toombs, and continuing through the present discourse in the field, phenomenologists have typically argued that clinicians should avoid objectifying their patients because it’s harmful, dehumanizing, and undermines effective care. Fernandez argued that these popular phenomenological characterizations rely on an oversimplified understanding of the relationship between empathy and objectification: The empathic and objectifying attitudes should not be understood as fundamentally opposed because, in some cases, fully empathizing requires that the empathizer partially objectify the empathee. Using the example of interacting with someone with Tourette’s Syndrome, Fernandez demonstrated how objectifying certain aspects their movements actually facilitates rather than impedes empathic understanding. Moreover, Fernandez argued that this example should motivate phenomenologists to rethink some key aspects of their traditional understanding of objectification.

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