Monday, August 29, 2011

House and Philosophy by Henry Jacoby and William Irwin

I quickly reached for this one at the bookstore when I saw the great Hugh Laurie as the great Dr. House on the cover, as would any avid fan of the show House MD. House and Philosophy—a series of stimulating and provocative essays written by various philosophy professors and assembled by series editors Henry Jacoby and William Irwin—delves past the cantankerous surface of the famed doctor’s character to analyze his complex philosophies, which are revealed in various episodes in the series that deal with religion, medical ethics and the nature of human relationships.

Many aspects of House’s character—his cynical and antisocial nature, his disparagement of religion and his lack of empathy for the patients he goes to great lengths to treat—are placed within the contexts of a wide range of philosophies, from Aristotle and Socrates to Nietzsche and Lao Tzu. It turns out that, despite being a staunch atheist, House’s beliefs do fit in with certain Eastern religious practices, such as Taoism. He is also compared in depth to Sherlock Holmes, the iconic detective he is based on, as he solves medical mysteries by value of truth for its own sake and not for the sake of the people involved.

The essays, as well as the television show, also explore the ethical side of the medical field, such as medical paternalism—that is, the right of the patient to choose the treatment they want versus having doctors decide for them; utilitarianism, the philosophy that the ends justify the means; and the balance of sufficiently caring for patients without getting too emotionally involved. Examples are taken from various episodes, such as the time House resuscitating a patient who signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” form; House lying to the transplant committee in order to obtain a new heart for a patient who does not qualify; and his use of experimental treatments in order to solve an epidemic among babies in the maternity ward. Some of the essays make the case that emotional involvement would cloud House’s judgment, but there are rare cases where getting involved turns out productive, such as his befriending a rape victim and helping her through her trauma.

The philosophical analyses of House’s rapport with his colleagues are no less intriguing, as he fulfills the role of employee as well as employer; boss as well as theoretical teacher; semi-loyal friend and occasional love interest. While his verbal and emotional abuse of his subordinates does not portray him in a sympathetic light, his refusal to commit to relationships reveals his fear of making himself vulnerable to others. While he may behave disloyally towards Dr. Wilson, his only friend (the Watson to his Holmes), one essay claims that the two are morally equal and therefore are very compatible friends.

House and Philosophy ought to be required reading for fans of the TV show, as its thought-provoking quality elicits a deeper appreciation for the show as a whole as well as its multifaceted protagonist. This series also includes The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Matrix and Philosophy and even Seinfeld and Philosophy, to name a few, books that would provide a good deal of entertainment as well as educational value.

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