What is an organ? Heidegger and the phenomenology of organ transplantation

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 31 (3):179-196 (2010)
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This paper investigates the question of what an organ is from a phenomenological perspective. Proceeding from the phenomenology of being-in-the-world developed by Heidegger in Being and Time and subsequent works, it compares the being of the organ with the being of the tool. It attempts to display similarities and differences between the embodied nature of the organs and the way tools of the world are handled. It explicates the way tools belong to the totalities of things of the world that are ready to use and the way organs belong to the totality of a bodily being able to be in this very world. In so doing, the paper argues that while the organ is in some respects similar to a bodily tool, this tool is nonetheless different from the tools of the world in being tied to the organism as a whole, which offers the founding ground of the being of the person. However, from a phenomenological point of view, the line between organs and tools cannot simply be drawn by determining what is inside and outside the physiological borders of the organism. We have, from the beginning of history, integrated technological devices (tools) in our being-in-the-world in ways that make them parts of ourselves rather than parts of the world (more organ- than tool-like), and also, more recently, have started to make our organs more tool-like by visualising, moving, manipulating, and controlling them through medical technology. In this paper, Heidegger’s analysis of organ, tool, and world-making is confronted with this development brought about by contemporary medical technology. It is argued that this development has, to a large extent, changed the phenomenology of the organ in making our bodies more similar to machines with parts that have certain functions and that can be exchanged. This development harbours the threat of instrumentalising our bodily being but also the possibility of curing or alleviating suffering brought about by diseases which disturb and destroy the normal functioning of our organs.



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