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  • Bioethicists Are More Like Bricoleurs than Engineers:Reflections on Fredrik Svenaeus' Phenomenological Bioethics
  • Erik Parens (bio)
A Review of Fredrik Svenaeus, Phenomenological Bioethics: Medical Technologies, Human Suffering, and the Meaning of Being Alive, Routledge, 2017.

In America in the 1960s, ethics was out of fashion. Scientists tended to think it was as wooly and "ideological" as religion, and many philosophers agreed. But advances in the biosciences and biotechnologies made the need for ethical reflection hard to ignore. Ethics needed what today we would call rebranding.

The new field devoted to questions arising with advances in the biosciences and biotechnologies would be called "bioethics." As theologian Warren Reich put it when reflecting back on the birth of bioethics in the late 1960s,

The field of bioethics started with the word bioethics because the word is so suggestive and so powerful; it suggests a new focus, a new bringing together of disciplines in a new way with a new forum that tended to neutralize the ideologic slant that people associated with the word ethics.

(Reich 1993)

Different from its fuddy-duddy precursor, bioethics would be methodical and useful, resembling the technoscientific enterprise to which it would offer advice. New bioethical experts would methodically apply their principles to problems and they would produce advice as solid as any engineer's. [End Page 479]

In his valuable new book, the Swedish philosopher Fredrik Svenaeus seeks to offer a "richer" and "thicker" alternative to that Anglo–American tradition of bioethics—an alternative that has its roots in the European, specifically phenomenological tradition of philosophy. I hasten to add: Svenaeus is well aware that, in fact, Anglo–Americans can take a fair amount of credit for approaches to bioethics that have what he calls "phenomenological heritages" (6)—namely, feminist bioethics, narrative bioethics, and the ethics of care—but it is the contrast between the Anglo–American and phenomenological traditions that he uses to frame his book, and it is the one I will accept to make my comments.

Basically, whereas I find his elucidation of the conceptual tools in the phenomenological tradition to be quite helpful, I cannot say the same about his absorption with that old picture of the bioethicist as engineer. As someone who has worked at a bioethics research institute for more than two decades, it seems to me that whether we are more comfortable in the Anglo–American or phenomenological tradition, bioethicists are more like bricoleurs than engineers. With the term bricoleur, I mean to conjure the figure described by Claude Levi-Strauss—someone like what in English we call a handyman or "Jack of all trades." Imagine someone roaming the streets of a 19th-century village, pulling a cart filled with the tools and materials they have scavenged on their meanderings across the countryside. When someone has a problem (perhaps a wall has caved in), they hail the bricoleur, who uses the tools in their cart, to respond as best they can. Their response is not as grand or long-lasting as a building engineer's, but it provides temporary shelter from the cold.


As Svenaeus observes, one of the striking differences between the Anglo–American and phenomenological traditions is their different relationships to modern natural science and to the technologies it undergirds. At the risk of oversimplification: whereas scholars from the Anglo–American tradition have tended toward enthusiasm about modern natural science and technology, scholars from the phenomenological tradition have tended toward criticism. The phenomenological tradition does, after all, attempt to bracket the attitude of the natural sciences. It seeks to understand what it is like to have experience rather than to explain the mechanisms that give rise to experience.

As Svenaeus also observes, the phenomenological tradition can counterbalance the Anglo–American tradition's tendency to view science [End Page 480] as "value free." That is, it can be especially helpful in noticing that modern science grows out of a particular worldview, which rejects an earlier worldview. Here I of course refer to Francis Bacon's and Rene Descartes' explicit rejection of the view of the study of nature found in Aristotle.

One of the primary aims of those founders of modern natural...


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pp. 479-486
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