Invisible Experiences
: A Philosophical Investigation of Breathlessnes

  • Tina M T Williams

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This thesis attempts to redress what has been lacking in the Western philosophical tradition: an analysis of the significance of breath, breathing, and pathological breathlessness in the context of philosophy of medicine. This is conducted alongside research into its impact on the lives of those that suffer from this invisible illness, including transformations to fundamental structures of existence such as embodiment, affectivity, sociality, and meaning and intelligibility. Transformations often unexamined nor adequately explored in current knowledge and understandings of these illness experiences. Phenomenological analysis will be shown to be an invaluable methodology for exploring these changes. This is a pressing need when we further consider the rising rates of illnesses with breathlessness at their core are predicted to be one of the three greatest causes of morbidity and mortality in the future.

Inclusive of a substantive historical presentation, I confront the neglect of Western philosophical study, arguing that there has been an over-reliance of reductive worldviews dominating how the world and human experience are described and explained. I show that this is both inadequate and detrimental to our understanding of what it means to be.
Ancient Greek emphases on breath are recovered through phenomenological methodology to redress this: breath and breathing are revealed as meaningful beyond traditional spiritual and physiological conceptions. Existential accounts of anxiety complement this move from the unhelpful dichotomous severing between mind and body.

Utilising thought of key phenomenologists, an ethics of co-breathing emerges that captures existential facets of the significance of breathing and breathlessness to both our lives and to philosophical thought. Ultimately, this thesis illustrates what is latent in chronically breathless experience to better understand human existence. Concluding with policy recommendations, my analysis poses challenges to how we not only treat the breathless: socio-economic structural changes regarding environmental treatment and continuing health inequalities are demanded.
Date of Award12 May 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorHavi Hannah Carel (Supervisor)

Cite this