Bioethics Blogs

The Impossibility of the Inert: Placebo and the Essence of Healing by Thomas J. Csordas

The concept of placebo is predicated on the opposition between active and inert, deploying this opposition to assert that an action or substance with no inherent active principle can have a paradoxical effect “as if” it were active.1 My thesis is that there is no such thing as the inert in human affairs, relationships, or experience. Think of the apparently simple retort of the bullied child that “sticks and stone may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” Contrary to this retort, names can indeed hurt. They are not inert, but carry an actual force identifiable as hate or disdain. And what of the retort itself? Is it a vain, desperate, and ultimately inert act of self-protection, effective only insofar as it taps into the “as if” logic of the placebo? I think not, though like any remedy it must be applied under the right conditions and with the understanding that it may not be uniformly effective in the degree to which it buffers the noxious influence of name-calling with an equivalent, self-confident force of self-esteem. There is also, however, an easily overlooked element of materiality in the retort. That is its rhythm: the fact that it is phrased in trochaic meter. It is not only that meter adds the force of incantation or song, but that it directly engages the embodied existential immediacy of the situation, contributing an element of jauntiness encompassing not only tone of voice but posture and gesture.

The notion of materiality as I have just used it is of value in reflecting on the impossibility of the inert.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.