22 June 2023

Lennart Nordenfelt has been appointed Honorary Doctor by Linköping University. Nordenfelt has been central to the development of philosophy of medicine, in Sweden and internationally, and has contributed to the early development of medical humanities at Linköping University from the beginning of the 1980s.

Lennart Nordenfelt
Emma Busk Winquist

On 27 May 2023, Lennart Nordenfelt, senior professor at Marie Cederschiöld University College in Stockholm, was appointed Honorary Doctor by the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Linköping University. “I was genuinely surprised by this nomination and appointment, and very happy for this recognition from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Linköping University”, Nordenfelt says.

Advancing Philosophy of Medicine and Medical Humanities

Nordenfelt has offered conceptual analyses of the concepts of dignity, disease and health and developed a theory of health within the philosophical field of action theory. In Nordenfelt’s theory of health, health is understood as an individual’s ability to realise its vital goals under standard circumstances. If related to the basic distinction between two broad understandings of health as either bio-statistical (and aiming at a theoretical and value-free concept of health, where the analysis rests on biological functions and statistical normality and health is understood as absence of disease) or holistic and normative (as, for example, based on the notion of ability to realise vital goals while disease is understood as a state or process that typically affect someone’s health in a negative way), Nordenfelt’s theory is holistic and normative. Further, Nordenfelt had a central role in the development of Tema Hälsa och samhälle – often translated as the Department or Division of Health and Society – at Linköping University. This division was a research-oriented environment comprised of researchers from different humanities and social sciences strands with a shared thematic focus on health, illness, disease, health care etc. Nordenfelt was part of the Division of Health and Society from 1982 to 2014, the last two years as professor emeritus.

Establishing the Division of Health and Society

“Starting to work at the Division of Health and Society was very different, and even a bit of a shocking experience, in the light of my past experiences at a traditional philosophy department at Uppsala University. When I started, there were no other philosophers or humanities scholars at this division. At this time, colleagues at the Division of Health and Society included sociologists and health economists. A few years later, the Division of Health and Society also comprised historians and history of ideas scholars, and later on, anthropologists. It was very different from the older universities in Sweden, in several aspects. The Division of Health and Society was not only thematically focused, and there was also an expectation on senior researchers to apply for externally funded research projects and to build research groups through externally funded projects. This was central from the very start, and nothing I had encountered before starting at Linköping University. However, I was very generously welcomed to the division, and received funding also for two PhD students. When I left Linköping University, I had been the main supervisor of 22 graduate students at the Division of Health and Society”, Nordenfelt reflects.

The Division of Health and Society was inaugurated in 1981. It is the earliest example of medical humanities or health humanities – the latter being one of the possible translations of the Swedish term humanistisk hälsoforskning that commonly was used at this time – in an institutionalized form in Sweden. Nordenfelt describes the medical/health humanities, and particularly philosophy of medicine, landscape at this time:
“In the 1970s, philosophy of medicine was not an existing field in Sweden. I had started to work with conceptions of disease at this time, but there were only a few others within philosophy of medicine. However, we did organize the first Nordic symposium on philosophy of medicine in Stockholm in 1982 with philosophers of medicine and health care professionals from Nordic and European countries, and from the USA. A few years later, the European Society for Philosophy of Medicine and Health Care was inaugurated. This society was very inclusive from its inception, with philosophers, health care professionals and medical sociologists, as some examples, participating in its conferences from the start”, Nordenfelt explains.

“At this time, we did use the term medical humanities occasionally, but more often, we talked about humanistisk hälsoforskning. And as one example of an early larger interdisciplinary and international research project, I and some of the colleagues at the Division of Health and Society were part of the project Goals of Medicine. This project was led by researchers at the Hastings Center in the USA, lasted from 1994 until 2000, and involved philosophers of medicine, medical sociologists, health care economists, religious studies scholars and researchers from primary care, pediatrics, surgery, psychiatry, and the nursing sciences”, Nordenfelt recalls.

In addition to being a much-appreciated colleague and professor at the Division of Health and Society, Nordenfelt has been President of the European Society for Philosophy of Medicine and Health Care, between 1999-2004.

Curious about the early years of medical/health humanities in the 1980s and 1990s in Sweden?


  • Nordenfelt, L., ed. (1993) Tema Hälso- och sjukvården i samhället inför 2000-talet, Meddelande 1993:2, ISSN 0284-5725;
  • Perselli, J., Tengland, P-A., (2001) Tema H:s medverkan i det internationella projektet ’The Goals of Medicine’, Meddelande 2001:2, ISSN 1400-9773, and
  • Qvarsell, R., Torell, U., eds (2001) Humanistisk hälsoforskning: en forskningsöversikt. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

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