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ABSTRACT: This article contributes to the philosophical discourse of care studies and the growing interest in an aesthetic approach to care. Care ethics is a relational approach to morality first identified in the 1980s in the work of feminist theorists and today enjoys a wide academic discussion in philosophy, political theory, education theory, and medical ethics. Through a consideration of the embodied aspects of care as well as an analysis of several representative haiku, the authors argue that haiku supports the development of care capacities because it engages a caring imagination, helps people develop caring knowledge, and potentially encourages caring behavior.


by Ce Rosenow and Maurice Hamington


Practice yourself in little things, and thence proceed to greater.

     — Epictetus


Haiku, as a poetic form, involves the reader in an a priori investment in understanding the experiences of others. Readers approach each poem with the expectation that they will share something of the speaker’s experience. Writers approach each poem as an opportunity to share their experiences and those of others with the reader. The belief that such shared experience has value is always already part of conveying the haiku moment. Haiku is therefore well suited to supporting an aesthetic approach to the philosophical discourse of care studies. Care ethics is a relational approach to morality first identified in the 1980s in the work of feminist theorists and today enjoys a wide academic discussion in philosophy, political theory, education theory, and medical ethics. We suggest haiku supports the development of care capacities because it engages a caring imagination, helps people develop caring knowledge, and potentially encourages caring behavior. In a world beset by violence and oppressive political rhetoric, finding sources for fomenting care and compassion seems imperative.

Care Ethics, Embodied Care, and An Aesthetic of Care

Over the three decades of its development, care ethics has come to define a relational theory of morality that values context (Robinson, 2011, 30) and empathy (Slote, 2007) without eschewing emotions (Held, 2006, 10). As Nel Noddings describes, “Caring in every approach involves attention, empathetic response, and a commitment to respond to legitimate needs” (2010, 28). Rather than relying on rules or a moral calculus, caring is a reaction to an individual’s need, recognizing the fundamental vulnerability and interdependence of humanity (Barnes, 2012, 14-15). An intriguing and somewhat novel method of considering care is through its embodied dimension (Hamington, 2004). Care is fundamentally delivered and experienced through the body. There is an undeniable visceral dimension to care, which is hinted at in discussions of empathy and connection. One can argue that our bodies are built to care (Hamington 2004, 234): we are born with capacities that facilitate attending to others, making both cognitive and visceral connection, and delivering care through our actions.

A corporeal turn in care ethics begs the question of its aesthetic quality. Care has form and therefore the possibility of sensory value. Theatre scholar James Thompson characterizes care as a “sensory ethical practice” (2015, 437). So, too, with haiku as a literary form endeavoring to engender sensation. Haiku creates imagery, which is experienced through the body. The imagery, however, is not arbitrary. The poet creates images that are transmitted to the reader not as abstract concepts shared between brains but as ideas of value only fully understood through the body. Given the shared visceral and emotive potential of haiku with care, we explore more specifically how haiku might contribute to developing the human capacity to care.

Caring Knowledge, Caring Habits, and Caring Imagination

Haiku can contribute to the ability to develop caring knowledge, caring habits, and caring imagination because haiku provide momentary, digestible, yet profound insights into others’ experiences. First, we consider the epistemological dimension of caring. Knowledge is an essential prerequisite for care because it is difficult, if not impossible, to care for someone or something that is entirely unknown (Hamington, 2004, 55). Given this connection between knowledge and caring, there arises an epistemic burden on those who want to care. To effectively respond to the needs of another, one must attend to them: listen and learn of their circumstances and needs (Sevenhuijsen, 2014). It is only after acquiring such knowledge of others that one can truly deliver effective care. Without understanding the other and their context, care can be misguided, superficial, or ineffectual. The acquisition of caring knowledge, however, is a complex skill that requires the development of both emotive and cognitive skills and habits. The habits and skills of engaging poetry are an analog to caring knowledge acquisition. Haiku, with its focus on the present moment and exploration of meaning beyond the surface, is especially appropriate for helping the reader develop knowledge of others. In particular, haiku can help individuals develop complex habits of acquiring caring knowledge.

John Dewey’s robust notion of habit provides a liminal and supple conceptual foundation for how caring actions can iteratively take shape. For Dewey, habits are acquired and open ended structures or ways of being. As he describes, “The essence of habit is an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response, not to particular acts except, as under special conditions, these express a way of behaving” (Dewey, 1988, 32). Dewey describes a fully realized habit as one that opens up reflective opportunities but is also an instance of potential attention and reflection. Caring actions are complex amalgamations of acquired habits. Epistemological habits, emotional habits, practical habits, responsive habits and more come together in the effective delivery of care. Those habits are honed and developed over time. Engaging haiku can be an instance of iterative knowledge acquisition in service of caring — habit creation — that contributes to deeper attentiveness. As Scott Stroud describes, Dewey believed art encouraged “the sort of absorptive, engaged attention lost in today’s fragmented world.” This artistic absorption has the potential to cause the “intelligent altering of our deep-seated habits” (2011, 11). The form of haiku demands a level of personal investment and deep understanding that is not required with statements of propositional knowledge.

Haiku convey a “haiku moment,” that brings a profound awareness to the reader. Bruce Ross, in the introduction to his anthology, Haiku Moment, notes, “A haiku does not simply portray nature. It reveals the universal importance of each particular in nature as it burgeons forth and relates to other particulars in a given moment” (Ross, 1993, xiv). For the purposes of this essay and its focus on developing caring knowledge and caring habits, we focus on haiku whose “other particulars” involve human beings. A related argument can also be made for the effectiveness of haiku to encourage knowledge and habits involving care for the natural world. The following haiku by John Stevenson demonstrates the various formal components of a haiku and the ways in which they lead to the deep understanding that comes in the haiku moment:

autumn wind
the leaves are going
where I’m going
      (Stevenson, 2004, n.p.)

Traditionally, haiku include a seasonal reference. As William J. Higginson explains in The Haiku Seasons, that in the Japanese poetic tradition, “seasonal themes expanded into a rich specialized vocabulary of “seasonal topics” (kidai) and “season words” (kigo) which has dominated haiku (Higginson, 1996, 10). Dictionaries of season words, called saijiki, include sample poems in which the season words are used. This practice is not mandatory for contemporary haiku in Japan and elsewhere around the world; however, many haiku do include a seasonal reference that helps readers increase their understanding of the haiku moment by triggering their own associations with the season. In Stevenson’s poem above, the reference states the season explicitly in its description of the wind. Seasons can also be referenced through images associated with them. The impact of Stevenson’s choice will become clear through a consideration of the other parts of the poem.

Haiku typically contain two simultaneously occurring images. In this case, the poem opens with the image of the autumn wind and ends with the image of the leaves and the speaker moving in the same direction. There is an internal comparison between the movement of the wind and the movement of the leaves and the speaker. Literally, all three are in motion in the same direction. There is, however, an additional internal comparison suggested by the season. Autumn is not only the time when leaves fall but when the life cycle of plants and trees shifts towards dormancy or death depending on the species, which is why ascribing the season to the wind becomes significant. The speaker, too, is moving through life towards death: “the leaves are going / where I’m going.” The poem begins with the experience of moving with the wind and the fallen leaves, something that readers can relate to. It concludes with the deeper knowledge of human participation in the same cycle of birth, life, and death experienced by the natural world, which contributes to a growing acceptance of this cycle and an individual’s place within it. Such acceptance, in the context of care, can increase one’s compassion for other people because of our shared experience of the life and death cycle. Haiku afford the reader with an opportunity to move beyond the discrete meaning of words to find deeper responsive meaning. Such skill is crucial for meaningful care as one must often go beyond the immediate and superficial to find the need and context of the other.

But what about extending care and caring habits beyond relationships and circumstances that are known only through one’s own experience? This is where haiku can act as means for extending care and caring habits through what can be described as, “caring imagination” (Hamington, 2004, 206). Even as the body captures knowledge through habituation, that knowledge must be extended to new circumstances, and that extension is imagination. Again, haiku is a vehicle for exercising and stretching these imaginative skills. When earnestly engaging haiku, the experience is not merely reading words; there is insight and epiphany possible but only through some thoughtful effort and connection. There exists some evidence in recent neuroscience to support the claims of a relationship connection between poetry and emotive engagement made here. A study published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe blood flow in regions of the brain as participants were exposed to both poetry and prose. The researchers describe poetry as “often more syntactically challenging than prose . . . prose tends to be literal and denotative, while poetry commonly compacts meaning, exploiting metaphor and ambiguity in the interests of rich connotation” (Zeman et al, 2013, 134). Given haiku’s form, this relationship should be even stronger for haiku than poetry more generally. The researchers acknowledged that readers of poetry anticipate greater ambiguity and are more willing to reread passages to search for understanding (134). This is the cognitive “work” of poetry reading that leads to emotional and intellectual payoff — a type of habit development. The advantage of haiku is that its form facilitates the possibility of iterative engagement. Haiku that resonate can be read and reread. The researchers conclude from the imaging that the brain reacts differently for poetry than prose. Specifically, poetry activates emotive and introspective centers. Not surprisingly, they suggest poetry “tends to induce a more inward, reflective mental state than the more functional reading of prose” (150). Although this research was not overtly about caring or imagination, the conclusions support the notion of haiku as a means to exercise imaginative capacities are present.

This neurological research confirms the relationship between cultural and artistic engagement and morality that has existed in the humanities for a long time. For example, Martha Nussbaum describes three capacities that are essential to the cultivation of humanity in a modern cosmopolitan world. The first is the capacity to critically examine oneself and the basis of one’s beliefs. This is the healthy skepticism fostered by critical thinking and philosophy. The second capacity is to identify and connect with those different from us while respecting those differences and their complexity. The final capacity is related to the first two and is the ability to develop a narrative imagination: “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have” (1997, 11). The best means of developing a caring imagination is through direct experience of others, but art provides a rich alternative.

The role of imagination in caring is crucial to transcending physical and cultural differences that separate human beings (Hamington, 2015). One of the fundamental human challenges, sometimes phrased as the problem of “the one and the many,” is to create common cause among discrete individuals physically, culturally, and intellectually separate from one another. As Debra Shogan describes, “An ability to recognize a moral situation is affected by an ability to imagine what it is like for others when they are in moral situations” (1988, 68). Shogan distinguishes between “objective imagining” and “subjective imagining” (69). Objective imagining is limited to shared sensory experience such as understanding what it is to be wet from one’s personal experience of being in the rain, for example. Subjective imagining, however, is placing one’s self in someone else’s context and attempting to understand circumstances from their perspective. Subjective imagining is not entirely separate from objective imagining. Furthermore, subjective imagining is always partial and incomplete. Imagination is a crucial component of empathy. Haiku may be important for developing habits of tacit knowledge acquisition but it is also a vehicle for developing skills of caring imagination. Reading haiku activates a search, “What do these words mean? Why are they important to the author?” Haiku compels us to exercise our imagination and imagination is an essential part of caring for others. Haiku provide opportunities to develop empathy for others in part because of the importance of the image in haiku. These short poems focus on a single moment and are often structured around two simultaneously occurring images. Since images are things one can know or experience via the senses, they are a way of expressing embodied knowledge or developing embodied knowledge. Haiku can contribute to embodied knowledge that can lead, through a caring imagination, to greater understanding and empathy. In short, it can lead to one’s ability to care and potentially to develop caring habits towards others.

Care and Haiku

James Thompson, in his article, “Towards an Aesthetics of Care,” considers an aesthetic approach to care in the context of the dramatic arts, and his work can be productively applied to haiku and care. For instance, he notes that “an ‘aesthetics of care’ is then about a set of values realized in a relational process that emphasise engagements between individuals or groups over time. It is one that might consist of small creative encounters . . . one that notices inter-human relations in both the creation and the display of art projects” (437). Haiku are just such small creative encounters that can be experienced momentarily yet returned to repeatedly. In reading a haiku, one is aware of the inter-human relations in creating the poem whether those relationships exist within the poem’s subject matter, between writer and subject matter, between reader and subject matter, or some combination of these elements.

The momentary, creative encounters experienced through haiku also involve a degree of trust. The Danish philosopher, Knud Ejler Løgstrup, addresses this issue of trust in his consideration of poetry and ethics: The poet demonstrates trust through openness about emotion and experience and the audience trusts by entering the world created in the poem (Løgstrup, 1997,197-198). Trust allows the reader to become open to the experiences of others, engaging the caring imagination and developing caring knowledge.

The following poems reflect elements of inter-human relationships as well as demonstrate the potential for haiku to engage the caring imagination, increase caring knowledge, and lead to caring habits. They do not, of course, relay on a universal understanding of any particular experience. Each haiku moment as experienced and/or articulated by the poet is informed by a specific historical and cultural context. By understanding a component of the haiku moment, however, even though that understanding is also informed by historical and cultural context, readers can use caring imagination to care for someone who is physically and/or socially distant from them.

The first poem is by George Swede. It presents an intimate and ironic moment in the relationship of an elderly couple:

at the height
of the argument the old couple
pour each other tea
      (Kacian et al, 2013, 77)

The poem offers an opportunity for readers who aren’t part of an “old couple” to understand something of the intimacy created over the many years of their relationship. Readers gain caring knowledge from the image of the couple at the pinnacle of their argument also pouring tea for one another, which is itself a caring habit. They are as habituated to pouring their tea as they probably are to arguing — if the argument was unusual in some way, then it would likely disrupt the ordinary act of pouring the tea. Readers using their caring imaginations can experience something of this moment, perhaps relating to it through arguments they have had with loved ones or caring habits they have maintained even when upset with a loved one. It is possible that experiencing the moment conveyed in this poem could encourage one to be more attentive to caring habits even when one is angry with another person. Readers may also develop more empathy for elderly people because of an increased caring knowledge.

The next poem is by Marcus Larsson and demonstrates care even though the person receiving the care does not realize it.

autumn colours
we let mother lie
about our childhood
      (Kacian et al, 2013, 286)

Adult children often remember their childhoods very differently than their parents do. Here, the siblings tacitly agree not to correct their mother’s version. Perhaps she remembers it more favorably than her children do, although the poem does not specify that. If that is the case, then they are caring for her as an elderly parent by not reminding her of negative aspects of their childhood. Perhaps she remembers it more negatively than they do or simply has some facts wrong. In any case, they may be saving her and themselves from the pain of an argument over the details. Readers can use their caring imaginations to share in the siblings’ experience. Even if one does not have siblings or does not have a different view of their childhood than their parents do, one can draw on the knowledge of acquiescing to a family member or other loved one to avoid an argument or to avoid disillusioning the other person. The reader may decide to be more patient in such circumstances after reading this poem, choosing to intentionally develop more caring habits. Furthermore, care ethics is an approach to morality that views relationships as primary over any abstract rules or duties. This haiku clearly understands the mother-child relationship as much more important than a violation of truth telling.

The next poem is by Charlotte Digregorio:

Good Friday . . .
walking to confession
in worn shoes
      (Epstein, Sacred, 2014, 75)

Her poem is grounded in Christianity through the reference to Good Friday, the day Christians recognize each year as the day that Christ was crucified. The sacrament of confession takes place at many times during the year but especially on Good Friday. The poem conveys the speaker’s humility through the willingness to confess and through the image of the worn shoes. Care givers are asked to be attentive and responsive to the other. Worn shoes may indicate poverty or a weary traveler or someone who has witnessed a great deal. This small detail may provide great information and possible connection, thereby making care richer.

Religious difference often presents a chasm that people find difficult to cross. It creates the social distance previously referred to, a distance that can lead to a lack of care for others. In the case of this poem, if readers are not Christian, they may not relate directly to Good Friday, the sacrament of confession, or the importance of these things to the Christian religion. They may even have a negative view of Christians or Catholics or Protestants depending on their own life experiences.

If they participate in another belief system, however, they can draw on related knowledge of rituals or piety. If they do not participate in any belief system, they can draw on their knowledge of what it is like to feel humility. This knowledge can help them to imagine the speaker’s experience and relate to it, thereby increasing their capacity to care for someone practicing a belief system other than their own.

Stanford Forrester’s poem performs a similar type of work:

temple ruins . . .
pieces of a Buddha
still praying
      (Epstein, Sacred, 2014, 93)

The poem is grounded in Buddhist philosophy, but if one does not understand this philosophy, the images of temple ruins or a broken Buddha statue may create distance that makes it difficult to share the speaker’s experience of this moment. Again, readers can use their knowledge of prayer and religious buildings and spiritual statuary in whatever context they have experienced them to better understand the moment in the poem. They may develop empathy from the image of the temple ruins and recognize that the act of prayer can continue regardless of broken buildings or statues. Care is most needed in time of upheaval when context and relationships are upset. The ruins evoke disturbance and change while the praying might be a lost normal state. There may be (in this haiku) a latent call for care in the face of ruin. Even if readers are not Buddhists, they may increase their capacity to understand and to care through this poem.

In the following haiku, Johnny Baranski conveys the dehumanizing experience of prisoners in a jail:

After a strip search
old inmates, new inmates
in blue prison garb
      (Baranski, 2002, n.p.)

If one hasn’t been imprisoned or experienced a strip search, then this haiku certainly shares a moment that is both physically and socially distant. It may be difficult to care for prisoners when readers have no knowledge of their experience, and readers may make assumptions about whether or not prisoners deserve the same care as non-prisoners. Even if they recoil from the thought of a strip search, that feeling does not in itself constitute care. They can build on that feeling, however, by developing caring knowledge. Why do they recoil? Perhaps they can relate to the feeling of helplessness or powerlessness. Perhaps they have had physical experiences in which they felt violated or helpless, in which their personhood was not recognized or valued. Or perhaps they have developed caring knowledge because someone they know has had that experience.

The image of the old and new inmates in the same clothing heightens the lack of individual humanity of the prisoners within the prison system. Readers may be able to reflect on their own experiences where their individual humanity was not recognized. They may also be able to recall instances where they were confined, even for a short period of time. Drawing on any of these experiences helps them use their caring imaginations to move past assumptions about prisoners and relate to their human condition thereby increasing one’s ability to care.

Much like the preceding examples, the next, and final, haiku presents a moment that can be difficult for someone to fully understand if they haven’t shared the same experience. In this case, the experience is terminal illness and dying, and the haiku makes that moment easier to relate to. It is difficult to truly share the experience of someone who is dying because there is so little of that experience that can be approximated through other, similar experiences. Dying is universal; however, it is also an intensely personal experience and is likely different for each individual. Nevertheless, there is possibly no more important time for caring relationships than when a person is terminally ill and facing death. Death haiku can help readers develop caring knowledge of a dying person’s experience. These haiku, including the following poem by Jerry Kilbride, are part of the “centuries-old tradition of writing a ‘death poem’” that began in Japan and is now practiced by haiku poets around the world (Hoffmann, 1986, 9):

terminally ill . . .
the unopened buds
on an orchid stem
      (Epstein, Dreams Wander On, 2011, 80)

The poem offers several readings. First, it conveys the sense of lost potential through the internal comparison between the speaker with a terminal illness and the unopened buds of the orchid. The speaker recognizes that his time is limited and there are experiences, activities, and events in the future that he will not partake in. There might be goals that will not be achieved. In the context of the poem, there are elements of his life that will not be allowed to blossom. Quite literally, he may not even live long enough to see the orchid bloom. Given the delicacy of orchids, the juxtaposition of the dying person with the orchid also suggests the fragility of both living things.

The poignancy of this moment is increased by the use of an ellipsis at the end of the first line, which suggests the passage of time and/or contemplation (Welch, 2016). The speaker is not about to die in this moment but lives with the awareness of a shortened life span and the various, personal things that he might have hoped to accomplish or experience before dying. Visually, the dots of the ellipses are similar to the unopened orchid buds, further emphasizing the relationship between the plant that has not reached its full bloom and the person who is dying.

Bringing the reader into such an intensely personal moment recalls Løgstrup’s discussion of trust between poet and reader. A caring response to this trust is to engage the caring imagination in order to relate as much as possible to the speaker’s experience while also respecting that one cannot fully know what the other person is truly feeling. Readers might think of ways in which their own potential or that of someone close to them have been truncated. They might consider how their health limits some of their activities or goals. They can also recognize and relate to the fragileness of life, even if the specifics of this haiku are far removed from their own experience, and in that way develop compassion for the speaker in the poem.

Simultaneously, the juxtaposition of the terminally ill person with nature as represented by the orchid plant creates an internal comparison between the naturalness of dying and the naturalness of the plant. This increases the possible readings of the poem to include a peaceful acceptance of dying as the natural conclusion to life even as the speaker may struggle with the realization that his lifespan has been shortened. It is possible for the reader to imagine struggling between accepting that some things are inevitable and wishing they were not, thereby developing caring knowledge about the speaker’s experience.

A third reading of this poem suggests that there is potential in death. Just as the buds have not opened, the speaker has not died and transitioned to a new existence. Both the person and plant will undergo a natural change into a new form. Such a reading relies on a belief in an afterlife, a theme that runs through many death and death-awareness poems (Epstein, Dreams Wander On, 2011).

The multiplicity of readings suggests the amount of uncertainty people have regarding dying and death. Robert Epstein elaborates on haiku’s ability to convey this uncertainty in the introduction to the anthology, Dreams Wander On: Contemporary Poems of Death Awareness:

Insofar as haiku has been described as a form of wordless poetry, there is a tacit acknowledgment that whatever may be said or written about death is inherently tentative, provisional, and language is incapable of capturing that elusive something. Haiku, then, both point to and reflect the very uncertainty that characterizes death and does so by surrounding the theme with a rim of silence. In embodying the uncertainty associated with mortality, something transcended appears to surface, however faintly. (Epstein, 2011, 17)

Haiku can lead to greater knowledge of the uncertainty experienced by a person facing death. This shared understanding can paradoxically increase the potential for a caring relationship when uncertainty itself might have initially created a barrier to a shared understanding. Care becomes increasingly important in moments of intense change and instability, moments that reach their pinnacle in death. Haiku such as Kilbride’s increase the reader’s caring knowledge and can encourage people to develop caring habits in their interactions with someone experiencing terminal illness and dying.

We have offered a variety of different haiku, each with a multiplicity of possible readings. The ability to ruminate across a variety of images and circumstances reflects the habits and skill needed to earnestly care for one another.

Conclusion: What Difference Can A Haiku Make?

Western modernity can be characterized as a quest for categorical causality. Science and religion favor identifying profound and singular rationale. We want to know the cause of cancer, violence, global climate change, etc. As compelling as these quests are, the complexity of life is such that for some phenomena there is no single variable identifiable. No one suggests that reading haiku will make someone a caring person in and of itself. The human condition is far too complex and dynamic. Haiku, however, can be another instance of thoughtful engagement that can lead to developing caring capacities. As the above examples demonstrate, haiku offer single moments grounded in images that can help develop caring knowledge of others by increasing the capacity for empathy. Are haiku the only form of poetry capable of helping readers engage their caring imaginations, increase their caring knowledge, and develop more caring habits? No, but haiku, through their focus on a single moment, and their invocation of the senses engaged in that moment, may offer the most accessible poetic means of sharing another person’s experience. To understand the haiku, readers must take pause to inhabit a reality that is not their own and imaginatively experiment with shades of feelings perhaps unfamiliar to them. Developing the skill of mindfully taking imaginative and empathetic forays into unfamiliar experience can certainly help one who aspires to better caring for others to achieve responsive understanding. Readers may even be more intentional about their own caring habits. This shift in behavior recalls Thompson’s claim that “care aesthetics would be realised in more enduring, crafted encounters between people” (437). Haiku can certainly provide a step toward this realization, moving people toward more caring behaviors in their relationships with others.


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