Medicine is predicated on a view of human nature that is highly positivist and atomistic. This is apparent in the way in which its students are taught, clinical consultations are structured and medical evidence is generated. The field of medical humanities originally emerged as a challenge to this overly narrow view, but it has rarely progressed beyond tinkering around the edges of medical education. This is partly because its practitioners have largely been working from within a pervasive medical culture from which it is difficult to break free, and partly because the field has been insufficiently armed with scholarly thinking from the humanities. This is beginning to change and there is a sign that research in medical humanities has the potential to mount a persuasive challenge to medicine's ways of teaching, working and finding out. This article problematizes medicine's narrow viewpoint, grounding its critique in philosophical ideas from phenomenology and pragmatism. I will reflect upon the historical context within which medical humanities has emerged and briefly examine specific examples of how its interdisciplinary approach, involving humanities scholars with clinicians and medical scientists, may develop new research directions in medicine.