Thursday, January 18, 2007

Where does it feel good?

If a doctor asks you: 'Where does it hurt?', it's pretty straightforward to point her to the relevant bit of your anatomy and ask for something to be done to make the pain go away. But is pleasure like that? Can pleasure be located in that way? (I'm feeling pleasure here...) If not, then this is a good reason to stop thinking of pleasure and pain as simple counterparts: one positive and desired, the other negative and to be avoided. Can pleasure be timed in the way that pain can? ("Well, my back became sore after the football match yesterday afternoon and it's still painful. But I've been feeling pleasure in my right ear since 7am...")

We were wondering about these questions today in a class for a paper I'm teaching on pleasure in ancient philosophy. We had been reading Ryle's characteristically confident dismissal of the idea that pleasure can be located or 'clocked'. Intuitions turned out not to be very consistent or clear on this matter, and it is worth wondering why. Here is Ryle:
We can tell a doctor where it hurts and whether it is a throbbing, a stabbing or a burning pain; but we cannot tell him, nor does he ask, where it pleases us, or whether it is a pulsating or a steady pleasure. Most of the questions which can be asked about aches, tickles and other sensations or feelings cannot be asked about our likings and dislikings, our enjoying and detestings. In a word, pleasure is not a sensation at all, and therefore not a sensation on one scale with an ache or a twinge.
G. Ryle, 'Pleasure', in his Dilemmas (Cambridge, 1954), p.58

Ryle has bigger difficulties in his sights in this piece, and he moves on rapidly from this point on the basis that he has shown that pleasures are not sensations. I am not so sure, or at least I am not so sure that he has here given a good enough reason to think that pleasures are not sensations. The pains he has in mind, we should notice, are pretty basic physical pains so we might begin by asking whether there are similarly basic pleasures. (There is, while we're at it, a good question to be asked about whether he is entitled to compare these pains with 'enjoyings', which seem through the rest of the article to be a much more varied and general class of psychological phenomenon.) There is, first, the silly point that there is of course a perfectly good reason why we don't talk to doctors about where we feel pleasure and of what sort: doctors tend not to be interested in this sort of thing and we don't really go to the doctor to tell them about where it feels good. Perhaps less flippantly, there is something to be said for the idea that just as -- what Ryle seems to acknowledge -- just as it is possible to give various qualitative characteristics of a pain (it throbs, burns, etc.) so it is possible to give characterisations of sensations which we can group together as pleasures. True, pleasures are not classified as clearly and institutionally as pains are (see, for example, the Pain resource center's classification), but this is not surprising. Pains are classified like this to help clinical practice. Still, I can imagine an analogous classification of pleasures: this is pleasantly warm or cool; it's pleasant to feel held or free; this is an acute pleasure or a tingling pleasure or a tickling pleasure. There is the 'pulsating' pleasure of a mouthful or sherbet or the steady pleasure of a warm duvet.

There are, to be sure, different functions for our descriptions of pleasures and pains. For the latter, what is most immediately important -- for our survival, at the limit, or for treatment and care -- is that this sensation is painful. So that becomes the primary mode of classification; it is what we think first about such a sensation. For pleasures, perhaps, that a sensation is pleasant is not necessarily the first thing we think about. (I lazily tried to Google 'pleasure classification' and 'pleasure types'. Not only did it turn up nothing like the clinical classificatory material I found when trying 'pain classification', but instead it turned a much greater variety of things. Have a look yourself or else use your imagination...) But that does not, I think, mean that pleasures are not sensations nor that they cannot be located. That is not to say that I think that pleasure and pain are symmetrical positive and negative sensations. But if we think they are not we had better be sure about precisely why.

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