Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Private pain

I'm still wondering about Sextus Empiricus M 9.162-7. At the moment I am wondering about the sense in which Sextus thinks that pain is 'private'. He certainly argues here that the only method by which god might acquire knowledge of pain is by experiencing it. The relevant bit of the argument is as follows:
If god possesses knowledge of these [sc. of goods, bads, and indifferents], he knows what sort of things are good, bad, and indifferent. Since, then, suffering is one of the indifferent things, he knows both suffering and what it is like by nature. And if so, he has experienced it; for without experience he would not have formed a notion of it, but, just as the man who has not experienced white colour and black, owing to his having been blind from birth, cannot possess a notion of colour, so too god cannot have a notion of suffering if he has not experienced it. For when we, who have often experienced it, are unable to discern distinctly the special quality of the pain suffered by gouty patients or to guess it from descriptions, or to get consistent accounts from the actual sufferers, since they explain it in different ways, and some say that they find it to resemble twisting, others bending, others stabbing, -- surely, if god has had no experience at all of suffering, he cannot possess a notion of suffering.
The question whether Sextus thinks that to have knowledge of pain it is necessary to experience pain first-hand, so to speak, may turn out also to be relevant to a long-standing question about the scope of ancient scepticism and, more generally still, about the overall ancient treatment of what we might call subjectivity. Does Sextus consider pain to be what we might all a ‘subjective state’? That is, does he consider pain to be a state such that there is ‘something it is like to be in pain’, that there is some ‘characteristic phenomenological feel’ to it? If so, does he think that there can be a reasonable question about whether we can or indeed do have knowledge of such states qua subjective states? In short, does he think it is a reasonable question to ask whether we can have knowledge of pain, if pain is indeed in his eyes something we would recognise as a subjective state? If the answer to this final question is yes, then this might lend support to a view which sees less of a radical difference between Sextan and, for example, Cartesian approaches to questions of knowledge and certainty, especially when those questions are applied to knowledge of one’s own mental states.

The question of Sextus’ attitude to pain would appear to be a good place to look for useful evidence in trying to answer this set of questions since pain would perhaps count as a particularly good example of a ‘subjective state’ in modern philosophy. Pain, on at least one persistent view of its nature, is thought to be private and grasped only via some kind of introspection. There is, additionally, certainly something it is like to be in pain. Indeed, these assumptions are precisely what generate some rather difficult modern problems in dealing with pain since they make it rather difficult to see what relationship pain in this sense can have with physical damage and the equally plausible assumption that pain is physically localised in distinct parts of the body. We can leave these difficulties aside for the moment however, if it is sufficiently agreed that pain would be an interesting test case for Sextus’ treatment of so-called subjective states.

Sextus does in this passage seem to accept that pain is private. At least, he claims more than once that knowledge of pain can be acquired only by experiencing it first-hand. But it seems to me that this need not mean that he holds anything like the particular modern notion of pain as a subjective state, since there are various ways in which the privacy of pain might be explained. In fact, the comment about the impossibility of learning about pain through interviewing gout sufferers would seem to fall perfectly in line with the view that, on Sextus’ view, pain is inaccessible to anyone who is not suffering not because it is somehow an ontologically special and personal mental state, but rather because it depends on a particular internal state of the sufferer which is adêlon to all except the sufferer himself. Perhaps the most telling point of all is that Sextus even for the slightest moment is prepared to entertain this proposal of simply asking people to describe their feelings as a possible method of acquiring knowledge of pain. To put it another way, Sextus could have said in reply to this suggestion: ‘Don’t be silly. Of course, if you want you can ask other people what gout feels like, but this is no way to acquire knowledge of the pain of gout. Pain is the sort of thing that is private. I mean that it is private in a special way. Person X’s pain is not hidden from Person Y in the way that the interior of Person X’s private apartment is hidden from Person Y. Rather, pain is private in the sense that it is an essentially first-personal subjective experience. You can’t know what it is like to feel the pain of gout without yourself feeling gout, just as you cannot know what it is like to be a bat without yourself being a bat.’ Further Sextus could, for that matter, have pointed to the descriptions of the pain of gout as ‘twisting’, ‘bending’, or ‘stabbing’, and said that these are no use because at best they are only metaphorical or, at worst, are misleadingly describing some sort of mental occurrence in physical terms.

However, he says neither such thing. Instead he rules out the indirect acquisition of knowledge of pain because the reports of the peculiar nature of gout are such that no clear and consistent authoritative picture will emerge. It is because the gout is internal to the gout-sufferer that no one else can access it in such a way as to be able to acquire knowledge of it. An external observer, Person Y, might see the external symptoms of Person X’s gout, notice Person X’s groans and the like. But he cannot perceive the pain of gout. In a case such as this we are therefore reliant on the reports of those people to whom the pain of gout is evident, namely the sufferers themselves. So Sextus’ treatment of this possibility suggests that pain is not private in a way which would render such a form of inquiry immediately wrong-headed. Instead the problem faced is a very familiar one concerned with disagreement and the apparently irresolvable nature of the conflicting appearances. In this respect, there appears to be little difference in Sextus’ mind between the obstacles faced by (i) someone who has never experienced gout in answering the question: ‘What is the pain of gout like?’ just by asking sufferers to describe it and (ii) someone who has never entered an area of a temple reserved only for priests in answering the question: ‘What is it like in the inner sanctum?’ just by asking the priests to describe it.


Leon said...

Of course, just as the description of the inner sanctum is enabled by shared architectural vocabulary, so may be the description of the pain of gout. That Adam Swenson insisted, in a class which I had with him, that certain pains cannot be imagined properly on the basis of other pains, and so likely wouldn't defend Sextus, but just as a satisfactory mental picture of a detailed space may require well-developed sensitivity to such matters, so may a person such as myself who has attentively suffered many pains be able to imagine gout in a fairly accurate way, I think. Does Sextus describe any mechanisms of pain?

Choppa said...

Can an individual's experience be generalized to and by others? If so, is this an innate capacity we all have, or something only certain individuals are capable of?

Childbirth, say, or deafness - are these experiences? Are they sharable (and how in that case) with people not birth canal mothers or deaf?

Is a god contemplating pain in the same position as a man (say Socrates) contemplating childbirth?

Omnis enim per se divom natura necesse est
immortale aevo summa cum pace fruatur,
semota a nostris rebus, seiunctaque longe.
Nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis...