A Philosophy of Pain

October 22, 2009

This book is about pain, but in a very broad sense indeed. Almost any unwelcome psychic disturbance comes under the heading of pain for Arne Johan Vetlesen. This has its good side, for it means that the author takes seriously cases of strife for the individual that are often classified as mere psychological upset, as one might encounter in instances of grief or guilt or shame. The bad side of such a wide-ranging definition is that it ultimately drives Vetlesen into absurdity in the final chapter, "Pain as Compulsive Choice in a Multi-option Society", by stretching the notion of pain beyond credulity.

One of the rationales of a broad account of pain is that the various instances have something significant in common. Like nothing else, pain is able to strip all meaning from our lives. The individual is entirely turned towards it, and what was before a world rich in meaning, without which life is intolerable, becomes an object of pointlessness and nullity, the pain crowding out all else.

The chapter on torture supports the view of Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value at Harvard University, that the justification used by torturers to inflict pain - that it is required to extract important information - is in fact often the reverse of the truth. The information has to be "important" because torture has been used to obtain it.

Vetlesen argues that the distinction between physical and psychic pain is unhelpful. To dismiss as illusory the pain that someone feels merely because no physical injury is found to correspond to it is absurd: pain is incorrigible. It's no use telling someone that they have no pain because there is no injury.

The most interesting chapter is perhaps that on Jean-Paul Sartre's view of pain, which corresponds to his existentialist position that we are often prone to live in "bad faith" by denying our freedom and holding something external to ourselves responsible for what and who we are, a force over which we have no control. For Sartre, this applies even to pain.

This position works better for nominally psychological pains such as shame or fear, where it could be said that we allow ourselves to have such experiences and whatever behaviour follows, and then excuse both by contending that they are beyond our control. But Vetlesen goes only part way with this argument, as there are clearly cases where we are overwhelmed by pain; indeed, it is part of the nature of the pain that we are. In cases of anxiety, we cannot separate ourselves from it in the manner that Sartre requires; rather, the pain itself is us and determines how we view the world.

Vetlesen's final chapter extends the notion of pain too far. In what is no doubt a fashionable attack on individualistic liberal capitalism, he identifies a kind of pain, a depressive anxiety, that derives from having too much choice, constantly having to choose, and generally being unable to hold anyone but oneself responsible for one's choices. The grain of truth in this observation is rendered boulder-sized. The romantic nostalgia attached to a more preordained, regimented, communal, poverty-stricken way of life never ceases to amaze, and it makes one wonder if any of its proponents have actually tried it.

A Philosophy of Pain

Arne Johan Vetlesen. Reaktion Books, 167pp, £14.95. ISBN 9781861895417. Published 26 August 2009

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