Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Unfelt pains

Here is something everybody should agree on: there are no unfelt pains.

The obviousness and clarity of this strongly suggests:

  1. Pain is the very same concept as awareness of pain.

But if (1) is true, then we should be able to put “awareness of pain” wherever we have “pain”. Thus:

  1. Awareness of pain is the very same concept as awareness of awareness of pain.

And we can repeat the substitution:

  1. Awareness of awareness of pain is the very same concept as awareness of awareness of awareness of pain.

This leads to an endless regress. I won’t worry about that. Instead, I will worry about the fact that from 1–3, the following follows:

  1. Anyone who is in pain is aware of awareness of awareness of awareness of pain.

But 4 is empirically false. It is especially false in the case of intense pains that are so overwhelming as to make the multiple levels of awareness in 4 impossible.

So, we should reject 1. How, then, do we explain why there are no unfelt pains?

I think the answer is to say that “x feels a pain” or “x is aware of a pain” can be understood in two ways:

  1. x is aware of their state of paining

  2. x is paining.

I think that in ordinary usage of “feels a pain”, 6 is the right understanding even if 5 is a more literalistic translation. Given that to be aware of a pain just is to pain, it’s trivial that there are no unfelt pains, since anyone who is in pain is paining just as anybody who is engaged in a dance is dancing.

(If instead we opted for the unordinary sense of 5, then it would be false that everyone who is in pain feels a pain, since one might have the first-order pain without the second-order awareness of that pain.)

So far this sounds like the familiar adverbial theory of perception. But I don’t like the adverbial theory of perception. After all, to feel is to be aware, and to be aware is to be aware of something. What is one aware of when one is feeling pain? The natural answer is that one is aware of pain. But that gets us back to 1–4.

So if it’s not pain we are aware of, and yet we don’t want pure adverbialism for pain, what are we aware of? Thomas Reid noticed that we have a word for the hardness of a physical object, namely “hardness”, but not one for the corresponding phenomenal state. In the case of pain, it seems to me we have the opposite predicament: we have a word for the mental act of sensing, namely “pain”, but no word for the property that the act of sensing represents. (Reid's account here is that pain is a mere sensation, without anything represented, but I don't like that.)

But we have a word that comes pretty close. Anyone who feels pain feels unwell. And to feel unwell is to sense (one’s) unwellness (in a non-factive sense of “to sense”). So to feel pain is to sense a particular kind of unwellness (there are other kinds of unwellness, like the ones sensed in nausea or itching). We don’t have a word for that particular kind of unwellness, though we can describe it as the kind of unwellness that is properly sensed in pain. (By the way, the word for the genus of sensations of unwellness seems to be “discomfort”. Every pain is a discomfort, but nausea and itching are discomforts that aren’t pains.)


Michael Gonzalez said...

Being a layman and an admirer of your work, I feel some shyness about recommending a book to you; but this question about pains (and many similar questions) are dealt with by Peter Hacker in his book "The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature". He does a painstaking analysis of verbs of perception, sensation, etc.

One very critical point he makes is that feeling pain is not a form of perception. It is a sensation, and there are very important conceptual differences between the two. For one thing, having a sensation is not an act or a case of doing anything. Notice that we cannot, for example, feel pain on purpose. So, "paining" is not a real verb, nor is there any such thing as an "act of sensing".

In any case, it seems to me that "awareness of pain" is not the same concept as "pain", but rather the same concept as "having a pain" or "undergoing pain". And, that doesn't permit of any sort of regress. To be "aware of" X is to have one's attention caught and held by X. And X need not be an object or thing in the world at all. I could have my attention caught and held by my own mood or exhaustion or annoyance. Or, indeed, by a pain or tickle in some part of my body. Perception needs an object, but sensation does not; and the two are not as connected as the Cartesian bild (to borrow Wittgenstein's term) would lead us to believe.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I prefer the idea that all conscious states have objects. There are no pure sensations. (This is one direction of of Brentano's idea that intentionality is the mark of the mental.)

Michael Gonzalez said...

Hacker also analyzes that idea in that same book, if I recall. He surveys a few approaches to the "mark of the mental". His argument was convincing to me, but then I'm not nearly as well-read (for example, I've read none of Brentano except quotations).

Still, would the regress not be avoided by equating "awareness of pain" with "being in pain", rather than with just "pain"? Then one cannot shift to "awareness of awareness" seamlessly, since "awareness of being in pain" is not conceptually identical with being in pain. Such an awareness has to do with thinking about ourselves and our condition.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Even if we do not feel pain, that does not mean that we are well or that damage isn't being done to our body. Perhaps when we do not sense pain we should be more alert.

William said...

I would also tend to deny 1, that pain and awareness of pain always coincide. Someone in dreamless sleep may move their arm if it is pinched. That would be a response to pain without a conscious awareness of pain. I would instead say that there is no suffering without awareness of some type of significant discomfort. Perhaps I am splitting definitional hairs?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't see what the difference between pain and awareness of being in pain would be.


That unconscious stimulus doesn't seem to me to be a pain.

Michael Gonzalez said...


I'm happy to grant that "having a pain" or "being in pain" are identical concepts to "awareness of pain". But there is no regress entailed by those identities.

Even if I grant that the single word, "pain", is equivalent to the phrase "awareness of pain", does it really follow that I can replace the word with the phrase in any sentence and not lose or alter meaning? I don't know of any such guarantee.

Imagine that "seeing X" and "knowing that I see X" are identical (they aren't, but just imagine that they were). It surely wouldn't follow that "knowing that I know that I see X" is the same as "knowing that I see X". Knowing that I know something is a second-order sort of thing, which involves reflection about myself (all of which is totally unnecessary for merely seeing X).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was worried about this part of the argument, but I thought that the strong assumption of being the same concept was enough to secure intersubstitutivity in the contexts in which I needed it.

Apart from the regress, isn't there a vicious circularity in: pain = awareness of pain?

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think so. I think we need another way of dealing with "X has no application apart from the V-ing of X", that doesn't include "therefore X = the V-ing of X and the two are interchangeable in any sentence". It's a grammatical problem. In the case of "pain" there's probably a reason why "paining" isn't a real word, but "hurting" is (and, conversely, why "hurt" isn't a noun). This kind of deep dive into the grammar of the terms and their conceptual offshoots and so on is exactly what Hacker specializes in; and, dry as it can be sometimes, it often does dissolve what looked like intractable philosophical mysteries (like the mind-body problem or the "hard problem" of consciousness or the problems around free will).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Why not just go for the simple solution in my post? To hurt or to have a pain or to feel a pain are all the same, and they are all states with an intentional object, namely a certain species of unwellness.

Michael Gonzalez said...

In a backward sort of way, I do want to endorse your solution. I want to take the general sensation of "unwellness" as an instructive, paradigmatic case of what sensation is. Now, of course, some sensations are more localized (as with pains or tickles or itches), but there is a mistaken tendency to start referring to them in language that is more appropriate to perception than to sensation. These are different matters with their own conceptual maps (though there are cases where the boundary disappears, as with a muscle spasm, a dry mouth, a panting heart, etc... in which case the sensation is informing us about a specific part of our body in the same way perception informs... but I digress).

I think considering why "unwellness" doesn't fall prey to the putative problems that "pain" does (despite "feeling pain/unwellness" being identical in both cases to "awareness of pain/unwellness") would be instructive and would show that there is a deeper problem in the vocabulary and conceptual scheme that led to the question in the first place.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, one reason unwellness doesn't fall pray to the issues, is that unwellness does not entail awareness of unwellness. Often people find out that they've been unwell only after medical tests.

Michael Gonzalez said...


Oh, I see! I misunderstood. I thought you meant the sensation of feeling unwell. You mean there may genuinely be something wrong with me, and then the sensation of unwellness informs me of that. Ok. I'd have to think about that. I wonder if there are issues with the fact that one can feel unwell when they really aren't. And, more generally, I still think there's a problem with the question in the first place, since the vocabulary for sensation doesn't require an object the way the vocabulary for perception does (and these two have often been confused, especially since Descartes). But, it is very interesting....