Pain (philosophy)

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Philosophy of pain may be about suffering in general or more specifically about physical pain. The experience of pain is, due to its seeming universality, a very good portal through which to view various aspects of human life. Discussions in philosophy of mind concerning qualia has given rise to a body of knowledge called philosophy of pain, [1] which is about pain in the narrow sense of physical pain, and which must be distinguished from philosophical works concerning pain in the broad sense of suffering. This article covers both topics.

Suffering pain, mental, or emotional unhappiness caused by bad things happening

Suffering, or pain in a broad sense, may be an experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with the perception of harm or threat of harm in an individual. Suffering is the basic element that makes up the negative valence of affective phenomena. The opposite of suffering is pleasure or happiness.

Pain type of unpleasant feeling

Pain is a distressing feeling often caused by intense or damaging stimuli. The International Association for the Study of Pain's widely used definition defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage"; however, due to it being a complex, subjective phenomenon, defining pain has been a challenge. In medical diagnosis, pain is regarded as a symptom of an underlying condition.

Philosophy of mind branch of philosophy on the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology, nature, and relationship of the mind to the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigm issue in philosophy of mind, although other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness, and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.


Historical views of pain

Two near contemporaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jeremy Bentham and the Marquis de Sade had very different views on these matters. Bentham saw pain and pleasure as objective phenomena, and defined utilitarianism on that principle. However the Marquis de Sade offered a wholly different view - which is that pain itself has an ethics, and that pursuit of pain, or imposing it, may be as useful and just as pleasurable, and that this indeed is the purpose of the state - to indulge the desire to inflict pain in revenge, for instance, via the law (in his time most punishment was in fact the dealing out of pain). The 19th-century view in Europe was that Bentham's view had to be promoted, de Sade's (which it found painful) suppressed so intensely that it - as de Sade predicted - became a pleasure in itself to indulge. The Victorian culture is often cited as the best example of this hypocrisy.

Jeremy Bentham British philosopher, jurist, and social reformer

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, jurist and social reformer regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.

Marquis de Sade French novelist and philosopher

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher and writer, famous for his libertine sexuality. His works include novels, short stories, plays, dialogues, and political tracts. In his lifetime some of these were published under his own name while others, which Sade denied having written, appeared anonymously. Sade is best known for his erotic works, which combined philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, suffering, criminality, and blasphemy against Christianity. He gained notoriety for putting these fantasies into practice. He claimed to be a proponent of absolute freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion, or law. The words sadism and sadist are derived from his name.

Utilitarianism is a family of consequentialist ethical theories that promotes actions that maximize happiness and well-being for the majority of a population. Although different varieties of utilitarianism admit different characterizations, the basic idea behind all of them is to in some sense maximize utility, which is often defined in terms of well-being or related concepts. For instance, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as

Various 20th century philosophers (viz. J.J.C. Smart, David Kellogg Lewis, D.M. Armstrong) have commented upon the meaning of pain and what it can tell us about the nature of human experiences. Pain has also been the subject of various socio-philosophical treatises. Michel Foucault, for example, observed that the biomedical model of pain, and the shift away from pain-inducing punishments, was part of a general Enlightenment invention of Man. The idea of species-wide empathy, he asserts, was created, in which the pain of the punished is itself a pain to the punisher[ citation needed ].

Social philosophy branch of philosophy

Social philosophy is the study of questions about social behavior and interpretations of society and social institutions in terms of ethical values rather than empirical relations. Social philosophers place new emphasis on understanding the social contexts for political, legal, moral, and cultural questions, and to the development of novel theoretical frameworks, from social ontology to care ethics to cosmopolitan theories of democracy, human rights, gender equity and global justice.

Michel Foucault French philosopher

Paul-Michel Foucault, generally known as Michel Foucault, was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic.

Empathy The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states. Types of empathy include cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and somatic empathy.

The individuality of pain

It is often accepted as a priori principle that one has inherent knowledge of one's own consciousness simply by virtue of dwelling within an "inner world" of the mind. This drastic distinction between inner world and outer world was most popularized by René Descartes when he solidified his principle of Cartesian dualism. From the centrality of one's own consciousness springs a fundamental problem of other minds, the discussion of which has often centered on pain.

The Latin phrases a priori and a posteriori are philosophical terms popularized by Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, one of the most influential works in the history of philosophy. However, in their Latin forms they appear in Latin translations of Euclid's Elements, of about 300 BC, a work widely considered during the early European modern period as the model for precise thinking.

Mind combination of cognitive faculties that provides consciousness, thinking, reasoning, perception, and judgement in humans and potentially other life forms

The mind is a set of cognitive faculties including consciousness, imagination, perception, thinking, judgement, language and memory. It is usually defined as the faculty of an entity's thoughts and consciousness. It holds the power of imagination, recognition, and appreciation, and is responsible for processing feelings and emotions, resulting in attitudes and actions.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. He is generally considered one of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age.

Pain and meaning

The philosopher Nietzsche experienced long bouts of illness and pain in his life, and wrote much about the meaning of pain as it relates to the meaning of life in general. Among his more famous quotes, are ones specifically related to pain:

"Did you ever say yes to a pleasure?
Oh my friends, then you also said yes to all pain.
All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another."
"What does not kill me, makes me stronger."

Pain and theories of mind

The experience of pain has been used by various philosophers to analyze various types of philosophy of mind, such as dualism, identity theory, or functionalism. David Lewis, in his article 'Mad pain and Martian pain', gives examples of various types of pain to support his own flavor of functionalism. He defines mad pain to be pain which occurs in a madman who has somehow gotten his "wires crossed" (possibly an early observation distinguishing normal pain from either clinical psychalgia or schizophreniac pain) in such a way such that what we usually call "pain" does not cause him to cry or roll in agony, but instead to, for example, become very concentrated and good at mathematics. Martian pain is, to him, pain which occupies the same causal role as our pain, but has a very different physical realization (e.g. the Martian feels pain due to the activation of an elaborate internal hydraulic system rather than, for example, the firing of C-fibers). Both of these phenomena, Lewis claims, are pain, and must be accounted for in any coherent theory of mind.

Functionalism is a viewpoint of the theory of the mind. It states that mental states are constituted solely by their functional role in, i.e. causal relations with, other mental states, sensory inputs and behavioral outputs. Functionalism developed largely as an alternative to the identity theory of mind and behaviorism.

"Mad Pain and Martian Pain" is a philosophical article written by David Kellogg Lewis. Lewis argued, that a theory of pain must be able to reflect the most basic intuitions of both functionalism and identity theory. Because of such, he proposes the existence of two beings both in pain – one whose physical explanation of pain differs from ours and one whose reaction to pain differs from ours. Lewis states that any complete theory of the mind should be able to explain how each being is in pain.

Psychogenic pain is physical pain that is caused, increased, or prolonged by mental, emotional, or behavioral factors.

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Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that the pursuit of pleasure and intrinsic goods are the primary or most important goals of human life. A hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure. However upon finally gaining said pleasure, happiness may remain stationary.

Hilary Putnam American philosopher

Hilary Whitehall Putnam was an American philosopher, mathematician, and computer scientist, and a major figure in analytic philosophy in the second half of the 20th century. He made significant contributions to philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of science. At the time of his death, Putnam was Cogan University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University.

Sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively. Eighteenth-century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think (reason) from the ability to feel (sentience). In modern Western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience sensations. In Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that require respect and care. The concept is central to the philosophy of animal rights because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer, and thus is held to confer certain rights.

Mind–body dualism Philosophical theory that mental phenomena are non-physical and that matter exists independently of mind

Mind–body dualism, or mind–body duality, is a view in the philosophy of mind that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct and separable. Thus, it encompasses a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, and between subject and object, and is contrasted with other positions, such as physicalism and enactivism, in the mind–body problem.

Ataraxia is a Greek term first used in Ancient Greek philosophy by Pyrrho and subsequently Epicurus and the Stoics for a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. In non-philosophical usage, the term was used to describe the ideal mental state for soldiers entering battle.

Eliminative materialism Philosophical view that states-of-mind as commonly understood do not exist

Eliminative materialism is the claim that people's common-sense understanding of the mind is false and that certain classes of mental states that most people believe in do not exist. It is a materialist position in the philosophy of mind. Some supporters of eliminativism argue that no coherent neural basis will be found for many everyday psychological concepts such as belief or desire, since they are poorly defined. Rather, they argue that psychological concepts of behaviour and experience should be judged by how well they reduce to the biological level. Other versions entail the non-existence of conscious mental states such as pain and visual perceptions.


In philosophy, supervenience refers to a relation between sets of properties or sets of facts. X is said to supervene on Y if and only if some difference in Y is necessary for any difference in X to be possible. Equivalently, X is said to supervene on Y if and only if X cannot vary unless Y varies. Here are some examples.

<i>Philosophy in the Bedroom</i> book

Philosophy in the Boudoir is a 1795 book by the Marquis de Sade written in the form of a dramatic dialogue. Though initially considered a work of pornography, the book has come to be considered a socio-political drama. Set in a bedroom, the two lead characters make the argument that the only moral system that reinforces the recent political revolution is libertinism, and that if the people of France fail to adopt the libertine philosophy, France will be destined to return to a monarchic state. In the chapter titled "Fifth Dialogue", there is a lengthy section where the character Chevalier reads a philosophical pamphlet titled "Frenchmen, Some More Effort If You Wish To Become Republicans". The pamphlet clearly represents Sade's philosophy on religion and morality, a philosophy he passionately hopes the citizens of France will embrace and codify into the laws of their new republican government. Continually throughout the work, Sade makes the argument that one must embrace atheism, reject society's beliefs about pleasure and pain, and further makes his argument that if any crime is committed while seeking pleasure, it cannot be condemned.

Multiple realizability, in the philosophy of mind, is the thesis that the same mental property, state, or event can be implemented by different physical properties, states, or events. The idea has its roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a number of philosophers, most prominently Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor (1975), put it forth as an argument against reductionist accounts of the relation between mental and physical kinds. In short, a theory of mind that includes multiple realizability allows for the existence of strong AI. The original targets of these arguments were the type-identity theory and eliminative materialism. The same arguments from multiple realizability were also used to defend many versions of functionalism, especially Machine state functionalism.

Type physicalism in the philosophy of mind, a physicalist theory asserting that mental events can be grouped into types, and can then be correlated with types of physical events in the brain

Type physicalism is a physicalist theory, in the philosophy of mind. It asserts that mental events can be grouped into types, and can then be correlated with types of physical events in the brain. For example, one type of mental event, such as "mental pains" will, presumably, turn out to be describing one type of physical event.

This is a list of philosophy of mind articles.

British philosophy

British philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the British people. "The native characteristics of British philosophy are these: common sense, dislike of complication, a strong preference for the concrete over the abstract and a certain awkward honesty of method in which an occasional pearl of poetry is embedded".

An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation is a book by the English philosopher and legal theorist Jeremy Bentham "originally printed in 1780, and first published in 1789." Bentham's "most important theoretical work," it is where Bentham develops his theory of utilitarianism and is the first major book on the topic.


  1. Murat Aydede, Bibliography — Philosophy of Pain

Further reading