“She was not one for emptying her face of expression. ” ― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Before I got contact lenses (i.e., before I could see properly on a regular basis, since I always hated that fishtank-feel glasses have) I thought I had some kind of idea of what my life had been lacking without them.
In some respects, I wasn’t far off. My visual field lost its previous oiliness, where only things close up were concrete and distinct and the backdrop slipped and shimmied at will. I wandered around supermarkets, suddenly thick with texture, muttering Macneice (“I peel and portion/ A Tangerine and spit the pips and feel/ The Drunkenness of things being various.”) And it was a kind of drunkenness, a constant immersion in a strange and almost hallucinatorily bright world, that I couldn’t quite believe was just the normal day-to-day one that other people experienced.
[For Part One click here]
Perhaps more than any of the bad pictures of “pain” Wittgenstein attempts to disentangle people from in the Philosophical Investigations, the above picture assimilates our knowledge of other’s pain to our knowledge of stuff, of features of the external world. Here “pain” is a feature of the world (albeit of that part of the world taken up by someone’s body), one which we can know about with a high degree of certainty, or if we are uncertain about it is simply because we do not yet have enough factual information to hand. (“I’m unsure if she is in pain, I’m still waiting on the results of the scan.”)
Yet it stems from the same kind of unease also leading to those pictures which Wittgenstein does address: the thought that if the question “Are they in pain?” is to have any kind of bite there must be something called “a pain” to exist “somewhere” (whether physically or mentally). The “medical” solution (the one I have discussed above) is a picture which does enable us to know someone elses pain, and yet in doing so robs pain of its phenomenological content (and many of the instances we would refer to as pain.) On the other hand attempts to situate this strange object called a “pain” in the realms of “the mental”, have the unfortunate effect of meaning that we can never know if someone is ever in pain at all. Both pictures, however, “yoke” knowledge (of another’s pain) to “certainty”: knowing something is being able to gather the appropriate evidence for it, to be “sure” about it. Continue reading
It seems like a weird question to ask how you can know if someone is in pain or not.
Not that this has really stopped philosophers from continuously asking it, and many of them answering along sceptical lines; you cannot ever know another’s pain, you can only guess at or surmise it. (PI 246) But this is not what I’m talking about. As my philosophy tutor, Bob Hargrave, used to say, the only possible response to a philosopher who claims they can seriously entertain the possibility that someone screaming and writhing under a torturer’s implements isn’t actually “in pain”, is to back away from them slowly. (This goes along with a certain, and largely justified, fashion of seeing most philosophical problems as being abstract and irrelevant to our lives: of course we constantly treat other people’s pain as something obvious and indisputable, whatever the philosophers decide between them is hardly going to have much bearing on that.)
What I’m talking about, though, are the kinds of situations I now encounter all the time. Where a patient on the ward is doubled up, clutching their stomach and the response of the nurses and doctors is simply to label it as “behavioural”- the polite, medicalized way of saying “they’re just faking it to get attention.” Instead of responding to their pain, instead of comforting them (or offering some other kind of relief), we simply have to work out how to manage their problematic behaviour. They very much look like they’re in excruciating pain, but we know that they’re not, so treating them as if they are is inappropriate. Continue reading