Monday, 27 September 2021

The Private Language Argument III: Pain and Possession: §253

§253 continues the assault on the “object-in-a-box" conception of mind. This time, the target is provided by the seemingly innocuous assertion that “Another person can’t have my pains”. Wittgenstein responds with a somewhat startling question: “My pains – what pains are they?” It’s actually quite difficult to grasp what he’s getting at here. I have my pains, you have yours, I can’t have your pains and you can’t have mine – what on earth is controversial about that? Typically, Wittgenstein only hints at the answer: “What counts as a criterion of identity here? Consider what makes it possible in the case of physical objects to speak of ‘two exactly the same’”. We’re going to have to work things out for ourselves. 


The Identity of Objects 

Suppose you and I both buy a copy of Dubliners from Waterstone’s. Now we both have the same book: they look identical both inside and out. But, of course, you have your copy and I have mine. How can we be sure of this? Well, for one thing, we can track their different paths through the world. Yours was to the left of mine when you took it from the shelf and now it’s in your bag, whereas mine is on my desk at home. If we put them both in a sack and jumble it around a bit, it might be impossible to say for certain which is which. But still, we would readily agree that one of them is your book and the other is mine. We can no longer tell them apart precisely because we’ve lost track of their journey – not because they’ve lost their individuality. That’s how we relate to physical objects: their persistence through space and time is a key criterion of their identity.

To avoid getting them mixed up, however, we might do something to individuate them more clearly. For example, we might write our names in our respective copies. Now we can easily tell them apart. Since they are no longer physically identical, does that mean we have different books rather than different copies of the same book? No. We both still have a copy of Dubliners. And that would also be true if we’d bought different editions, with different covers and different introductions. Indeed, it would even be true if you’d bought a French translation and mine was in the original English. 

Moreover, although our copies are no longer exactly the same as when we bought them, they still count as the same objects. Indeed, a book (like other objects) can change in appearance quite dramatically over time yet still be considered the same thing. The spine might get cracked, the cover might get creased or torn, some pages fall out, etc – but these are taken as part of the book’s history rather than as reasons for denying its continued identity. Why? Well, that’s simply how it is with us; it goes together with the role physical objects play in our lives – how we interact with them. We can imagine things otherwise, but it would involve a substantial change in how we lived. 

Okay, so how do things run regarding pain? On the face of it, the analogy seems compellingly exact. I stub my big toe and you stub yours; now I have a pain in my big toe and you in yours, just like I have a copy of Dubliners in my hand and you have a different copy in yours. As with the books, our pains are qualitatively the same but numerically distinct. They have a different location and a different history. 

There is, however, an interesting asymmetry in the two cases. I can give you my copy of Dubliners, but I can’t give you my pain. At best (it seems) I can give you a qualitatively similar pain – for example, by making you stub your toe. And this seems to speak to the essence of pain considered as a sensation-object. Come what may, only I can have my pain. 

Unfortunately for the “object-in-a-box" model, the asymmetries don’t stop there. 


Having Things 

First, let’s consider the notion of having pains. One of the most compelling aspects of the above account is the formal similarity between “I have a book” and “I have a pain”. Objects are things we have or don’t have; we have or don’t have pains. Therefore pains are objects. 

But it’s worth noting that we use the word “have” in a surprising variety of ways. I can have a book or a pain – but I can also have a good time, a friend in Milwaukee, a sense of humour, an overdraft, a doctor’s appointment next week and the right to vote. No-one's going to call the right to vote an object, but I can have it nonetheless. Where, then, does pain stand in this menagerie of having? 

Here we should reflect that an alternative to “I have a pain” is “I am in pain”. There is no analogous term in the case of books or apples or hats. We might try to assimilate the two by saying “I am in a state of having a book”, but really this is just playing with words (cf §14). What could it mean apart from “I have a book”? By contrast, “I am in pain” is an expression of pain (cf §244). And this highlights the different places in our lives occupied by objects and pains. We have pains, not as possessions, but in the sense that we suffer them. 


The Identity of Pain 

This distinction is likewise evident when we dig a bit deeper into the question of identity. Suppose I stubbed my toe yesterday and now I stub it again today. Is that the same pain back again, or another one just like it? If pain really is a sensation-object then I ought to be able to give an answer, but actually I have no idea how I’m meant to decide. For example, I might claim it’s a different pain because it’s slightly more intense than yesterday. But how do I know that this difference in quality betokens a difference in identity? I might just as easily claim that it’s the same pain, but it has intensified since yesterday – like a tomato ripening in the sun. Or I might claim that it must be a different one, because each pain has a particular life-span. When it ceases it is, so to speak, dead, and any future pain – no matter how similar – is a new-born individual. That would be a definition, but what’s my justification for adopting it? How would I refute someone who insisted I was wrong? After all, there are pains which come and go – and if that’s just a figure of speech, is it more figurative than giving pain a life-span? You say “the pain stopped, but then it started again”. I insist that you should actually say “the pain stopped, but then a different one just like it began”. How are we to decide? How do we know? 

I cannot individuate my pains in the same way that I individuate my possessions. But if that’s the case, then I can’t individuate our pains that way either. I stubbed my toe yesterday, now you stub yours today. I say this involves two similar yet distinct pains, but you insist it’s the same pain each time: first in my foot, then in yours. Again, how are we to decide? 

Okay, but what if we stub our toes at the same time? Surely here we must admit that there are two distinct pains? Not at all. We could just as easily say that the same pain was manifesting itself in two distinct locations. In fact, that’s more or less what we do say. If I have arthritis in both hands, then I have same pain in both hands. Likewise, if we have arthritis in our hands, we both have the same pain. Of course, location is important. It matters that I have a pain in my left hand, and not my right hand. It matters that you have cramp in your calf and I have it in my foot. But with pain, location is not a criterion of identity. Hence if someone asks whether we mean the same actual pain or merely the same type of pain, the question seems both redundant and absurd. Nothing at all hinges upon the answer and, for that reason, whichever answer we give will be just as good (or bad) as any other. Language has gone on holiday (§38). 

That’s why Wittgenstein says “In so far as it makes sense to say that my pain is the same as his, it is also possible for us both to have the same pain” (§253b). The attempt to individuate pain on the model of physical objects makes no sense. With pain, unlike with physical objects, there is no meaningful distinction between two pains which are the same, and two which merely feel the same. 


This is This 

Yet how can such grammatical niceties ignore the brute fact of pain as we experience it in our lives – its awful tangibility? This, in effect, is the interlocutor’s point in §253c when he thumps his chest and declares that surely another person can’t have THIS. Wittgenstein is unmoved: “one does not define a criterion of identity by emphatically enunciating the word ‘this’”. 

The ramifications of this remark will form a central part of Wittgenstein’s argument against the notion of a private language. In part, it builds on his earlier discussion of ostensive definition (§§28-31 discussed here). In §30 he notes that “an ostensive definition explains the use – the meaning – of a word if the role the word is supposed to play in the language is already clear”. The interlocutor, however, is acting as if all he has to do is focus his attention on his pain while speaking in order to establish the meaning of “THIS”. He is, he supposes, picking out one object amongst others, and the rest takes care of itself. But what exactly is he picking out? He can’t mean “a pain in the chest”, because we can have that just as easily as he can. Nor can he simply mean that when he thumps his chest we don’t feel the pain – nobody's going to deny that, but it hardly amounts to a metaphysical insight. 

No. What he wants to say is that he possesses a particular thing which, necessarily, cannot be possessed by anyone else. But, as we’ve already seen, this is where the analogy between pain and physical objects falls apart. Because if he’s now asked how he knows that someone else can’t possess his inner object he has no response. And he has no response because he lacks the requisite criterion of identity; he has no way of distinguishing between this object and another one just like it. And emphatically uttering “THIS” does not produce such a criterion either. 

Ostensive definition requires stage-setting, but when it comes to pain the stage isn’t set in the way it is for books or apples. This is not a question of “mere” grammatical niceties, for our grammar is woven into how we live. We don’t fetch pains, or lose them, give them away or store them in the attic. We suffer pain, and we manifest our suffering through our natural reactions. And as Wittgenstein suggests in §244, that is the branch upon which we graft our talk of sensations. 


1 comment:

  1. Might saying "I have a pain in my foot" be a secondary use of 'have'?
    Secondary uses, I take it though you might disagree, go part of the way with the primary use, but then trail off, and often they leave grammatical questions unsettled. E.g. 'By how much is Wednesday fatter than Tuesday?' or 'If E is lighter than U, does that mean that EU is somewhere in the middle?' And things seem to be similar in the case of having pains, or pains as *things* to have: 'Do we have the same pain or are these different pains?'