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Wittgenstein on pain

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  • Wittgenstein on pain

    I know Dr. Baraki and friends like the cutting edge of pain science. Well, there was a thinker some 70 years ago, who, though unknown to the medical establishment, was (and is) quite famous and influential in the philosophy of language and mind. "Hmm", you say, "what's all that silly bullshit got to do with science, medicine, and barbell training"? I don't know for sure, but its an interesting connection. Maybe read and tell me.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein only published one work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, while he was alive. Posthumously, his colleagues published Philosophical Investigations, which consists in several volumes of Wittgenstein's later work, only circulated privately when he was alive, that significantly revise the older Wittgenstein and chart new intellectual territory.

    PI can be treacherous reading for those uninitiated in the tradition of Analytic philosophy. Its written in punchy bits. Most are written to be digested on their own. Some are downright aphorisms. Some are quips at other thinkers in philosophy. It refuses at times to let you turn the page -- it doesn't flow quite like you want it to. Depending on how you read it, this can be a strength or a weakness.

    Most relevant for our purposes is a rather famous argument, often called the 'private language argument'. Wittgenstein's private language argument (PLA) takes several forms. One of them is directed at the sensation of pain. Essentially, the question at hand is "what does it mean to say 'I am in pain'?". The crucial thing to comprehend is that pain, in the philosophy of mind, seems to hold a very unique status. It is both appearance and reality. When I feel pain, pain is both the sensation and the object of sensation. Dr. Baraki might jump in and agree, contra the old model, where pain is the sensation and a structural injury is the object. In other words, it cannot 'seem' that I am in pain. I just am in pain.

    Ok, so pain is both a sensation and an object of sensation. This seems to get us to an epistemological certainty! Not only do I feel pain, I know I feel pain. Great!

    At this point, maybe some of you who took an intro to philosophy class are remembering your Descartes. The mind is better known than the body! What you probably didn't learn is that, after all those years, and all that work, Cartesian dualism made a sort of comeback, after Descartes had been a good little whipping boy for generations of philosophers, in the late 20th century Analytic tradition.

    Consider this: I know I am in pain. How does my neighbor? Better yet, how does Dr. Baraki, know I'm in pain while I'm sitting on the examination table? The trouble is, the sensation of pain, for all its certainty by virtue of it being both sensation and object, is a private sensation. Nobody else feels my pain (feels bad man .jpg). In the acute injury setting, Dr. Baraki can point to my structural injury and infer my pain, he can't point to my pain and know my pain. Suddenly, inter-subjectivity is on the scene. It looks like I'm going to have to communicate my pain to Dr. Baraki. What kind of tool do we have at our disposal for that? Language.

    Let's jump from the phi of mind to the phi of language.

    Cue beetle in a box. I'm just going to copy paste this one from wikipedia.

    "Wittgenstein invites readers to imagine a community in which the individuals each have a box containing a "beetle". "No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle."

    If the "beetle" had a use in the language of these people, it could not be as the name of something - because it is entirely possible that each person had something completely different in their box, or even that the thing in the box constantly changed, or that each box was in fact empty. The content of the box is irrelevant to whatever language game it is used in.

    By analogy, it does not matter that one cannot experience another's subjective sensations. Unless talk of such subjective experience is learned through public experience the actual content is irrelevant; all we can discuss is what is available in our public language.

    By offering the "beetle" as an analogy to pains, Wittgenstein suggests that the case of pains is not really amenable to the uses philosophers would make of it. "That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of 'object and designation," the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant.""

    Pain...pain sensation...pain behavior...pain language...

    Theres a lot more to unpack, of course, and a rich tradition in the philosophy of mind on such topics. Just thought maybe someone out there might find the philosophical approach to a relevant BBM topic interesting.

    Heres a link to an article in the journal of theoretical medicine that proceeds from a somewhat Wittgensteinian understanding of pain to consider doctor-patient communication, where you'll find PI in the citations:

    Heres a link to PI:

    The PLA bit about pain and the beetle in a box starts around ss 240 but you'll find bits about the linguistic and mental status of pain dispersed throughout.

  • #2
    I pain therefore I am. In fact that's the only thing I really know. Your pain could feel like my orgasm, if you exist at all.

    What you wrote is also very similar to the whole dilemma of how other people experience colors: is your green my red? etc..

    Hopefully one day we can get the to the bottom of this in the way eliminative materialism would promise.


    • #3
      Originally posted by neandrewthal View Post
      What you wrote is also very similar to the whole dilemma of how other people experience colors: is your green my red? etc..
      Good old spectrum inversion. Yes, in phi of mind, one way to preserve subjectivity is to highlight the "what-it-is-likeness" of experiencing, i.e., "what it is like for me to experience the red table". That "what-it-is-likeness" is, of course, the qualia.

      Originally posted by neandrewthal View Post
      Hopefully one day we can get the to the bottom of this in the way eliminative materialism would promise.
      The Churchlands...yuck. I'd rather not experience cutting myself while shaving as "diagonally slicing my c-fiber" or what have you. I cut my chin, damnit. I'll keep my backwater folk psychology, thank you.

      What is your background in philosophy? College? Just read it for fun?


      • #4
        I'm just a hack. Case in point: I was confusing some elements of reductive and eliminative materialism even though they are opposites. That would explain the confusion I had about eliminative materialism though I still find it pretty confusing now that I'm getting it sorted out. It seem utterly impossible but I'm starting to suspect that some of its purveyors treat it as word game where they make a bold claim and then when you reply "that's preposterous, the existence of x is self evident" they redefine what they are claiming to be something less extreme.

        What I really should say is that I maintain hope (but not faith) that something resembling reductive materialism (but probably more nuanced than type physicalism) will allow us to make more sense of all mental phenomena including pain. Or else, we're just looking at each other's boxes and guessing the contents. I can hardly imagine neuroscience failing to help eventually unless some yucky form of dualism or idealism turned out to be true.

        I don't know if I'm just reading it wrong but the box thought experiment seems to imply that if the boxes are empty and we call what's inside "pain" then pain doesn't exist. That would be edging close to the damn eliminativism again. Or is the possibility of nothing in the box just to demonstrate that it doesn't matter what it actually is?

        And since we're quoting wikipedia, the qualia section of the eliminativism article talks about pain and also references PI:

        "Another problem for the eliminativist is the consideration that human beings undergo subjective experiences and, hence, their conscious mental states have qualia. Since qualia are generally regarded as characteristics of mental states, their existence does not seem to be compatible with eliminativism.[39] Eliminativists, such as Daniel Dennett and Georges Rey, respond by rejecting qualia.[40][41] This is seen to be problematic to opponents of eliminativists, since many claim that the existence of qualia seems perfectly obvious. Many philosophers consider the "elimination" of qualia implausible, if not incomprehensible. They assert that, for instance, the existence of pain is simply beyond denial.[39]

        Admitting that the existence of qualia seems obvious, Dennett nevertheless states that "qualia" is a theoretical term from an outdated metaphysics stemming from Cartesian intuitions. He argues that a precise analysis shows that the term is in the long run empty and full of contradictions. The eliminativist's claim with respect to qualia is that there is no unbiased evidence for such experiences when regarded as something more than propositional attitudes.[22] In other words, they do not deny that pain exists, but that it exists independently of its effect on behavior. Influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Dennett and Rey have defended eliminativism about qualia, even when other portions of the mental are accepted."
        Last edited by neandrewthal; 04-26-2018, 04:54 PM.


        • #5
          Originally posted by neandrewthal View Post
          I don't know if I'm just reading it wrong but the box thought experiment seems to imply that if the boxes are empty and we call what's inside "pain" then pain doesn't exist. That would be edging close to the damn eliminativism again. Or is the possibility of nothing in the box just to demonstrate that it doesn't matter what it actually is?
          I'm tempted to swing more towards the latter. But if it doesn't matter whats in the box, insofar as we're talking about whats in the box, couldn't it be right in some sense to say that object doesn't exist? Its at least unavailable to our public language.

          Originally posted by neandrewthal View Post
          In other words, they do not deny that pain exists, but that it exists independently of its effect on behavior
          This seems on its face to be against, not influenced by, Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was no behaviorist, but he was close at times in PI, so I'm skeptical of pain existing independently of its effect on behavior. One would think that the point of the beetle in the box is to say, "what matters isn't whats in the box, but how we talk about it, and even then we might not have the same object in our box, and so how do we make sense of the conversation"? One quick answer is to say we can get at whats in other people's boxes based on how they talk about it and act in relation to it. If we both understand our conversation to be about our individual 'pains', but while you're writhing, I'm quite content and relaxed, perhaps my 'pain' is equatable to your pleasure. So, in regards to knowledge of others' pain, it isn't obvious that pain exists independent of its effect on behavior.

          But, don't worry if I'm wrong. I'm a hack, too. Just trying to graduate and pull 405 finally by late May.


          • #6
            I'm interested in connections between philosophy and lifting, being both a lifter and more or less professional philosopher (ABD). Wittgenstein isn't exactly in my wheelhouse though, so I'm not sure I have much to add.

            I am interested in questions of epistemology as they relate to programming decisions, exercise science, etc. Mike T had some good discussion of this on a recent podcast. I'm also interested in the cultural/philosophical significance of strength, and socio-political questions related to sport/physical culture more generally. So, if you decide to dive down any of those rabbit holes...


            • Augustus
              Augustus commented
              Editing a comment
              Definitely interested in the cultural/philosophical significance of strength and physical culture.

              Currently reading Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, a historical novel/epic about the battle of Thermopylae. The plot does seem a bit romanticized. Maybe this is because its main narrator is a young boy from outside sparta who comes in and adopts the culture, with the zeal of a convert. But it is well researched and, I think, a relatively accurate portrayal of Spartan physical culture.

              The sheer martial nature of their culture, the focus on fitness across the culture, the strict diet, the training of fear out of young soldiers. The scale at which all of that took place is so fascinating.

              Compare that to today, where 40% or so Americans are obese, even more are overweight. At the same time, though, there are little niches of hyper-fit individuals -- given the way those ancient spartans trained, theres no way they ever got close to achieving the adaptation for squatting 600 lbs. Maybe the freakiest athletes could approach it, but in todays world, people of much more average genetics are using barbells (technology) and increased programming expertise to achieve higher levels of strength. Not only that, but our fittest individuals with the best genetics are now discovering the absolute limits of human performance - a sub-4 minute mile, are you insane?? Thats incredible.

              So at the same time we got fatter, we got fitter. But even just 75 years ago -- look at pictures of men lining up to get physicals to fight in WWII. Not a single individual is fat. In fact, they've all got extremely low bf%. Now, they probably can't squat 225.

              I don't know if you listen to the art of manliness podcast or read the posts, but they featured a documentary about a PE program at California high school back in the 60s-80s that really got me thinking. Its not barbell training. But you know, if we just got our high schoolers to do this again, I wonder what the subsequent generation would look like, physically and spiritually.

              Here's a documentary about the PE program:
              PE 50 years to today! Full 90 documentary feature film now available at and as ...

            • Jon La
              Jon La commented
              Editing a comment
              I haven't read Gates of Fire - maybe I should. I suspect that it would be very hard to have a consistent physical culture in a massive nation-state like the U.S. Sparta, in contrast, was very small and could have a highly uniform culture.

              That PE program is interesting. I could only find a short clip (~5 mins). Is there a longer version available somewhere that I missed? If the U.S. were going to improve national health outcomes and fitness, I suspect public school PE would be a good place to start. I'm not sure what it would be reasonable to enforce as a matter of national policy. Any thoughts?

          • #7
            BA in Phil here. I did a presentation on David Lewis’ Martian Pain Article. Very fun stuff. I’m certainly a naturalist at heart, but I also believe that consciousness is fundamentally irreducible. There’s always this subjective side of things that just, as of now, doesn’t make any sense as to why it should accompany material being at all. It just makes no damn sense why there should be a “what it’s like” for this pile of goo inside my cranium. The god awful feeling you get when under a [email protected] or god forbid a [email protected]: why in the hell should THAT accompany the material body under the bar? David Chalmers, I think (he changes positions from time to time and it’s someines hard to pin him down), has postulated (and maybe it wasn’t even original to him) that consciousness is just a fundamental constituent of the universe, present at every level all the way down though at varying degrees.

            Epistemology is at the heart of a lot of the recent debates over programming: namely, how do know any of this stuff about programming? How is one camp justified in his or more beliefs more than another? I got in an argument with person over this very thing when they asked, “Why can’t both side be right? Both have intelligent people on each side, so both sides are equally valid, right?” I get that when people argue with someone who has a lot of experience debating philosophically, the person can get a bit annoyed feeling as though we’re getting bogged down in the detail and arguing over the meaning over words. But it matters what words mean. Sometime I wish there was more philosophical nuance in these discussions.


            • Jon La
              Jon La commented
              Editing a comment
              I definitely agree re: recent programming discussions. As an example, a lot of SS folks claim that a study using leg extensions (for instance) is irrelevant to what they are doing in the gym. But why? If the quad responds consistently to a given protocol on a leg extension machine, do we really have a good reason not to think that this tells us something about training the squat or deadlift? Or even bench or press, for that matter? I'm not sure, but I doubt that it is completely irrelevant.

              Also, I don't like the appeal to experience on its own. I work in higher ed right now. I know a lot of educators with lots of experience. Some of them are excellent teachers, some of them aren't. Furthermore, some of them have a much better understanding of effective teaching than others. Telling me that you have 5, 10, 20 or 40 years of experience doesn't, on its own tell me much about your abilities or understanding of the task of educating. Ditto for training. I'm more interested in hearing how, specifically, your experience supports a specific conclusion. This requires, at the very least, a combination of accrued observation and a useful theoretical framework for interpreting those observations.

              This applies to questions about RPE as well. How should we understand the utterance "That was an RPE 8." Does it represent a factual claim that, on that particular set, I definitely could have done two more reps? That would make it an objective claim about my potential performance. Alternatively, is it a subjective evaluation of effort for which perceived reps in reserve is a useful proxy? In that case, the relationship to *actual* reps in reserve is less important (though not irrelevant). Or, a third option, is it a dynamic tool for consistently evaluating effort which should be calibrated over time to achieve a consistent training stress? In this case, the most important thing about using RPE is calibrating it relative to training effect over time, NOT its relationship to performance in a particular set. I'm sure there are other possibilities.

              All of these could be true, or at least useful ways of thinking about RPE, and how we settle the question has implications for how we understand RPE as a training tool.

          • #8
            Yeah, relating to the point about experience, I think the You’re Not So Smart podcast mentions that there are plenty of businesses that have been around for a long, long time, but how many of them step back and ask, “Hey um, is this how we should even be running things?” Science can give us insights into human psychology and physiology in such a way as to inform decisions about how to better run a business (eg how to properly manage employs, how to interact with customers). Likewise, the same can be said for coaching practices. There’s just no reason to ignore what science has to teach us on matters that are by their nature empirical, since that’s what science does best. Coaching practices are also forms of science of course, and valuable ones at that; there’s probably truths that can only be revealed through coaching practices just because of their categorization within the human mind. What I mean by that is, because of the nuance of human psychology, a “scientific setting” may bar scientists off from certain truths, analogous to the observation problem in quantum mechanics. But the converse is true as well, I think: there are certain truth that we need the raw scientific method and all it’s rigor to access; and, ok, if it’s not necessary then it’s most likely far more economical.

            Regarding RPE, yes absolutely. Language, and the meaning of words, is absolutely crucial when discussing this stuff. Claims like “RPE is bullshit” get thrown around, and it automatically gets countered with “Nu uh!” but what the hell did the first claim even mean? What do you mean when you say “RPE is bullshit?” Did you think you were doing 8’s but upon review they were 10s or 6s? Did you do 8s and everything else accordingly but it still didn’t work? Is it bullshit just for you, or everyone else? If it didn’t work to predict exactly how many reps you had left in the tank, is it still a pretty good communication tool (relative to percentage-based communication)? A lot of straw men, red-herrings, and other elementary philosophical fallacies have been committed in the recent programming debates, from both sides in varying degrees, and it almost always stems from lack of effective communication. Granted, a lot of this would be avoided if the communication were taking place through a medium more conducive to effective communication. But I digress.