Thursday, June 12, 2014

pain and language

What I’m reading about pain keeps coming back to the inexpressibility of pain. This is not to say we lack words to describe pain, but that none of them can, that there is always a remainder, a (somewhat) unsharable, incommunicable something that is only subjectively undergone. I don’t know whether I agree with that as such, but taking it up for now, why should this only be true for experiences of pain? Why is it particularly problematic for experiences of pain?

Of course, pain is often urgent and problematic, and that brings about situations in which the expression of pain is at issue. For instance, when the ER nurse asks you to rate your chest pain on a 1 to 10 scale, this obviously crude device produces data for medical interpretation—reporting 10 will be taken to indicate heart attack and the need for certain types of intervention, but a 3 or 4 is ambiguous. The reason why they don’t ask for more description is that it would be still more ambiguous and would require time, attention, empathy, communication, interpretation, and understanding that cannot be afforded.

But why wouldn’t the same basic problem exist for feelings of pleasure? Imagine being asked at some appropriate moment (or inappropriate, depending on how you feel about it) to rate your pleasure from 1 to 10. Anyway, we like more florid language evoking pleasure, and take our time with it, because we can usually afford to, and because we like it. Nonetheless, the remainder remains, I would say, and there is no language sufficient to express to you just how I undergo pleasure. (It’s peach season!)

David Biro suggests that we express pain by way of metaphor because there is no other, more direct, literal language for it. That is, the linguistic expression of pain is catachresis: terms are used that are somehow out of context, or fit together in ways that aren’t “right.” (The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers as an example: “blind mouths.”) Merleau-Ponty says, “A language which only sought to reproduce things themselves would exhaust its power to teach in factual statements. On the contrary, a language which gives our perspectives on things and cuts out relief in them opens up a discussion which does not end with the language and itself invites further investigation.” (“Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” 77)

What makes pain unique (if pain is unique) is not its confounding of language. All experience confounds language.

"Whatever," says an exasperated and quite dead Wittgenstein, because the problem of how language expresses experience is not a problem, since language doesn't do that in the first place. The linguistic expression of pain, like the number scale, expresses pain because we take it to express pain. How do we know it works? Because it makes people do things like give patients nitroglycerin, or give philosophers peaches. And as the punchline to the joke goes...

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