torsdag 22. november 2012


Here's a list of some things I've been up to lately, when I, in all honesty, ought to have done other things.

1) I have been engaged in a short exchange of opinions about the usefulness of philosophical biographies, or rather biographies of philosophers, mainly concerning Ludwig Wittgenstein, with Duncan Richter.

2) By way of this interview with Ken Taylor and John Perry (hosts of PhilosophyTalk) on "The Uses of Philosophy", I discovered Entitled Opinions a couple of weeks ago -- a podcast of which I have grown fond. It is hosted by Robert Harrison, a professor in Italian literature at Stanford University. Over the years, the programs have covered a wide range of topics "about Life and Literature". The archive now contains more than 140 shows. Evidently, I haven't listened to all of them, but have had a few great moments. One of my favourite episodes so far, is this interview with Joshua Landy about Marcel Proust, which provoked me to philosophise about voluntary and involuntary memories -- a topic I may (or not) blog about in the near future. And I have seldom, if ever, heard a deeper and more thoroughgoing discussion (much of which went over my head) of any literary topic on public radio than this discussion of Moby Dick. Yesterday I began reading one of Harrison's books too. Now, I am half way through his book on Gardens, which, among other things, has a beautiful chapter on the similarity between gardening and tutoring, Plato's academy, and the importance of discussion in education. I also look forward to his earlier book on Forests. So far I have only leafed through it, but it looks like mandatory reading for anyone, like me, who struggles to grasp our conception of human-nature relationships.

3) Speaking of which... Yesterday, while going through some old notes of mine on nature, this unrelated passage on pains and phantom pains appeared. It seems worth sharing. I am commenting on the following proposition by the materialist philosopher D.M. Armstrong:
We say that we have a pain in the hand. The SENSATION of pain can hardly be in the hand, for sensations are in minds and hands is not par of the mind. 
I am quoting from Consciousness and Causality here. According to my notes the passage should be on page 105, but when I tried to look it up, I was unable to retrieve it. Anyway, my reaction was as follows:
Imagine that I went to the doctor with pains in one hand, and the doctor replied that it was all in my head. I would be surprised, if not offended. Normally we distinguish between real and imagined pains, pains that are, as we say, in the hand and pains that are only in our heads. To say that the pain I feel in my hand really is located in my head, would in most circumstances suggest illusion or hypochondria.
What about phantom pains? Phantom pains are often brought up in this discussion. People can apparently experience pains in limbs they no longer have. Doesn't that suggest that sensations take place in the mind rather than in our limbs? The experienced pain certainly cannot be located in the hand because that location simply doesn't exist! The argument supposedly strengthen the view that all sensations, even experiences of pain in existing limbs, take place in the mind. But I doubt that arguing from phantom sensations can demonstrate that.
But think of the experience, the sensation of pain -- wouldn't the sensation be the same whether the hand exists or not? And if so, wouldn't that sensation have to be located the same place too? I am not convinced by that, because I am not convinced that the experiences will be identical in the first place. But this needs a little investigation. Examples might help. Imagine a person wanting her right arm experiences pain in her non-existent index finger. Wouldn't that experience be identical to the pain experiences in her left finger? Not necessarily. Say, if she lost that arm three years ago, and she has learned to live with only one arm and so on. Phantom pains certainly can be painful, but won't she experience them as phantom pains? I mean, how would she describe her experience? Would she say "My right index finger pains me", or would she rather say something like "oh no, not this again"? But let us modify the situation a little, so we can put these reservations out of play. Imagine a woman waking up from coma in a hospital. She has survived a terrible car accident. She experiences excruciating pains in both her arms. However, while she was unconscious, the doctors have amputated one of the arms. Could we confidently deny that the sensations would be identical in this case? Perhaps not. I, for one, doubt that the injured woman could, just by introspection, could tell that one of the pains were, in a sense, less real. Let us put more pressure on our commonsensical view. Let us imagine that this woman was, when the accident happened, on her way to the hospital with a badly injured arm -- incidentally the one now amputated -- and when she wakes up in the hospital, wouldn't she cry out something like "The pain is still there!"? 
However likely that is, does that in any way suggest that the pains were not in her hand even before the amputation?
Consider this case: A woman is about to have her arm amputated because of the excruciating pains it gives her. She watches as the knife removes the arm, but to her horror, the tormenting pains continue. What should we say about that? I am not sure. Saying that the pains somehow migrated from her arm to her mind (or whatever) at the moment of separation, or that the pains instantly jumped from reality to illusion, or that real pains with a stroke of magic were replaced by phantom ones, certainly looks unhelpful. Should something like this ever happen, I think we might find it reasonable to believe that phantom pains may somehow occur in existing limbs too, though such a concept would hardly be much in use, as amputating the limbs in question would be the only way to tell whether the pains were physical or mental. But to conclude that all bodily sensations are mental, as Armstrong seemingly does, wouldn't be helpful at all. First of all, the case we are now considering would be just one incident, and a rather extreme one at that. A deeper problem is that this conclusion is suicidal because it undermines the distinction between real and illusionary experiences altogether -- the very distinction that makes all talk of phantom pains possible in the first place -- the distinction which all arguments from phantom experiences rest on.
At this point my train of thoughts sort of wandered off, but I think these paragraphs contains some points worth pondering.

(Finally. While surfing on the internet -- as a way of not working on this post -- I just now came across this piece about philosophy and parenthood. The text seems like a possible topic for a future post. While I never would say that "one cannot fully realize one's potential as a philosopher unless one is a parent", I think being a parent might help you philosophise about, say, parenting and parenthood....)

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