It is not obvious what pain experiences are. You can have a headache, cut or burn yourself, get a scrape, a stomach ache, and more; all of these are pains. How can we explain these type of experiences? In recent discussion, philosophers have tried to answer this by talking about representations. The general idea is that we can understand pain experiences by understanding what they are about.
Many contemporary philosophers have used the idea of representation in order to explain a wide variety of questions about the mind. For example, what is common to all our mental experiences? What is the nature of consciousness? How can we account for the way in which things feel? Or, our current question: what is pain?
But before we try to answer this last question, let’s clarify what a representation is. One way of understanding what philosophers mean when they talk about mental representations is to think about what Franz Brentano, a 19th century philosopher, had to say about intentionality. Brentano was trying to give an account of what the mind is; in order to do so, he proposed that one of the main characteristics of the mind is that it is intentional.
Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself… (Brentano, Psychology, 88)
What does this mean? It broadly means that all mental phenomena are about something; such a thing is the object of the experience. This notion is closely related to the notion of representation. That is to say, mental representations are also about something. We can think of things that represent as being about the things that they represent. In the same way that a portrait or a photograph represents a person and we might say was about the people they represent, so we can explain our mental experiences by what they represent and as about the things they represent. Your visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory experiences are about different types of things. Then, if we want to explain these experiences in representational terms, we have to account for the way in which you have experiences about this variety of things.
This type of explanation has created a lot of discussion and it has its defenders and critiques; however, what is relevant for the moment is to understand how this type of explanation could be used to explain pain. It has often been argued that having a pain experience can be put in terms of having an experience about some type of body damage, i.e., when you are in pain, you are representing some type of damage taking place in your body. For example:
… a twinge of pain represents a mild, brief case of damage. A throbbing pain represents a rapidly pulsing disorder. Aches represent regions of damage inside the body rather than on the surface. … A stabbing pain is one that represents sudden damage over a particular well-defined bodily region. … In the case of a pricking pain, the relevant damage is represented as having a sudden beginning and ending on the surface or just below, and as covering a very tiny area. A racking pain is one that represents that the damage involves the stretching of internal body parts (e.g., muscles). (Tye 1997, p. 333; cf. Tye 1996, 2006)
One of the interesting problems with this approach, many have argued, is that it does not provide a straightforward explanation of the affective aspect of pain. In other words, it does not explain why pain is unpleasant.
The idea is the following: you could be having an experience about damage in your body, but this does imply that the experience is unpleasant. Sometimes you can represent that some part of your body is damaged but you do not feel pain, and vice versa, sometimes you feel pain and you do not represent damage. An example of the first situation is when you have a lesion but you don’t feel pain, e.g., if you play sports, you can be severely injured but you do not feel pain. An example of the latter is when you have a headache but you do not represent any damage in your head.
There have been different attempts to answer this problem. For example, it has been argued that when you have pain, in addition to having an experience about certain bodily damage, you are also having an experience about something bad. In analogy, a portrait can represent you in many ways; for example, it could represent you as happy if you are smiling. In the case of pain, you are representing such damage as bad and the fact that it is represented in this way is what explains that pain is unpleasant. Again, this and other proposals that account for pain in terms of what it is about are under discussion.
If having an experience about bodily damage is not enough to explain the unpleasantness of pain, what else could be missing? Is the fact that it is about bad bodily damage enough to explain pain? If not, what else could pain be about?
Brentano, F., (1973), Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, transl. by A.C. Rancurello, D.B. Terrell, and L. McAlister, London: Routledge. (2nd ed., intr. by Peter Simons, 1995).
Tye, M., (1996). Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Tye, M., (1997). “A Representational Theory of Pains and their Phenomenal Character.” The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. N. Block, O. Flanagan and G. Güzeldere, Eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Tye, M., (2006). “Another Look at Representationalism about Pain”. Pain: New Essays on Its Nature and the Methodology of Its Study. M. Aydede, Ed. Cambridge: Mass.: MIT Press.