Some philosophers have argued that unpleasantness is intrinsic to pain. But what does it mean for something to be intrinsic to something else? How should we understand the idea that unpleasantness is intrinsic to pain?
There are several ways of understanding the notions intrinsic and extrinsic. For this entry, I will focus on two common ways of understanding them. First, we distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic to differentiate non-relational as against relational features. Roughly, this means that if an object has an intrinsic feature, the object’s feature does not depend on its relation with some other object or feature; in opposition, if an object has an extrinsic feature, this means that object’s feature does depend on its relation with some other object or feature.
Let’s use a standard example to understand this: if we consider height, the property that I have of being a precise length is intrinsic because this feature of mine does not depend on its relation with any other object or feature. In contrast, my feature of being shorter than my brother is extrinsic since this feature depends on a relation with another feature, that is, my brother’s precise length.
Another common understanding of the notions of intrinsic and extrinsic is the difference between interior as against exterior features. Namely, if something has an interior feature this means that this object has it merely in virtue of the way the object is. In contrast, if the feature is exterior this means that the object has it not merely in virtue of the way the object is, but also in virtue of the way something else is. If we use the previous example again, what it means for me to have the intrinsic feature of being a precise lenght is that I have this feature merely in virtue of the way I am. In contrast, the property of being shorter than my brother depends on the way something else, my brother, is.
Let’s now compare these two senses of intrinsic and extrinsic with another example. A good case to exemplify the commonality between these two senses is the difference between mass and weight. According to the non-relational as against the relational notions of intrinsic and extrinsic, the mass of a rock is an intrinsic feature because it doesn’t depend on any relation with another feature or object. In contrast, its weight is an extrinsic feature because it depends on the relation between the rock’s mass and the gravitational force. According to the interior as against exterior notion, the mass of a rock is likewise intrinsic since the rock has its mass merely in virtue of the way the rock is, and the weight of the rock is extrinsic, since it depends not merely on the way the rock is, but also on something else, that is, on the gravitational force.
Weatherson and Marshall (2014) suggest that one argument in favour of understanding this notion in terms of interior as against exterior properties is that it is the most common use among philosophers. “[W]hen philosophers explain what they mean by ‘intrinsic property’, they employ the ‘in virtue of’ platitude, or a trivial variant of this platitude, much more often than they employ any of the other platitudes” [my italics]. When the property of an object is intrinsic, it is merely in virtue of the way the object is, and if it is extrinsic, it is in virtue of the way something else is.
Following this usage, what does it mean to say that unpleasantness is intrinsic to pain? This means that being unpleasant is an intrinsic feature if pain is unpleasant merely in virtue of the way the pain is. On the contrary, if the pain is unpleasant in virtue of the way something else is, then its unpleasantness is extrinsic. For instance, when you twist your ankle or jam your finger, the unpleasantness is intrinsic to your experiences if these experiences are unpleasant just in virtue of how they are. However, the experiences would be extrinsically unpleasant if they are so in virtue of the way something else is, such as what you might be feeling at the time, what you want, care about, etc.
Does everybody think that unpleasantness is intrinsic to pain? No. In fact, many authors in philosophy think that the unpleasantness of pain should be explained extrinsically. They think that pain is not unpleasant merely in virtue of the way pain is, but also in virtue of the way something else is.
For example, some philosophers think that what accounts for pain being unpleasant is a different mental state such as your disliking the pain or your desire for the pain to stop. That is, your pain is not unpleasant merely in virtue of the way it is, but in virtue of you disliking that pain or desiring it to stop. To put it in other words, pain is unpleasant because you dislike it or because you desire it to stop. Others philosophers have also thought that it is your behaviour or motivation to avoid the pain that accounts for it being unpleasant. Namely, it is because you are motivated to avoid pain or because you act in order to avoid it that pain counts as unpleasant.
What seems more plausible to you? Do you think unpleasantness is intrinsic to your pain?
Weatherson, Brian and Marshall, Dan, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Properties”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/intrinsic-extrinsic/>.