Many theories try to account for the nature of pleasant and unpleasant experiences with a phenomenological approach. That is, they argue that there is certain feeling, a certain conscious quality that these experiences have that accounts for their being pleasant or unpleasant. A particular version of this account is the distinctive feeling theory. This account posits a distinctive quality that is shared among all pleasant experiences and one that is shared among all unpleasant ones. Many philosophers think this is an intuitive explanation of how our pleasant and unpleasant experiences seem to us when we reflect on them.
However, this approach faces an important difficulty: the heterogeneity problem. According to this problem, there is no single feeling that is present in all pleasant experiences and no single feeling in all unpleasant ones either. If we introspect various pleasant experiences, for instance, we find that the taste of a homemade cookie and the experience of admiring the sunset have no felt qualities in common. The same happens with unpleasant experiences: a cramp has no distinctive feeling shared with grief. Several philosophers share this alternative intuition. For instance, for the case of pleasant experiences, Fred Feldman says:
Reflection on sensory pleasures quickly reveals an enormous phenomenological heterogeneity. Perhaps this can be expressed more simply: sensory pleasures are all “feelings”, but they do not “feel alike”. Consider the warm, dry, slightly drowsy feeling of pleasure that you get while sunbathing on a quiet beach. By way of contrast, consider the cool, wet, invigorating feeling of pleasure that you get when drinking some cold, refreshing beer on a hot day…[T]hey do not feel at all alike. After many years of careful research on this question, I have come to the conclusion that they have just about nothing in common phenomenologically.” (Feldman, 2006, p. 79).
In a similar line, Christine Korsgaard (1996, p. 148) contrasts different pain experiences and compares them with other unpleasant cases such as grief or rage. Though she is focused on the diversity of pain experiences, the same can be applied to the variety of unpleasant experiences. Namely, there seems to be no common distinctive quality among grief, rage, disappointment, nausea, migraine, menstrual cramps, pinpricks, pinches, etc.
As Feldman and Korsgaard notice, there seems to be no unifying qualitative aspect among all these experiences. However, some philosophers have tried to defend the theory from the heterogeneity problem. For example, Ben Bramble (2013) argues that introspection might be misleading and that the fact that we cannot identify a distinctive feeling among all these experiences does not necessarily mean that there is no shared feeling. Bramble claims that at least one of the reasons why the pleasant and unpleasant feeling is difficult to identify is because it permeates the experience. Bramble says:
Clearly, if ‘the pleasant feeling’ exists, it does not make these sort of experiences pleasant by being ‘tacked on to them’, so to speak, in any crude fashion. Instead, it must be the sort of feeling that can come in extremely low intensities, and very finely discriminable locations within one’s experiential field, so that it can come scattered throughout one’s experiential field. (Bramble, 2013, sec. 4)
Given that the distinctive feeling may permeate the experience “in extremely low intensities” and come in “very finely discriminable locations within one’s experiential field”, Bramble says, it is hard to disentangle the feeling from the rest of the experience. He, for example, thinks that “[i]f the distinctive feeling theory is correct, and I enjoy listening to Bach, while you do not, then the difference between our experiences of Bach has got to be that mine is permeated by ‘the pleasant feeling’, while yours is not.” (Bramble, 2013, sec. 4)
I think that Bramble’s notion of permeation is not particularly enlightening: it is not clear to me what it would mean for a feeling to permeate our experiences. Let’s consider a simple case of permeation, like the way in which water permeates a sponge by filling its cavities. How does a distinctive pleasant feeling permeate my experience of eating a cookie or admiring the sunset? How does an unpleasant one permeate my pain and my grief? Where are the cavities of my experience that are being filled with a distinctive feeling? Whereas it is rather evident that a sponge or a rock can be permeated with water, I think it is considerably less clear that experiences could be permeated with a distinctive feeling. In short, if ‘permeating’ is a metaphor, it is not clear how to replace it with anything that is not metaphorical. What is ‘permeation’ a metaphor for?
But what do you think? Do you think that there’s a distinctive pleasant or unpleasant feeling shared by all your pleasant and unpleasant experiences? Do you think experiences can be permeated with distinctive feelings? If not, are you convinced by the heterogeneity problem?
Bramble, B., (2013), The distinctive feeling of pleasure, Philosophical Studies.
Feldman, F., (2006), Pleasure and the good life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Korsgaard, C. M., (1996). The sources of normativity, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.