Monday, June 11, 2007

"I Know I'm In Pain"

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein dwells on the utterance “I know I’m in pain.” Commentators have noted the pathos of this choice. (Nietzsche, similarly, uses “I do suffer” as his example of a sentence that registers the moment at which one can see no further.) Why is this sentence Wittgenstein's example? In this utterance, the other minds problem that Wittgenstein attacks in this section of the book comes to meet the other people problem, the sense that we have difficulty metabolizing our discontent to the extent that our own discontent is that of the other--or, even more circularly, the other's discontent with ours.

Wittgenstein realizes that this statement of supposed certainty, “I know I’m in pain,” seems to want something that he's reluctant to give when he imagines himself as its recipient. Most Wittgenstein scholarship explicates his resistance by arguing that for him, the statement is incoherent because it fails to understand what knowledge is, what “I know” can be applied to. You have pains, so you don’t have to “know” that you have them, as if you had somehow deduced that they were yours. Therefore, “I know” can’t serve to convince someone else of first-person states of mind; it comes off like insistence beyond the point where insistance can have any sway. But the idea that we'd be annoyed interpersonally by so subtle a logical mistake is still odd.

In Philosophical Investigations §296 Wittgenstein writes that there is literally something else at stake:

Yes, but there is something there all the same accompanying my cry of pain. And it is on account of that that I utter it. And this something is what is important—and frightful.

Is it possible to say what “this something” consists of? Apparently not: either the “something accompanying” the cry of pain is so difficult to convey that the person experiencing it doesn’t know what it is—that’s why it’s only called “something”—or he knows what it is but doesn’t want to name it; or it eludes language. The dominant reading of the passage has been that the speaker may believe that what’s different from the cry is just the pain “itself”; he believes that pain differs from its manifestations, a belief that Wittgenstein disputes. Stanley Cavell argues that “something” could, alternatively or in addition, be the desire for acknowledgment. As interesting as the word "something" in §296 is the word “accompanying," which implies that the "something" is along with, behind, beside, within, or on top of the cry of pain. Is it possible that, even if the pain were attended to, this “something” would require its own attention? That even direct action on the pain wouldn't dissolve it? If resistance arises with the utterance "I know I'm in pain," then perhaps what accompanies pain and the cry of pain is self-consciousness about pain. If so, it sounds as though the speaker's desire for acknowledgment is not or not only to have the pain acknowledged, but rather or also that someone acknowledge that he knows he’s in pain. Isn't that the face value of the statement? The hoped-for answer wouldn’t be “I know your pain as you do”—which is how Cavell ends the section of The Claim of Reason in which he discusses this (Bill Clinton: “I feel your pain”)--but "I know you think about your own pain," or “I know you mind the pain.” It's not hard to be sorry, yourself, that someone is in pain--that's why "I'm in pain" isn't a problem. It may be harder to be sorry that the other person is "sorry for himself"--but wouldn't that be what it took to mind the other person's pain from something more like his own perspective? If so, then I'd like to ask not only Cavell's question, “How to understand this wish for a response to my expressions,” but how to understand the givenness of the assumption of resistance to a desire to express, not oneself simply, but one's view of oneself and dissatisfaction with one's own state. Why is the desire to have this discontent recognized hidden as “something," why is it so occluded? Is the difficulty of fulfilling this desire, and not the pain per se, “what is important—and frightful”?

Image: Jaume Plensa

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