The Philosopher and Pain: The Case of Rorty and Dennett

by Guy Elgat

A couple of weeks ago, on the pages of this website, some critical comments on Richard Rorty’s general argumentative style were made, and, sympathetic to these comments, this inspired me to join the discussion with some criticism of Rorty of my own and, while I am at it, throw in some criticism of Daniel Dennett, for, as will be seen, they both have some mindboggling and implausible things to say about the experience of pain. This, in my view, stems from one of the things they have in common despite their many and substantial differences, namely, their deep animosity to anything Cartesian.

The experience of pain, and indeed any qualitative experience at all – what is referred to in philosophical circles with that ugly word “qualia” – is the bugbear of all hard-nosed and tough-minded philosophers who, enamored of the methods and results of the sciences, seek to eliminate or reduce any and every residue of the mental that is subjective, first-person, infallible, private, intrinsic, or indeed, qualitative. These properties, characteristic of the Cartesian mind, though certainly not conceived by Descartes in these very terms, threaten the scientific image of the world where everything is supposed to be objective, quantitative, extrinsic, and open to experimentation, verification and revision. As such, qualitative, first-person experiences are to be, if not explained away, expelled or expunged from any respectable philosophy. And while Rorty himself was not in any way a science-enthusiast, he shared Dennett’s scientifically-infused critical attitude to the Cartesian mind: the Cartesian legacy in the philosophy of mind must (not without some glee) be quashed, no matter the philosophical cost.

Consider Rorty on pain – a prime example of qualia. Rorty, in an essay in the collection Dennett and his Critics from 1993, tries to pit such Cartesian thinkers as Thomas Nagel against ‘linguistic holists’ such as Donald Davidson, Wilfrid Sellars and, of course, himself, and situate Dennett among the latter. One argument he makes relies on showing why Sellars’ dictum that ‘all awareness is a linguistic affair’ (quoted ibid. p.186) is incompatible with the very existence of qualia. He thus writes, explaining the import of Sellars’ view, that:

One will only be able to defend the claim that there are intrinsic, non-relational features of objects [i.e. qualia] if one can claim that knowledge of those features is not the same as knowledge of how to use the words which one employs to describe those features (ibid. first emphasis added).

As should be clear, Rorty (and Sellars, on his view) holds that since there is only knowledge of how to use the relevant words, one should deny that there really are any such ‘intrinsic, non-relational features of objects’. But this, I think, is a mistake: from the fact, if it is a fact, that all awareness is linguistically mediated, it does not follow that all there is are just linguistic awareness and practices and that il n’y a pas de hors-texte, as Derrida, one of Rorty’s heroes, would say.

In what is his central work from 1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty devotes more space to explaining the implications of Sellars’ dictum. Specifically, he wishes to examine the ‘obvious objection’ to Sellars that points to the ‘existence of raw feels [lisez qualia] – pains, whatever feelings babies have when looking at colored objects, etc.’ (Rorty, 1979, p.182). Surely (pre-linguistic) babies can suffer pain? In developing a response on Sellars’ behalf, Rorty is willing to allow that babies ‘have pain’ (ibid. p.184, emphasis in the original) and so he writes: ‘The child feels the same thing, and it feels just the same to him before and after language-learning’ (ibid., emphasis in the original). Moreover, the pre-linguistic infant is also allowed by Rorty to possess a form of knowledge, namely, ‘knowing what X is like’ (ibid. p.183), where this is to be distinguished from ‘knowing what sort of thing an X is’ – the kind of knowledge reserved only to members of the linguistic community who already possess the concepts of pain, red, etc. (ibid.). It thus might seem that Rorty, in this earlier discussion, is of the view that Sellars’ linguistic holism has no critical bearing on the question of the very existence of qualitative states both before and after the acquisition of language.

In a surprising twist of argumentation, however, Rorty goes on to argue – this time presumably in his own voice – that ‘even the nonconceptual, nonlinguistic knowledge of what a raw feel is like is attributed to beings on the basis of their potential membership in [a linguistic] community’ (ibid. pp.188-189, emphasis added).  It is this potential membership, he goes on to write, that explains why ‘Babies and the more attractive sorts of animals are credited with “having feelings” rather than… “merely responding to stimuli”’ (ibid. p.189, emphasis added). But notice how Rorty again transitions here seamlessly from knowing what a raw feel is like to having a feeling, from epistemology to ontology. Consequently, even if one agrees with his argument that knowledge of the sort he considers (knowledge of what X is like) can indeed be attributed only to potential community members, this should not require one to concede the ontological point that pains can only be had by such potential members. Indeed, it seems blatantly false to claim that attributions of the experiencing or the having of pain itself are based on such ‘potential membership’. Rorty, however, is steadfast in his position and explains that

moral prohibitions against hurting babies and the better looking sorts of animals are not “ontologically grounded” in their possession of feeling. It is, if anything, the other way around. The moral prohibitions are expressions of a sense of community based on the imagined possibility of conversation. (ibid. p.190)

How can one argue against such embarrassing and outrageous claims? One can begin by remarking how, despite his antipathy to everything Cartesian, Rorty can be seen with these radical claims to be circling back to the views of the Frenchman: substitute having a soul to being a potential member of a linguistic community and you will find yourself with something very close to Descartes’ notorious unwillingness to attribute pain to the brutes. In all fairness, Rorty is willing to ascribe knowledge of what pain is like to bats (ibid. p.189), for, supposedly, they have a ‘human face’ (ibid.) and can be readily imagined to open their mouths and speak ‘in synchrony with appropriate expressions of the face as a whole’ (ibid.). Rorty, however, draws the line at pigs: in his judgement they just ‘don’t writhe in quite the right humanoid way, and the pig’s face is the wrong shape for the facial expressions which go with ordinary conversation. So we send pigs to slaughter with equanimity…’ (ibid. p.190). Presumably, our current moral sensitivity to the suffering of pigs (or cows and chickens) is to be explained by the fact that we have finally managed to imagine them conversing with us!

Now, certainly, our moral treatment of animals, such as it is, is not based on any direct intuition of their pain, but neither is it grounded, as Rorty suggests, on any imagined membership in a linguistic community. It is rather the writhing and the squealing of the pig, not to mention, at a more sophisticated level, our acquaintance with its physiology that ground our belief that it has pains; a belief which can in turn ground our moral attitude to it. The imagined membership in a linguistic community does not play a role in our immediate reactions to the pain behavior of other animals and is as such an idle wheel wedged into our thinking by Rorty only in order, one suspects, to save his cherished linguistic holism and anti-Cartesianism. Despite his alleged overcoming of philosophy, Rorty remained committed to a philosophical worldview, and just like many before him, he was ready to sacrifice plausibility and good sense to defend it.

Turn now to Dennett. In his Consciousness Explained from 1991 pain is not directly discussed in any detail, but suffering is (Dennett does not seem to draw a distinction between the two in this book, nor later, as will become evident below). On the face of it, Dennett seems to take a much more sensible approach to the matter and quotes Bentham’s famous ‘The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk?, but can they suffer?’ (Dennett 1991, p.449) – words brandished occasionally by animal rights’ activists. But impressions quickly dissipate when, after favorably quoting Marian Stamp Dawkins’ view that ‘it is the reasoning animals that are the ones most likely to possess the capacity to suffer’ (ibid.) (Descartes grins offstage) , Dennett goes on to explain that Dawkins’ view chimes with his own theory of consciousness. He then claims: ‘Suffering is not a matter of being visited by some ineffable but intrinsically awful state [qualia!], but of having one’s life hopes, life plans, life projects blighted by circumstances imposed on one’s desire, thwarting one’s intentions – whatever they are’ (ibid.). Thirty years later, and Dennett has not budged from this view. Thus, in a recent interview online he says: ‘Let’s take pain…Some people wanna say pain has a quale that’s just intrinsically awful… [But] if pain is awful – and it is – it’s because of what it does… the effects it has on you…It interrupts your train of thought, it prevents you from enjoying your meal, it prevents you from moving your limbs the way you want to…it dominates…all you other senses, it overpowers your system of attention, so all you end up doing is just lying in a helpless state. That’s what’s bad about pain…’ ( , starting at the 27:00 mark, but see also a more recent interview, where Dennett makes the same points:, at around the 21:05 mark).

But this is wrongheaded: the ideologically blinkered insistence on there being no qualia at all drives the philosopher to reduce the cause – the feeling of pain – to the set of behavioral effects it typically has. Plainly, it is rather because one feels pain that one finds oneself unable to concentrate or enjoy one’s everyday activities, etc. Compare in this regard a patient who says: “Doctor, I feel no pain whatsoever, but I have lost my ability to focus, my ability to enjoy my meal, my joie de vivre in general”, to a radically different patient who complains of horrible abdominal pain (say), which severely affects his overall quality of life. I bet the preliminary diagnosis would differ quite significantly in the two cases. To take an even starker example, imagine explaining a view such as Dennett’s to one of those tortured at Abu Ghraib or Bagram jail: “you see”, we would say, “the electric shocks you were submitted to were not intrinsically awful – No: it’s only that they kept interrupting your train of thought and prevented you from enjoying your meal…”. (see. e.g. )

The problem, it seems to me, is that Dennett is too hung up on the classical definition of qualia as intrinsic, meaning, roughly, as having no effect on anything at all and thus detachable, at least in thought, from behavior. But to banish the qualitative nature of experiences altogether, as he has consistently done throughout his career, is to throw the baby out with the qualia water. To deny the reality of qualitative states just so as to preserve an alleged no-nonsense view of the mind is philosophical overkill, which itself results in nonsense. (Compare to Galen Strawson on “the Great Silliness”, ).