The history of the concept of pain: how the experts came to be out of touch with the folk

In Richard Samuels & Daniel A. Wilkenfeld (eds.), Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Science. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 173-190 (2019)
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In this chapter we consider the tension between how pain researchers today typically define pains and the dominant, ordinary conception of pain. While both philosophers and pain scientists define pains as experiences, taking this to correspond with the ordinary understanding, recent empirical evidence indicates that laypeople tend to think of pains as qualities of bodily states. How did this divide come about? To answer, we sketch the historical origins of the concept of pain in Western medicine, providing evidence that during large swaths of this history, medical experts characterized pains as laypeople tend to today—that is, as qualities of bodily states. The conception of pains as experiences that we find in contemporary definitions seems to be a relatively recent development corresponding with changes in the diagnostic tools available to doctors. We argue that this history is important and suggests that the most prominent current scientific definition of pain (IASP) is partly stipulative and fails to match how laypeople most often think of pain. We suggest that either we should acknowledge this stipulative character, or else should amend the IASP definition in a pluralistic fashion that notes both bodily and experiential conceptions of pain.



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Justin Sytsma
Victoria University of Wellington
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