Philosophy has taken an “affective turn”. Prompted by new empirical work and previous neglect, philosophers are devoting increasing attention to deep questions about the critically important phenomenon of affect or valence or hedonics -- in other words, the fact that many ingredients of our mental lives (bodily sensations, perceptual experiences, emotions, and so forth) feel good or bad, are positive or negative, are pleasant or unpleasant.
This is the focus of much of my published work. Core issues include: the nature of pain; the nature of pleasure and unpleasure; affective motivation; the relations between affect, on the one hand, and reasons, rationality, and action, on the other; the normative status of affect, particularly pain's unpleasantness; the emotions, especially their hedonic, motivational, and normative dimensions; the affective and motivational dimensions of gustatory, olfactory, tactile, auditory, and visual experiences; and perceptualist and evaluativist theories of pain, other bodily sensations, and emotional experience.
More general concerns underlying these include the nature of and relationships among perception, representational content, and phenomenal consciousness. Related interests include: vision and the nature of colour; disjunctivist, naive realist, and content-based conceptions of perceptual experience; bodily awareness and self-awareness; the perception of affordances; perceptual 'revelation'; externalist views of experience and thought content; recognitional capacities; the primary/secondary quality distinction and its relationship to differences among the ways in which we experience colours, shapes, temperatures, and natural kinds; and, finally, the very ideas of perceptual content and phenomenal character. I've also worked and published on Wittgenstein's private language argument.
- Working on the above themes, I was PI of the grant-funded Pain Project (2012-13) and Value of Suffering Project (2013-16).
- If you're interested in writing a PhD under my supervision, see here.
- My publications follow. Click titles for papers. See also Academia.edu + PhilPapers + Google Scholar + University profile.
Commissioned & Work in Progress
- Pain. Commissioned for Routledge Encylopaedia of Philosophy.
- Pain and Action. While many agree that unpleasant pains motivate, little attention has been paid to this idea’s action-theoretic significance, to what kind of motivation pains are, or to the status of the behaviour they motivate. I claim that some pain behaviour belongs to a neglected category. For it is not brute behaviour, but action; yet it is not motivated by desires or intentions, nor like other behaviour that philosophers construe as neither brute nor desire-motivated, such as habitual action. Rather it is what I call “world-motivated”. This idea is a powerful antidote to the competing temptations either to overintellectualise such behaviour or, conversely, to deny its status as purposive action. And, since some views of pain’s unpleasantness capture it better than others, the world-motivated conception of pain behaviour bears not just on action theory, but on what I call the affect debate.
Papers & Chapters
- The Philosophy of Suffering - Introduction with M. Brady and J. Corns. In Bain, D., M. Brady, and J, Corns (eds.) The Philosophy of Suffering (below).
- The Philosophy of Pain - Introduction, with M. Brady and J. Corns. In Bain, D., M. Brady, and J, Corns (eds.) The Philosophy of Pain (below). Over recent decades, pain has received increasing attention as – with ever greater sophistication and rigour – theorists have tried to answer the deep and difficult questions it poses. What is pain’s nature? What is its point? In what sense is it bad? The papers collected in this volume are a contribution to that effort ...
- Why Take Painkillers? Noûs 2017. Accounts of the nature of unpleasant pain have proliferated over the past decade, but there has been little systematic investigation of which of them can accommodate its badness. This paper is such a study. In its sights are two targets: those who deny the non-instrumental badness of pain’s unpleasantness; and those who argue that this badness cannot be accommodated by the view—which I and others have advocated—that unpleasant pains are interoceptive experiences with evaluative content. Against the former, I argue that pain’s unpleasantness does indeed have non-instrumental badness; against the latter, I argue both that my critics’ own desire-theoretic accounts of pain’s unpleasantness cannot accommodate such badness, and that my evaluativist view can—either by appealing to “anti-unpleasantness” desires or by exploiting pain’s perceptuality. Final version here and here.
- Evaluativist Accounts of Pain's Unpleasantness. In Jennifer Corns (ed.) Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Pain 2017. Evaluativism is best thought of as a way of enriching a perceptual view of pain to account for pain’s unpleasantness or painfulness. Once it was common for philosophers to contrast pains with perceptual experiences (McGinn 1982; Rorty 1980). It was thought that perceptual experiences were intentional (or content-bearing, or about something), whereas pains were representationally blank. But today many of us reject this contrast. For us, your having a pain in your toe is a matter not of your sensing “pain-ly” or encountering a sense-datum, but of your having an interoceptive experience representing (accurately or inaccurately) that your toe is in a particular experience-independent condition, such as undergoing a certain “disturbance” or being damaged or in danger (Armstrong 1962; Tye 1995). But even if such representational content makes an experience a pain, a further ingredient seems required to make the pain unpleasant. According to evaluativism, the further ingredient is the experience’s possession of evaluative content: its representing the bodily condition as bad for the subject. In this chapter, I elaborate evaluativism, locate it among alternatives, and explain its attractions and challenges.
- Pains That Don't Hurt. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2014. Which philosophical account of pain best makes sense of pain asymbolia? Pain asymbolics claim to feel pain but seem indifferent to it. The challenge, I argue, is to illuminate not only their indifference to pain, but their “non-pain” deficits, e.g. their indifference to visual and verbal threat. One promising explanation is that asymbolics are incapable of caring about their bodies. Unlike other accounts I consider, this explanation illuminates their non-pain deficits, but how does it illuminate their indifference to pain? Evaluativism, I argue, best answers that question. Our best explanation of asymbolia requires evaluativism. Final version here.
- Pain, Pleasure, and Unpleasure. With Michael Brady. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 2014. Compare your pain when immersing your hand in freezing water and your pleasure when you taste your favourite wine. The relationship seems obvious. Your pain experience is unpleasant, aversive, negative, and bad. Your experience of the wine is pleasant, attractive, positive, and good. Pain and pleasure are straightforwardly opposites. Or that, at any rate, can seem beyond doubt, and to leave little more to be said. But, in fact, it is not beyond doubt. And, true or false, it leaves a good deal more to be said: about the nature of sensory affect; its relations to perception, motivation, and rationality; its value; and the mechanisms underlying it. In this paper, we map the dialectical landscape, locating areas ripe for further research. Final version here.
- What Makes Pains Unpleasant? Philosophical Studies 2013. (Published version available at www.springerlink.com.) The unpleasantness of pain motivates action. Hence many philosophers have doubted that it can be accounted for purely in terms of pain’s possession of indicative representational content. Instead, they have explained it in terms of subjects’ inclinations to stop their pains, or in terms of pains being constituted by experiential commands. I claim that such “noncognitivist” accounts fail to accommodate unpleasant pain’s reason-giving force. What I argue is needed is a view on which pains are unpleasant, motivate, and provide reasons in virtue of possessing content that is indeed indicative, but also, crucially, evaluative. Final version here.
- The Imperative View of Pain. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2011. This is my keynote from the Pain Workshop, Birmingham University, 2010. Abstract. Pain, crucially, is unpleasant and motivational. It can be awful; and it drives us to action, e.g. to take our weight off a sprained ankle. But what is the relationship between pain and those two features? And in virtue of what does pain have them? Addressing these questions, Colin Klein and Richard J. Hall have recently developed the idea that pains are, at least partly, experiential commands—to stop placing your weight on your ankle, for example. In this paper, I reject their accounts. Against Klein, I use dissociation cases to argue that possession of ‘imperative content’ cannot wholly constitute pain. Against them both, I further claim that possession of such content cannot constitute even pain’s unpleasant, motivational aspect. For, even if it were possible to specify the relevant imperative content—which is far from clear—the idea of a command cannot bear the explanatory weight Klein and Hall place on it. [Journal of Consciousness Studies 18 (9-10): 164-85. ISSN 1355-8250.]
- McDowell and the Presentation of Pains. Philosophical Topics 2009. This paper and others in this special issue derive from a workshop on McDowell held at the University of Canterbury at Kent in 2007. Abstract. It can seem natural to say that, when in pain, we undergo experiences representing certain experience-dependent particulars, namely pains. As part of his wider approach to mind and world, John McDowell has elaborated an interesting but neglected version of this account of pain. Here I set out McDowell’s account at length, and place it in context. I argue that his subjectivist conception of the objects of pain experience is incompatible with his requirement that such experience be presentational, rationalising, and classificatory.
- Color, Externalism, and Switch Cases. Southern Journal of Philosophy 2007. I defend externalism about both color experiences and color thoughts, which I argue is required by objectivism about color. Externalists face the following question: would the wearing of inverting lenses eventually change the color content of (say) those visual experiences a subject reports with the term “red”? From the work of Ned Block, David Velleman, Paul Boghossian, Michael Tye, and Fiona Macpherson, I extract a number of problems for each answer to this question. I show how all these problems can be overcome, making externalism available to the color objectivist.
- The Location of Pains. Philosophical Papers 2007. Perceptualists say that having a pain in a body part consists in perceiving the part as instantiating some property. I argue that perceptualism makes better sense of the connections between pain location and the experiences undergone by people in pain than three alternative accounts that dispense with perception. But I also reject ways in which fellow perceptualists David Armstrong and Michael Tye understand and motivate perceptualism, and I propose an alternative interpretation of the view. This interpretation, I argue, vitiates a pair of anti-perceptualist objections (due to John Hyman) concerning the idea of bodily sensitivity and the meaning of such sentences as ‘Amy has a pain in her foot’. Perceptualism, I conclude, remains our best account of the location of pains.
- Private Languages and Private Theorists. Philosophical Quarterly 2004. Simon Blackburn objects that Wittgenstein’s private language argument overlooks the possibility of a private linguist equipping himself with a criterion of correctness by confirming generalisations about the patterns in which his private sensations occur. Crispin Wright responds that appropriate generalisations would be too few to be interesting. But I show that Wright’s calculations are upset by his failure to appreciate both the richness of the data and the range of theories that would be available to the linguist. Final version here.
- Intentionalism and Pain. Philosophical Quarterly 2003. The pain case can appear to undermine the radically intentionalist view that the phenomenal character of any experience is entirely constituted by its representational content. That appearance is illusory, I argue. After categorising versions of pain intentionalism along two dimensions, I argue that an “objectivist” and “non-mentalist” version is the most promising, provided it can withstand two objections: concerning what we say when in pain, and the distinctiveness of the pain case. I rebut these objections, in a way that’s available to both opponents and adherents of the view that experiential content is entirely conceptual. In doing so I illuminate peculiarities of somatosensory perception that should interest even those who take a different view of pain experiences. Final version here.
Books & Collections
- Philosophy of Suffering. Routledge 2019. A collection, edited by David Bain, Michael Brady, and Jennifer Corns, originating in our Value of Suffering Project. Table of contents here.
- Philosophy of Pain. Routledge 2018. A collection, edited by David Bain, Michael Brady, and Jennifer Corns, originating in our Pain Project. Table of contents here.
- Pleasure and Pain. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 2014. A special issue, edited by David Bain and Michael Brady. Table of contents here.
- Colin Klein. What the Body Commands. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2017. In various papers, Colin Klein has argued that pain experiences are commands. This monograph goes well beyond the papers, re-shaping his ‘imperativist’ view, setting it within a general account of ‘homeostatic sensations’, presenting new arguments, and criticising alternatives. Original, empirically informed, clear, and often persuasive, it is a lovely book. ISSN 0004-8402. Final version here.
- Murat Aydede (ed.). Pain: New Essays on Its Nature and the Methodology of Its Study. Mind 2010. Our preoccupation with pain can seem an eccentricity of philosophers. But just a little reflection leads one into the thickets. When I see a pencil on my desk, I’m aware of a physical thing and its objective properties; but what am I aware of when I feel a pain in my toe? A pain, perhaps? Or my toe’s hurting? But what is the nature of such things? Are they physical? Are they objective? To avoid unexperienced pains, we might say they are subjective, or are themselves experiences. But do those with hurting toes therefore have experiences in their feet? The issues rapidly proliferate. Many of them are addressed in this interesting collection of original essays by philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, edited by Murat Aydede. Final version here.
- Matthew Elton. Daniel Dennett. Philosophical Quarterly 2005. Over 35 years, Daniel Dennett has articulated a rich and expansive philosophical outlook. There have been elaborations, refinements, and changes of mind, exposi- tory and substantive. This makes him hard to pin down. Does he, for example, think intentional states are real? In places, he sounds distinctly instrumentalist; elsewhere, he avows realism, ‘sort of’. What is needed is a map, charting developments and tracing dialectical threads through his extensive writings and the different regions of his thought. This is what Matthew Elton’s impressive book supplies. Accessibly written, with a useful glossary and detailed guides to the literature, it will be ex- tremely helpful to students and professionals alike. Final version here.
- Pain. Oxford Bibliographies Online 2015. Philosophers think of pain less and less as a paradigmatic instance of mentality, for which they seek a general account, and increasingly as a rich and fruitful topic in its own right. Pain raises specific questions: about mentality and consciousness certainly, but also about embodiment, affect, motivation, and value, to name a few. The growth of philosophical interest in pain has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of pain science, which burgeoned in the 1960s. This is no accident: developments in pain science have prompted philosophers to take account of empirical data and to revisit their assumptions about pain. Pain, in short, demands interdisciplinary investigation; hence, while this article focuses on the philosophy of pain, it makes liberal reference to empirical literature along the way. The focus of this article is on physical pains, that is, pains that are felt in bodily locations, not emotional suffering more broadly, such as grief or disappointment. The article also does not address the place of pain in ethical theories; rather, its focus is on issues that arise within the philosophy of mind. Even so, part of what makes pain such an interesting and important topic is that the questions it raises span boundaries, and normative questions concerning pain’s badness, on the one hand, and its value, on the other, are never far away.
Popular Versions of My Research
- When Pain Isn't Painful. The Philosophers' Magazine, August 2015. Sometimes the philosophical armchair gets bumped by empirical facts. So it is when thinking about pain. For good or ill (good, actually, as we shall see) most of us are intimately acquainted with physical pain, the kind you feel when you stand on a nail or burn your hand. And, from the armchair, it can seem blindingly obvious that pain is essentially unpleasant. There are of course unpleasant experiences that aren’t pains – nausea or itches, for example – but surely there aren’t pains that don’t hurt, pains that are neutral or even pleasurable rather than unpleasant. Surely, indeed, there couldn’t be. For it is part of the very concept of a pain that a pain be unpleasant. Or so it has seemed to many. Yet over recent decades philosophers’ confidence in these putative truisms has been shaken by some fascinating cases from the clinic, the lab, and life.
- See also public engagement.
- Sensation and Representation: a Study of Intentionalist Accounts of the Bodily Sensations. Oxford University DPhil Thesis 2000. There are good reasons for wanting to adopt an intentionalist account of experiences generally, an account according to which having an experience is a matter of representing the world as being some way or other—according to which, that is, such mental episodes have intrinsic, conceptual, representational content. Such an approach promises, for example, to provide a satisfying conception of experiences’ subjectivity, their phenomenal character, and their crucial role in constituting reasons for our judgements about the world. It promises this, moreover, without incurring the difficulties that face the adverbialist and the friends of such items as qualia and “private objects”. Still, even many of those who have been persuaded of that much are inclined to make an exception of the bodily sensations, since pains and the rest have traditionally been taken to be peculiarly “blank”—instances of brute, non-conceptual feeling. In this study, I reject that tradition and argue that sensation experiences are indeed representational, and hence not in that respect exceptional. The idea that they are nevertheless distinctive in other ways vis-à-vis ordinary perceptual experiences has led intentionalists such as John McDowell to adopt an account of their content that is both mentalist and radically subjectivist: an account, in other words, that takes the items represented by such experiences to be mental and constitutively dependent on their being represented. To my mind, such subjectivism is both viciously circular—like the parallel view of colours—and at odds with the admirably intentionalist aspirations of these views. Hence I turn to consider objectivist versions of intentionalism, views that assimilate sensations to somatosensory perceptual experiences such as those that inform us of, for example, the position of our own limbs. Admittedly, these views not only risk losing the “interiority” of sensations, but I argue that they also cannot be combined with mentalism and that this generates considerable difficulties—difficulties that have either been ignored or underestimated by those working with less demanding conceptions of content. Nonetheless, I make a number of preliminary moves to show how such difficulties might be dealt with, and how the objectivist can register even the distinctively “inner” character of sensations—by, amongst other things, focussing on the peculiarities of somatosensory content. So the prospects for intentionalism about sensations are, I argue, good.