torstai 2. lokakuuta 2014

Enduring pain

I have tried to criticize the common prejudice about Wolffian philosophy that he, in Kant's words, intellectualized appearances. As I have tried to show, this is a rather exaggerated and even misleading opinion. If anything, Wolff was Lockean, when it comes to the source of cognition, and even highly abstract concepts were for Wolff either phantasms dependent on perceptions or words symbolizing such phantasms. Instead of intellectualizing appearances, Wolff picked out a certain subgroup of them as an ideal of cognition, that is, distinct or analysed perceptions, which could be used as a basis for demonstrations.

Even if Wolff would not intellectualize appearances, he appears to fall into a second failing of many pre-Kantians, namely, he reduces appetetive side of human mind into its cognitive side. This seems evident from Wolff's suggestion that all cravings, desires, hopes, volitions etc. presuppose some cognition. In other words, we could not want anything to happen, Wolff says, if we could not see what the situation is like and compare it with some ideal how the situation should be. On top of this, Wolff defines all forms of enjoyment simply as intuitive cognition of something as perfect, making even bodily pleasure appear rather intellectual, like an aesthetic consideration of a statue.

The last problem is actually easy to solve, when one remembers that Wolffian cognition need not be highly conceptual. We need not be able make sophisticated explanations why a taste of sweetness or an orgasm is pleasurable, but we could just cry out ”Oh my God, yes, this is what I want” or even utter no comprehensible sounds. Indeed, the word ”intuitive” tells that this enjoyment does not need any linguistic expression at all, but is instigated by mere perception. What is important is that we human beings are, as it were, hardwired to seek for such feelings of perfection and to avoid respective feelings of imperfection.

Furthermore, we already know from the study of Wolff's theory of cognition that he acknowledges a difference in vividness and strength between sensations and higher intellectual representations. Indeed, a capacity to at least partially avoid the influence of distracting sensations was an essential precondition of more intellectual cognition. Similarly, Wolff can accept that bodily pleasures captivate us so strongly that it will cloud our reason – and similarly pain can make us unable to think clearly. Then again, we also can exercise an ability to become indifferent even to quite strong bodily pleasures and pains. Thus, although being tortured is painful, there have been people able to suppress these extreme feelings, and even if such extreme self-control is rare, all of us can in some degree endure at least some type of bodily discomfort.

A good question is whether Wolff is making an artificial restriction by declaring the appetites for pleasures and aversions of discomfort and pleasure to be essentially connected to cognitions. After all, appetites and aversions we are aware of might be just expression of some unconscious urges. Yet, Wolff is here purposefully restricting himself on what we can immediately observe of ourselves, while the explanations for these observations are left for rational psychology. Thus, Wolff can in empirical psychology point out only that conscious appetites and aversions are clearly dependent of cognitions. This still does not preclude the possibility of unconscious activities causing this whole play of appetites and cognitions.

In Wolffian system, why we feel positive and negative feelings is ultimately work of God and meant to be useful. For instance, bodily pleasure should reward us for benefiting the condition of our body, while bodily pain should warn us of harming our body. Yet, Wolff points out, enjoyment is defined only as cognizing something AS perfect, that is, there remains the possibility that what we enjoy is in truth really not perfect or even good for us. Taste of sugar sends a pleasurable feeling, because we require energy that is easily obtainable from sugar, but eating too much sweets will still be detrimental to our health. Similarly, pressure on nerves in our teeth will cause considerable pain as a warning for a possible dental injury, but similar pain felt in a dentist's chair occurs just as a side effect of fixing our teeth.

The possibility of deceptive enjoyments is essentially connected with the confusion of mere unanalysed sensations. Thus, pleasure or pain is just a murky feeling of ”Yes!” or ”No!” without any proper indication what actually is good and bad in the events causing these feelings. A good question is how we can then recognize enjoyment caused by true perfection and distinguish it from deceptive positive feelings – especially as working it out from Wolff's ontological definition of perfection seems rather difficult. Wolff's suggestion appears to be that constancy can be used as a relevant criterion – truly perfect things cause enjoyment that cannot be contradicted by future knowledge, while deceptive enjoyment could well be just momentary and fleeting.

Affects, like love and hope, fall usually to the more confused side of appetites and aversions – we have tender feelings toward a person and often just cannot explain why. Wolff presents an intricately detailed account of affects and defines them twice – first nominally, by explaining what e.g. love means, and then through its real definition which tells us how to generate love. As I said earlier when dealing with Wolffian theory of affects, the whole system of affects has too much material for a good blog text, thus, I will skip the topic now also. Hence, next time I shall move to consider the question of interaction between mind and body.

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