What Is It Like to Be in Pain? A medieval debate


Seminar med Professor of Philosophy Dominik Perler, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

It seems quite evident that we have a special feeling when we are in pain. But what is this feeling? How can it be characterized as a mental phenomenon? It has often been argued that medieval philosophers did not pay attention to these questions since they were looking at pain as a purely bodily phenomenon. The lecture intends to challenge this widespread view by analyzing the thirteenth-century debate about souls in hell. Medieval authors con-sidered these souls to be disembodied, yet capable of suffering real pain. But how is pain without a body possible? It will be argued that the idea of pain as a mental phenomenon was created in discussions dealing with this question. The lecture will first examine various attempts to spell out this idea (e.g., in Thomas Aquinas, Matthew of Aquasparta, Roger Marston) and then look at the methodological function of the whole debate about souls in hell. This theological debate made philosophical progress possible by focusing on a “limit case” that shed new light on the normal case of pain.