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Being in Pain by Abraham Olivier

Vince Luizzi gets a new focus on pain from Abraham Olivier.

This book is an interesting discussion of how French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy has a practical application for relieving pain. Being in Pain may be a difficult read in spots, but it remains a page-turner for anyone who knows pain and welcomes advice for relieving it.

The book first investigates philosophy’s famous ‘mind-body problem’. Is the mind merely matter in motion? Can it survive the body? Or is Merleau-Ponty correct that we are our perceiving bodies? Olivier believes that he is, and adds to the old metaphysical debate with his defense of Merleau-Ponty’s view. The problem with materialism about consciousness is its inability to account for subjective states such as my perception of my body; and dualism fails to fully recognize the bodily dimension of pain. Olivier endorses Merleau-Ponty’s theory in part for overcoming the deficiencies of its main rivals. Olivier then investigates the significance of Merleau-Ponty’s view for understanding pain, and goes on to offer practical advice for dealing with pain. So the work is well within the scope of applied philosophy, and could be of interest to any educated reader.

In introducing Merleau-Ponty’s view, Olivier writes, “Je suis mon corps – I am my body. Thus Merleau-Ponty coins his well-known viewpoint that the body is not simply an object among objects, but instead refers to myself as perceiving subject. ” (p9.) How do we speak of pain on this view? Olivier tells us pain is “disturbed bodily perception bound to hurt, affliction, or agony... [I]f I speak of the ‘body in pain’, I refer to the way pain disturbs the way I qua body perceive, that is sense, feel, and cognize.” (p51.) So pain is a disturbed perception of the body. If so, we might think of further disturbances of our perception which would eliminate pain, or engage our minds in such a fashion that pain subsides. According to Olivier, “If pain is itself essentially part of my perception, and my point of view changes, the quality of the pain must also change... What I advocate is an insight into our bodily capacity to change our body’s pain by means of a change of perception.” (p166.) We can talk about pain, write about it, or write or speak to it. Or we can imagine situations that preoccupy us, disrupting the disruption of pain, thus diminishing the pain.

A strength of the work is the inclusion of accounts of being in pain by literary figures who have much self-awareness and power of expression, and who are well able to give compelling accounts of their creative efforts to escape pain. For instance, Olivier offers Alfonso Daudet’s report of his reading, writing and talking about pain, to demonstrate that “Pain-talk is powerful.” Daudet also recommended physical relocation as a way to confront pain by altering perspective. Daudet wrote, “One ought to go to different baths each season.”

Victor Frankel tells us about his efforts to free himself from pain. In his imagination he locates himself in a lecture hall full of students – he the lecturer and the topic his pain, as he discusses it from the perspective of a disinterested or neutral observer. Frankel writes, “And by means of this trick I succeed in putting myself above the situation, above the present and above its suffering, and to observe it as if it already represents the past and as if I myself with all my suffering would be an object of interesting psychological-scientific research, which I conduct myself.” (p186.)

These testimonials are in the last chapter, ‘Liberation’, which unites Merleau-Ponty’s thinking and Olivier’s analysis of it in a practical application for liberating people from pain. Pertinent questions remain to be asked, which underscore how Olivier’s study would be better seen as part of a larger research agenda in a variety of fields. We would want to know for example how long someone in pain can introduce these disruptions before the technique becomes ineffective. How much of the population can profit from the advice? Does memory – remembering a time when one was free from pain – serve as well as disruption brought about by imagination or physical relocation? How does the use of art and music as healing therapies relate to Olivier’s analysis? Are there other forms of disruption? What mix of approaches is best? And how might Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the body as a perceiving self have fruitful medical consequences beyond relieving pain?

The work has already received attention from applied ethics, philosophy, and analytic psychology. Together with the many as-yet-unanswered questions it raises, this suggests the broad appeal, interest, and impact this work will hopefully have.

© Vincent Luizzi 2008

Vince Luizzi is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Texas State, the alma mater of the late U.S. President, Lyndon Baines Johnson .

Being in Pain by Abraham Olivier, Peter Lang, 2007. pb, 212 pages. $59.95 ISBN:363156225X

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