Making sense of unpleasantness: evaluationism and shooting the messenger


Unpleasant sensations possess a unique ability to make certain aversive actions seem reasonable to us. But what is it about these experiences that give them that ability? According to some recent evaluationist accounts, it is their representational content: unpleasant sensations represent a certain event as bad for one. Unfortunately evaluationism seems unable to make sense of our aversive behavior to the sensations themselves, for it appears to entail that taking a painkiller is akin to shooting the messenger, and is every bit as unreasonable. In this paper I distinguish two versions of the shooting-the-messenger challenge: First, how do we account for the badness of unpleasant sensation? And second, how do we account for our access to that badness? I suggest plausible responses to the first question, but I also argue that the seriousness of the second has not been appreciated. I then propose a solution to the second: when we introspect our pains we also turn our emotional distress inwards, enabling them to represent our pains as bad.

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  1. 1.

    Hereafter I’ll often drop explicitly mentioning that the kind of justification I have in mind is pro tanto. It also bears noting that I am throughout only concerned with our intentional responses to pain.

  2. 2.

    By ‘access to a justification’ I mean more than de re awareness of something that is a justification; the subject must be aware of it as a justification. But otherwise I use ‘access’ as a placeholder for whatever sort of epistemic state the above description picks out. I am not here concerned with determining the quality of our access, e.g. whether it constitutes knowledge.

  3. 3.

    As I use it, the schema “X amounts to Y” is neutral as to whether Y explains X or vice versa. See the discussion on p. 9 below. I will also suppose throughout that the badness represented by pain experiences, as well as the sense in which pains really are bad, is badness for the subject of the pain, though for verbal economy I will generally leave out this qualification.

  4. 4.

    Critics include Aydede (2005), Jacobson (2013), and Cohen and Fulkerson (2014).

  5. 5.

    Among evaluationists only Helm (2002) has thus far shared this broader concern to extend the account to unpleasant experience generally.

  6. 6.

    Obviously, something similar can be said for pleasant experiences. I will follow the literature in focusing exclusively on unpleasant experiences and in hoping that the account developed can be extended in a fairly straightforward way to pleasant ones.

  7. 7.

    Döring (2007) sees related opportunities for affect to play an explanatory role in action.

  8. 8.

    See also Tappolet (2000, pp. 178–183) and Hawkins (2008).

  9. 9.

    See Jacobson (2013) and Aydede and Fulkerson (forthcoming).

  10. 10.

    For a case of congenital indifference to pain, see Frances and Gale (1975). For lobotomy as a treatment for chronic pain, see Freeman and Watts (1950), Hardy et al. (1952). For asymbolia, Schilder and Stengel (1928), Weinstein et al. (1955), Berthier et al. (1988).

  11. 11.

    Compare the case reports in Freeman and Watts (1950) with those in Berthier et al. (1988).

  12. 12.

    See Grahek (2007) for an influential view of this kind, though at times he does seem uncertain whether asymbolic pain is indeed pain; see op. cit., pp. 111–112.

  13. 13.

    See Fields (1999), Price (2000).

  14. 14.

    Klein (2015) has recently questioned whether asymbolics’ pains feel different from those of non-asymbolics, but I fail to see how the truth of his positive account—that asymbolics lack concern for their bodily integrity—undermines the standard interpretation. One significant symptom of asymbolics’ lack of concern is their total lack of pain affect. See Bain (2014) for further criticism.

  15. 15.

    It should be noted that some motivation or attitude-based theories of unpleasantness seem to deny that unpleasantness itself contributes to phenomenal experience; see for instance Tye (1995, p. 135), Clark (2005), and Heathwood (2007). But lest they deny what seems to me to be an obvious truth about phenomenology, these theories are often better construed as offering a reductive account of unpleasant experience in terms of motivation or an attitude.

  16. 16.

    See Price and Aydede (2005, §4.1) for an overview of psychophysical studies concerning these two pains.

  17. 17.

    It’s possible that the phenomenal character of pain and unpleasantness are not experienced as exactly co-located: perhaps the pain is limited to the area of perceived damage while the unpleasantness radiates further outward from it. In that case it would be hard to say that the unpleasantness is an aspect of the pain. I’ll ignore this complication in what follows, since what matters for my purposes are the claims about the location of unpleasantness and how pain and its unpleasantness are “bound together” as about the same thing. There is some psychophysical evidence that the unpleasantness itself is experienced as having a body location. Ploner et al. (1999) describe a case study of a stroke patient who, for some nociceptive stimuli to the hand that would normally be painful, experienced an unpleasant sensation “somewhere between fingertips and shoulder” (ibid., p. 213)—but no pain.

  18. 18.

    Pace Rosenthal (1991, p. 17), who suggests that pain can be unconscious if it is unnoticed.

  19. 19.

    Note that I am assuming only that our introspective access to our phenomenal experiences is non-inferential, not that introspection of any mental state must be non-inferential. Determining the nature and scope of introspection is beyond the scope of this paper.

  20. 20.

    It is instructive to compare the introspectionist Titchener (1896, p. 96) on this point, who writes of the unpleasantness of affection that it “pervades the whole consciousness of the moment”.

  21. 21.

    For a study that maps where emotions are experienced in the body, see Nummenmaa et al. (2014).

  22. 22.

    See Tappolet (2010, p. 327) for a similar list of components of fear.

  23. 23.

    See Schwitzgebel (2008, pp. 249–250) for further worries about the introspectability of the emotional phenomenology.

  24. 24.

    Note that among intentionalists (see below) there has been some recognition of our relatively poor epistemic access to our emotions in light of their complexity; see Seager (2002).

  25. 25.

    Cutter and Tye (2011) and O’Sullivan and Schroer (2012) are explicit in their commitment to intentionalism. In outlining an earlier, injury-perceptualist view of pain Bain (2003) takes himself to be defending intentionalism. Helm (2002, 2009) is more carefully characterized as intentionalist-friendly. He aims to account for the distinctive phenomenology of emotions in terms of their intentional content, but it is unclear whether he thinks this accounts for its phenomenology without remainder and whether he is willing to extend a representational account to all phenomenal experience.

  26. 26.

    A traditional formulation is that phenomenal character supervenes on representational content (see Byrne 2001), though at least one of the most prominent intentionalists, Tye (2014), now rejects this characterization in favor of what he calls “property representationalism”.

  27. 27.

    Tye (1995, p. 30).

  28. 28.

    From Horgan and Tienson (2002, p. 521). See also Harman (1990) and Dretske (1995).

  29. 29.

    See Block (1996).

  30. 30.

    Aydede and Fulkerson (2014) have recently argued that representationalism cannot explain in a manner consistent with transparency what, exactly, affective qualities like awful qualify. Are experiences awful, or are the objects they present us with awful? I think their challenge can be met, but it is also important to recognize that it is only aimed at representationalists committed to a stronger version of transparency than TP.

  31. 31.

    Tye (2014).

  32. 32.

    I give a mechanism for introspection consistent with TP later in the essay. Note that TP does entail that some of the phenomenological investigation in Sect. 2.1 above is misdescribed: one attends to the phenomenal character of one’s experience but introspects the experience itself. Addressing this wrinkle above would have unnecessarily complicated the presentation, however.

  33. 33.

    See Chalmers (2004) for an overview of intentionalist positions. Note that imperativism about pain (Klein 2007; Hall 2008; Martínez 2011) is often considered a form of intentionalism, and that ‘representationalism’ is often used not for a subtype of intentionalism but as a synonym for it.

  34. 34.

    See especially Horgan and Tienson (2002) and Kriegel (2013).

  35. 35.

    The idea that unpleasant pain is bad because, or at least when, it interferes with agency is common one in the recent literature; see Swenson (2009), Klein (2015), Martínez (2015).

  36. 36.

    See Panksepp (1998), Rolls (2014), Navratilova and Porreca (2014), Aydede and Fulkerson (forthcoming) for recent contributions to theorizing on this issue.

  37. 37.

    It is also important to recognize, contra Cohen and Fulkerson (2014), that evaluationism is not itself committed to denying causal accounts of unpleasant experience. Evaluationists do think that no mere causal account will suffice except one that rationalizes aversive action. But this only commits them to thinking that if a causal account of unpleasant experience is true, it will be of a very special sort—one that makes it a representation of a certain kind.

  38. 38.

    This latter option does bear the cost of making representationalism less pure since it takes away some explanatory work from the content of a representation and gives it to the way that content is represented. (See Chalmers 2004 on the distinction between pure and impure representationalism.) But as nearly all representationalists are to some extent impure, the cost is a matter of degree.

  39. 39.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing this objection.

  40. 40.

    See for instance Stampe (1987), Oddie (2005), Tenenbaum (2007).

  41. 41.

    For more on this, see Finlay (2007).

  42. 42.

    For an excellent overview of the dispute, see Aydede and Güzeldere (2002).

  43. 43.

    Of course, this is not to say anything about what exactly attached two experiences intentionally, nor how tight the bind is. As in the case of misattribution of arousal (Dutton and Aron 1974), what mental states one’s emotion attaches to will often depend on context and what information is salient. The same appears to go for moods; see Schwarz and Clore (1983) for a classic study.

  44. 44.

    See Aydede (2003), Lycan (2003) for similar criticism. Dretske does anticipate this worry and points out that the inference from a visually-based belief that an external world object has property P to a belief that I am having an experience as of an object’s having P is infallible (op. cit., p. 61). As he himself notes, this is a “very unusual form of inference” that secures a true belief whether or not the premises are true: it goes through even in the hallucinatory case where there is no object seen (ibid.). But this raises further issues. If we think of an introspector as not paying attention to whether her beliefs are visually-based when she makes these inferences—for that would presuppose introspection already—then it seems she should be strongly tempted to conclude from this unusual feature that she is having an experience of everything. For either there is an apple there or not, and she has just been informed that her usual inference from the apple’s existence to her having an experience of an apple goes through even when there is no apple. This is absurd.

  45. 45.

    The contents may not be the same if, as many intentionalists think, the phenomenal experience has non-conceptual content.

  46. 46.

    It is worth pointing out that the Marquess is accurately representing her experience as bad, since it causes distress and it is generally bad to be distressed.

  47. 47.

    Note that Colin Klein (2015, pp. 55–56) has recently used this same fact to a similar purpose in his imperativist theory of pain.

  48. 48.

    Thanks to Peter Railton for pressing me to address this worry.

  49. 49.

    I owe this turn of phrase to Peter Railton.


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Versions of this paper were presented in Budapest and Ann Arbor, and it benefited from the comments and questions of audiences in both. I’d like to especially thank Peter Railton, Sarah Buss, Allan Gibbard, James Joyce, Rohan Sud, Daniel Drucker, and the members of the 2015 Michigan Philosophy Dissertation Working Group for all their comments and suggestions. I’d also like to thank an uncommonly helpful anonymous referee by whose criticisms and suggestions the paper was greatly improved.

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Boswell, P. Making sense of unpleasantness: evaluationism and shooting the messenger. Philos Stud 173, 2969–2992 (2016).

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  • Intentionalism
  • Evaluationism
  • Pain
  • Shooting the messenger