01 April 2010

Review of David Biro's The Language of Pain

Cover of Biro's Language of Pain

Short story: David Biro's The Language of Pain: Finding Words, Compassion and Relief is very good.
Go buy it.

Longer story: The publisher sent me an advance copy of Biro's The Language of Pain a few months ago. I've read it several times and been working on a review to share with y'all. But the review is getting too long and though I think I agree with most of his conclusions, I'm still not entirely sure what I think about about several of his arguments. Nonetheless, I've certainly profited from engaging with them.

Thus in the interest of posting something while the book is still (somewhat) fresh, I've pasted some of the early parts of the review below. I may post the rest later, or I may work it into something for a more formal venue. I'm omitting the philosophical discussion of the arguments. Though I will list a couple of the topics that concern me. I'm sure the list won't make sense until you've read the book. But perhaps they'll serve as discussion-starters

Those interested in learning about pain can profit from David Biro’s The Language of Pain: Finding Words, Compassion and Relief. It will probably be the most useful to people with chronic pain and those close to them. At the very least, the vast array of nuanced metaphors and literary sources he canvases can serve as raw material for their attempts to communicate and understand the experience of pain. But I expect that his lucid exploration of the structure of these metaphors will provide important conceptual tools for crafting more systematic and effective narratives. Though the applicability of some of his particular insights may be limited by culture and language.

Clinicians and scientists should be impressed by the conceptual structure that Biro uncovers in the language many sufferer's use to describe their pains. He succeeds in showing that this metaphorical talk, while necessarily imprecise and often obscure, must be taken seriously. In his wake, the same cannot be said for those who dismiss or deride these ways of talking about pain.

At a minimum, researchers interested in developing pain measurement tools and many philosophers will find in it a rich repository of examples and ideas to use in their work.

Philosophers should also find much to be intrigued by in Biro’s arguments. Here are a few of points that I think are worth engaging with:
  • Chapter 2 is occupied with a theoretical response to the charge that pain is completely resistant to language. This is unnecessary. The main thrust of the book is an empirical argument that, in several important ways, pain is in fact amenable to language.
  • The Wittgensteinian argument of chapter 2 can at best show that we must be able to communicate that we are in pain. But his project is to show that we can communicate what it is like to be in pain. He's not confusing the two in chapter 2. He wants to use the former as a wedge to open the door for the latter. But later on they sometimes seem to get run together in significant ways.
  • His discussion of the language/metaphors of agency does a lot to support and build on Elaine Scarry's articulation of the concept (I profited a great deal from this part since the pain-agency connection is important in my own work). The discussions of the x-ray and mirror metaphors/language are much weaker. Indeed, I'm not convinced that these can't be folded into the agency metaphor. [Unlike the others, this concern has significant philosophical consequences for our understanding of pain]
  • I'm probably being overly picky --but, hey, that's what analytic philosophers are for-- but his project is about language (hence the title and the claim to be constructing a 'rhetoric'). I usually think of language as propositional. His discussions using art to express pain thus seem incongruous. This is probably innocuous. At most it's a concern about whether the thesis should be framed in terms of language or more broadly in terms of our ability to meaningfully communicate. Though I sometimes think that there may be something lurking here that's related to the more substantive questions about whether the x-ray and mirror metaphors are really separate from the agency metaphors.
  • I'm betting that analytic philosophers of language who work on metaphor will find a great deal to disagree with in some of his arguments. Though I myself don't know enough about these issues to have more than hazy suspicions at various points.

Like I said, I'm not entirely sure what I think about these and other points. But I've certainly profited from thinking about them. And in any event, none of them undermine the practical import of the book or the philosophical suggestiveness of the overall picture. Indeed, his subtle discussions of pain language’s structure do not require the conceptually strong thesis that the experience of pain is necessarily expressible. By weaving together art, literature, personal experience, and patient testimony, he has demonstrated that many aspects of many pain experiences can, to a practically useful degree, be meaningfully shared.