First Workshop on Pain & Suffering 2009

European Science Foundation Exploratory Multidisciplinary Workshop on Pain & Suffering

Workshop 2009: Videos

12-14 of November 2009, University of Luxembourg. Funded by the ESF Standing Committee for the European Medical Research Councils (EMRC) and the Standing Committee for the Humanities (SCH), and by the Fonds National de la Recherche Luxembourg.

Dr. HOOGLAND Eva, ESF representative, SCH

Dr. BUSTAN Smadar, University of Luxembourg, convenor

Dr. KERR Catherine, Harvard University, co-convenor

Main Objectives of the Workshop:

To set the ground for a long-term interdisciplinary and international working group on Pain and Suffering. This project is timely, and has a multidisciplinary vocation. In particular, it will bring together figures from numerous fields, including humanities, biomedical, and natural sciences, for a constructive interaction on the topic. Suffering is an ubiquitous experience with no universally accepted theoretical framework for its understanding. Scholars working in single disciplines offer one-dimensional accounts. Instead, we would like to drive an interdisciplinary approach combining both theoretical and experimental work, to fill the gap that exists to date.

More in Detail:

Multidisciplinary Workshop on Suffering and Pain

We might all agree that suffering is a real, universally experienced, ubiquitous phenomenon. Yet we do not have a shared understanding of what it is about suffering that is most real. There is no consensus, perhaps because suffering expresses itself in so many ways: both in the body and the brain (where various forms of suffering have been linked to disease, illness and pain), individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Simply put, there is no single universally accepted external reference point for the experience of suffering.

While scholars situated in single disciplines such as literature, clinical medicine, philosophy and anthropology have offered generalized accounts of human (and also animal) suffering, an inter and multi-disciplinary effort is required to develop a more integrative account of the phenomenon. For example, recent studies in medicine, clinical psychology and neuroscience have given a more elaborated description of a state of suffering known as secondary alexthymia (alexi-thymia is from the Greek meaning no words for feelings). This state often visits itself on persons with cancer, diabetes or Parkinsons disease, and is detected disproportionately among victims of rape, political violence, or other types of trauma. Yet these quantitative studies do not provide enough insight into the nature of the phenomenon to bridge the gaps between external and objective assessments of suffering, and the felt experience of suffering. How do we know whether a person is experiencing real suffering if they cannot communicate that they are suffering? Quantitative disciplines alone cannot answer these questions. But if contemporary phenomenological theories of suffering are considered alongside the medical and neuroscientific research – including theories regarding the inexpressibility of pain (cf., Scarry, Body in Pain)-, their combined explanations would show that this inability to narrate or describe may be an essential attribute of what acute suffering is all about.

There are other divides related to the question of suffering that arise from divergences between sciences and humanities, including their radically different tools for approaching the problem. Indeed, there is even a divide between the science of medicine and the practice of medical clinicians working to relieve pain. The duality between experiencing and validating is central to the question of suffering. But the varied methods among different scholarly disciplines have actually made it difficult to bring into light this central problem because of the apparent requirement of each discipline to choose between the internal vs. the external, the subjective vs. the objective and the felt vs. the inferred. In the exploratory workshop proposed here, we will take on several of these divides, including those between a phenomenological philosophy and science, between therapeutic practice and clinical science, and between Continental and Anglo-American views on the ethics of human suffering. This multidisciplinary initiative seeks to integrate all aspects into a general discussion about the nature and implications of the topic.

Our aim is to establish the basis for interactions among scientists and scholars that will lead to seminal collaborative projects and a long-term European multidisciplinary working group on the subject of Pain and Suffering. The ESF Workshop and subsequent follow-up research is to include leading philosophers, literary scholars, sociologists, medical researchers and neuroscientists from different European Universities and Institutes, while opening to other international efforts. The Workshop will bring together these disciplines for a constructive and enriching dialogue, to seek not just meeting points and moments of agreement, but also of contention. We do not intend the outcome of the Workshop to be a consensus on different topics, but expect the participants to broaden their understanding and knowledge as different areas of expertise approach the same subject. This is also necessary to identify new paths and outlooks for future innovative work and breakthroughs.