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The Philosophy of Pain

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on November 03, 2016 09:16 AM

Pain has deep philosophical implications, according to Prof. Troy Cross, especially when it comes to Hum 110.

Pain.

We all feel it. Most of us avoid it. Some of us dread it.

But as Prof. Troy Cross [philosophy] pointed out in a startling and memorable Hum 110 lecture on October 31, pain is a fundamental fact of existence that has deep philosophical implications for education and for the current debate over Hum 110.

Seven years ago, Prof. Cross was riding his bicycle when he was hit by a car. He suffered severe injuries to his spinal cord and was hospitalized with a cervical collar. During his long recuperation, he began to think about pain (he is a philosopher, after all).

A former competitive cyclist, Prof. Cross was accustomed to pain, but it was what he calls “good” pain—the pain you feel when you push yourself to your limits.

Good pain is limited in duration. You know when it will be over. Bad pain is chronic and unpredictable.

Good pain serves a purpose. It makes you stronger. Bad pain is for nothing.

Good pain is under your control. You create it and you can stop it. Bad pain controls you.

Good pain fires you up. It makes you alert and alive. Bad pain exhausts you and distracts you.

Until recently, he said, he always regarded student complaints about Hum 110 as complaints about good pain. The hallmark of liberal education, after all, is critical thinking—an activity that is inherently difficult. Thinking means questioning our assumptions, genuinely considering other people’s viewpoints, and admitting when we are mistaken. Learning is sometimes uncomfortable—and sometimes we have to be deeply uncomfortable in order to learn.

“But what I’ve realized this year is that some of our students have been experiencing bad pain,” he said. “Feeling erasure, silencing, exclusion—this fits the criteria of bad pain. And we cannot learn if we are in bad pain.”

He believes that Reed should keep heaping on the good pain. But it must also acknowledge that some people in our community are experiencing bad pain. Only when that pain is acknowledged can we turn to the next logical step—addressing the causes, establishing support, and ultimately searching for ways to heal it. “We are an honor-based institution,” he said. “This is an inclusive community. We are getting there. Learning to talk about race is really hard for me. But I can do it. And we can do it—if we work together.”

Prof. Cross emphasized that he was not endorsing any particular changes to the Hum 110 curriculum. Indeed, the subject of his lecture—“The Myth of the Birth of Science”—was itself an eloquent demonstration of the breadth and depth of Hum 110. For many years, European historians claimed that the pre-Socratic philosophers of sixth-century Ionia had essentially “invented” science. The influential British philosopher Bertrand Russell gave them credit for inventing mathematics and philosophy, too.

Cross demolished this myth on historical grounds, citing Babylonian astronomy, Indian science, Chinese acupuncture, and Egyptian geometry. But he also demolished it on philosophical grounds, arguing that the idea of inventing something like science is meaningless. “It’s like knowing how many hairs I have on my head, each day of my life, and then deciding on which day I became bald,” he said. And he offered students a conceptual toolkit for demolishing similar claims of what he called “firstness”—claims often made with an ideological motive.

Cross then called attention to what the pre-Socratics did accomplish—which was to explain complex phenomena with simple rules, such as the principle of sufficient reason. Even though their attempts look somewhat comical to the modern reader, the insight that simple rules might in theory explain the world was hugely consequential. The pre-Socratics also developed a tradition of criticizing each other’s writings based on rational argument, as opposed to poetic quality, and doing so in public, rather than behind closed doors.

After talking about the pre-Socratics, Cross made an announcement on behalf of the Hum 110 faculty. Spurred by the student protestors, the faculty who teach Hum 110 voted to begin an accelerated review of the course, starting this spring. “This is just a step, but it’s a really big step,” he said, to a round of vigorous applause.

“This is what change looks like,” said Cross. “I’m really full of hope right now.”

He asked the audience to give a round of applause to thank the students for initiating the debate. He also asked for a round of applause for Reed’s professors. “This is the most devoted, hardworking, caring group of faculty you’ll find anywhere in the country. We care about your education. We care about getting it right. And we’ve devoted our lives to that mission.”

Distinguishing good pain from bad is not always easy. The way forward, he suggested, was through a mechanism that echoes back to the pre-Socratics—dialogue. And dialogue, he said, is most effective when it’s based on friendship, respect, and trust.

The lecture met with an overwhelming reception. "It definitely felt like a turning point," says Quest reporter Loralee Bandy ’20. "Other students, particularly protesters, were beaming, and I think a part of everyone, regardless of where they stood on the issue, could relate to what Troy said."