In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pain

  • Introduction
  • Overviews, Textbooks, Collections
  • Pain and the Mind-Body Problem
  • Perceptualism and Representationalism
  • Pain Location and Spatial Phenomenology
  • Pain Insensitivity and Chronic Pain
  • Extent of Pain: Animals, Fetuses, Computers

Philosophy Pain
David Bain
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0280


Philosophers think of pain less and less as a paradigmatic instance of mentality, for which they seek a general account, and increasingly as a rich and fruitful topic in its own right. Pain raises specific questions: about mentality and consciousness certainly, but also about embodiment, affect, motivation, and value, to name a few. The growth of philosophical interest in pain has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of pain science, which burgeoned in the 1960s. This is no accident: developments in pain science have prompted philosophers to take account of empirical data and to revisit their assumptions about pain. Pain, in short, demands interdisciplinary investigation; hence, while this article focuses on the philosophy of pain, it makes liberal reference to empirical literature along the way. The focus of this article is on physical pains, that is, pains that are felt in bodily locations, not emotional suffering more broadly, such as grief or disappointment. The article also does not address the place of pain in ethical theories; rather, its focus is on issues that arise within the philosophy of mind. Even so, part of what makes pain such an interesting and important topic is that the questions it raises span boundaries, and normative questions concerning pain’s badness, on the one hand, and its value, on the other, are never far away.

Overviews, Textbooks, Collections

Few good overviews, textbooks, or edited collections in the philosophy of pain are available. Probably the best overview—comprehensive and accessible, with an excellent bibliography and links to further resources—is Aydede 2009. While overlapping extensively, Aydede 2006a adds a brief, helpful survey of the science of pain. Hardcastle 1999 too gives a philosopher’s overview of pain science in the course of advancing the author’s own eliminativist theory of pain (see Pain and the Mind-Body Problem). For accounts of pain science by scientists, Fields and Price 1994 provides a useful snapshot of pain science, while Melzack and Wall 2008 is the latest edition of the classic introduction by the Canadian psychologist and British neuroscientist who revolutionized pain science in the 1960s. Another accessible book-length introduction to the science is Price 1999. McMahon and Koltzenberg 2013 is a quite different work: a substantial (and very expensive) medical textbook, aimed at specialists, begun by Melzack and Wall in 1983 but now comprising chapters by more than one hundred authorities on the genetics, neurophysiology, psychology, assessment, and treatment of pain. Finally, Aydede 2006b brings together the philosophy and science of pain and is a useful interdisciplinary collection.

  • Aydede, Murat. “A Critical and Quasi-Historical Essay on Theories of Pain.” In Pain: New Essays on Its Nature and the Methodology of Its Study. Edited by Murat Aydede, 1–58. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006a.

    A useful overview of the philosophy of pain, emphasizing difficulties for perceptual and representational views. See §5, pp. 30–44, in the introduction for a brief overview of the science of pain, focusing on sensory-affective dissociations (see the Sensory-Affective Distinction) and attempts by gate-control theorists to explain the weakness of any pain/stimuli correlations (see Melzack and Wall 2008).

  • Aydede, Murat, ed. Pain: New Essays on Its Nature and the Methodology of Its Study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006b.

    A stimulating collection. While primarily philosophical, it includes papers by psychologists and neuroscientists. Also has an extensive bibliography.

  • Aydede, Murat. “Pain.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

    The best overview of the philosophy of pain. Overlaps with Aydede 2006b but covers more of the philosophy of pain (e.g., motivational and evaluative theories) and less of the science. Includes an extremely helpful bibliography and links to other resources.

  • Fields, H., and Donald D. Price. “Pain.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind. Edited by Samuel Guttenplan, 452–459. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    A short and useful, if dated, overview of pain science.

  • Hardcastle, Valerie G. The Myth of Pain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

    Primarily a defense of Hardcastle’s eliminativism about pain (see Pain and the Mind-Body Problem), but along the way provides an overview of the philosophy and science of pain, for which see especially chapters 4–6.

  • McMahon, Stephen, and Martin Koltzenberg, eds. Wall and Melzack’s Textbook of Pain. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier/Saunders, 2013.

    Written for doctors, the classic textbook on the science and treatment of pain. Begun by Wall and Melzack in 1983, it is now entering its sixth edition and fourth decade.

  • Melzack, Ronald, and Patrick D. Wall. The Challenge of Pain. 2d ed. London: Penguin, 2008.

    Originally published in 1982, this is the classic introduction to the science of pain, updated with a new introduction by Melzack in 2008. See Part 3 for theories of pain, including the gate-control theory for which Melzack and Wall are famous.

  • Price, Donald D. Psychological Mechanisms of Pain and Analgesia. Seattle: IASP, 1999.

    Accessibly surveys what is known about the mechanisms underlying pain, as well as advancing Price’s own view (influenced by Melzack and Wall’s gate-control theory; see Melzack and Wall 2008), which takes pains to be or involve bodily perceptions (see Perceptualism and Representationalism).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.