Aporia: Pleasure

by Jason Stotts

Aporia (ἀπορɛία): an impasse, puzzlement, doubt, or confusion; a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it.

In this Aporia, I want to inquire into the nature of pleasure. In Eros and Ethos, I made the claim that:

Now, I want to explicitly make the controversial claim that all pleasure operates as an emotion and in response to our antecedent beliefs. By this I mean that our beliefs determine whether we will find any particular action pleasurable. I think that this particular claim must be tempered by the recognition that some things are common to us across all cultures, like comfort, although the particular actions that qualify as “comforting” will vary, sometimes widely, between cultures and so the action that might cause comfort in one culture might not in another. For this reason, I have to insist that pleasure is not innate and that we determine what things will be pleasurable, even if this determination is made culturally and only accepted by us as individuals implicitly through the culture. Human life is so imbued with meaning and that meaning comes from our values, that there is no aspect of this that is not affected, all the way down to our core. Now, of course, I do not mean our sense faculties themselves are affected. Sight is common for us, as long as our faculties are working normally, as is hearing, smell, touch, and taste. But our emotional response to these things after we have identified what we are experiencing will depend on us and our beliefs and values. When we move from pure perception to the conceptual level, we bring our values to bear and we do this immediately, automatically, and whether we wish it or not. And our values determine how we will appraise the thing and how we will respond to it.

This was challenged by my philosophic editor who said that I was conflating our conceptual understanding of pleasure with the physical experience of pleasure. I think he was right to challenge it. But, I’m not sure where to go now.

Consider a case that, a priori, is obviously pleasurable: sex. Sex is pleasurable. I don’t think many people would deny this. Yet, the very same actions that might be pleasurable during consensual sex would not be pleasurable during rape. Or, the exact same action on an unaroused clitoris will feel markedly different than on an aroused clitoris. So, sex is not necessarily or innately pleasurable.

What about warmth in the cold? That’s a pretty simple pleasure that we can all enjoy, right? What about if that warmth comes from the funeral pyre of your child? Is it still going to be a “simple pleasure” then? I have strong doubts that it would.

For every simple pleasure that I consider, I can pretty quickly imagine a case that destroys the pleasure of it.

Now, you might reasonably object that the pleasure is a sensation and that what is happening here is that we feel a sensation which can be innately pleasurable, but then our conceptual and emotional framework comes to bear and that ex post facto changes the simple pleasure: that our emotional or conceptual framework is overwriting the simple pleasure or editing it.

I’m not sure that this works. The woman being raped in the dark alley isn’t feeling first pleasure, but then thinking that she would rather not be raped right now. Her terror and pain are experienced immediately and without any intervening experience. She does not experience pleasure and then it changes to pain: she experiences pain and terror.

This is part of the rub: emotions are experienced immediately and as primaries. If there is such a thing as a simple pleasure, then how can we reconcile this with our knowledge that some things can be pleasurable in one context, but not another?

This all is not to say that I don’t, too, feel the pull of the idea of a simple pleasure: warmth when I’m cold, food when I’m hungry, or comfort when I hurt. But, even so, I can’t reconcile this with the knowledge that it matters quite a bit how these things are given to me: I wouldn’t seek solace for my wife’s murder from her murderer and I damned sure wouldn’t feel pleasure at any comfort he might try to give me.

So, where do we go from here?

We could create an account of “natural pleasures” that are common to all humans…except those who have had certain experiences or hold certain beliefs or are in certain contexts. But, that’s a pretty weird sense of “natural.”

Or, we could acknowledge that pleasure is an emotion and responds to our context, our beliefs, and the totality of our experience: that the idea of a simple pleasure is simply illusory.

I really don’t know. But, I’m leaning towards a more complex conception of pleasure that captures the way it seems to work in the real world.


After some more thinking about this issue and discussions about it with various people, I think I’m getting a better grasp of it (not that I would say I have it completely figured out).

A friend on facebook pointed out that infants probably do have this kind of unmitigated pleasure and I think that’s probably right. These “simple pleasures” might be something we share with all other animals as infants, but once our minds start to develop, then we no longer have them. This may also be the way that instincts work: we have them as children, but we do not as adults (adults frequently override “instincts” from childhood and erase them). There seems to be some sort of transition from the pre-conceptual mental framework that has merely pleasure and pain to the fully conceptual framework that also includes the emotions and the like. During the transition, our ability to experience pleasure without our conceptual apparatus entirely disappears.

I don’t believe that a normally constituted adult can experience pleasure without his conceptual framework. Let’s look at a couple of examples that I think might help.

Case 1: Let us say that a man takes a sip out of a glass marked “ethylene glycol” and finds that it takes sweet and feels pleasure at this. Now, let us imagine that someone rushes to him and says: “You fool! That’s anti-freeze and it’s very poisonous! We need to get you to a hospital at once or you’re going to die.” Will the man still feel pleasure? Assuredly not. The pleasure will be instantly gone and it will be replaced with disgust and fear.

Case 2: Let us imagine the same man sees a glass and it’s marked “anti-freeze (DANGER! POISON!).” Will he be likely to pick it up and drink it? No. Let us say that he is forced to drink it in order to save the life of his family. Will be feel pleasure drinking it? No, he will not. Even though it will still be sweet, it will not be pleasurable.

Case 3: Let us imagine a man who’s grown up in a place where he never had anything sweet. His diet has consisted of nothing but meat, vegetables, tubers, and the like. He has never had sugar or sweets. Now, imagine you find this man and you hold out to him a hard candy made entirely of sugar. Let us say that you tell him nothing at all about it (perhaps he doesn’t have language), but you mime putting it in your mouth and he does so. We might expect him to feel pleasure at tasting the sweetness of the sugar, but that’s not likely. Because this man would never have experienced anything like the hard candy, his mind will not know how to process it and won’t know how to respond to it: it would be a cognitive blank to him. In all likelihood, he would spit it out and be concerned about what it was. Now, instead, let us say that you had been able to communicate that it was food and it tasted good to set his expectations. He will then likely experience it as sweet and maybe feel pleasure at it. However, in this case, you primed his response with the fore-knowledge you gave him.

When we don’t have any frame of reference for a thing, when we experience something completely novel as an adult, we do not experience simple pleasures. Rather, we are cautious and try to find out more information about what it is and what it does. Our brains and bodies are simply not constituted such that we have any affective experiences outside of our conceptual framework.

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2 Responses to “Aporia: Pleasure”

  1. Alex Neave

    First off I would state I am neither trying to throw a curve ball into the conversation, nor imbibe it with what could be construed non-philosophical conjecture. I would just like to go outside the box and inject; what if in instances like this (aporia) the answer does not lie within the bounds of the perplexing nature of the question, but rests and finds resolve from a preexisting foundation. From a Christian world view, What is pleasing in God’s eyes (metaphorically implied) is the standard for pleasure in man. As you pointed out in a few of your own examples (ie) glycol ether / antifreeze, once we establish a foundation, the answer is obvious. On the other hand, philosophically it is just another one of those paradoxes that resembles a cat chasing its tail. So one has to conclude that it all boils down to privilege, does one have the luxury of chasing his tail, or does life exact on him more pressing duties, that require of him more immediate resolve.


  2. JasonStotts

    Well, a couple of things:

    First, I don’t believe in any gods. However, even if I did, I think your comment is demonstrably false. For example, sex is pleasurable, but the christian god hates it unless it’s with your heterosexual partner, in private, for reproduction, IFF you’re fertile, et cetera. There is an endless list of things that are pleasurable, but which the christian god hates, so that just can’t be right.

    Second, part of the fun of philosophy is taking these aporia and struggling with them and then ultimately coming to the right idea. In this case, although the Aporia is public, what I’ve come to understand won’t be released until my book comes out. This is really just a way for me to help deal with an issue.

    Third. I think you’re right that there is a certain luxury to philosophy. On the other hand, there’s also a real necessity to it and we all must engage in philosophy of some kind, even if we do live a life of toil.