The Self in Pain - Pain Experience and Perceived Scope of Action


  • Caroline Ritter University of Vienna


The concept of pain is notoriously difficult to define in an objective manner, proving to be a challenge for both scientific and humanistic efforts to create a universal model and posing problems for clinical practice. Despite advancements in the field of pain research, subjective self-report remains the primary diagnostic tool, emphasizing the importance of individual, subjective experience in comprehending and addressing pain.

This research analyzes the development of pain paradigms from holistic to biomedical approaches. It highlights the shortcomings of categorical methodologies and proposes an enactive perspective that redefines pain as a form of sense-making that integrates sensory experience, emotional response, cognitive belief, and behavioral action. Looking at pain through a phenomenological lens, it becomes apparent that it is not solely a physiological reaction but rather a life-changing encounter that alters one's identity, capabilities, action possibilities, and future aspirations. This is precisely what this research is centered on. In what ways do individuals' perceived abilities shift as a result of pain? How do various types of pain impact one's perceived possibilities, particularly in cases of chronic pain? How can pain perception be altered through personal actions? What benefits can be gained from pain management approaches that emphasize autonomy, self-management, and experiential, organic learning?

The core of this research is examining possible influence factors a pain experience has on a person's scope of actions. Through philosophical methods, I want to propose different thought experiments on modifying the person's perceived constraints in a painful situation. An additional perspective is to view pain as a mental state that provides a chance for philosophical contemplation and introspection. Pain possesses the capacity to detach individuals from their customary behaviors, routines, and cognitive frameworks, which leads to a revelation of often ignored facets of life. I aim to suggest how pain can function as a philosophical approach to scrutinize and transform entrenched habits and thinking patterns.

The dynamic interplay between the self and pain is explored, focusing on chronic and acute pain experiences. Grounded in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology and Gibson's theory of affordances, this research aims to explore how pain influences attention, perception, and behavior thus altering one's existential landscape. Pain is viewed as both an affordance and a modifier of affordances, transforming one's Umwelt (Üexküll) and life-world (Husserl), ultimately constraining possibilities for action and creating profound shifts in embodied experience.


[1] P. Stilwell and K. Harman, “An enactive approach to pain: beyond the biopsychosocial model,” Phenomenol. Cogn. Sci., vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 637–665, 2019.

[2] M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception. Routledge, 2023.

[3] J. Corns, The Routledge handbook of philosophy of pain. London, England: Routledge, 2020.