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Historicizing Suffering

posted on 2023-05-22, 13:31 authored by Clement HudsonClement Hudson

According to the standard account suffering is a universal human experience described as a negative basic feeling or emotion that involves a subjective character of unpleasantness, aversion, harm, or threat of harm to body or mind (Spelman 1997; Cassell 1991). A distinction is then drawn between physical suffering, which can often be ameliorated by medical, political, and economic measures, mental suffering, which can continue to resist treatment, and ontological suffering, including death, where the suffering turns on the lack of positive meaning and the ultimacy of the experience rather than the amount of pain as such. The standard account then goes on to note different treatments of suffering in the world's religions (Bowker 1970) and philosophies, and the different ways in which individuals may respond to suffering: becoming defeated and embittered; by using suffering as a spur to achievement; by making a positive out of suffering as a path to transcendence; or by providing help and support. The standard account is framed in generic terms, and can at times occlude both the historicity of suffering and its social constitution. At the very least it may be possible to raise such considerations without giving support to the excesses of post modem ism and the various forms of relativism associated with it.

The approach to suffering I argue for here accepts that generic accounts of suffering should be developed and that major human performances such as hatred and friendship have recurrent and largely commensurable elements. I urge only: 1. that we need to be more sensitive to the fact that suffering has changed historically, assuming that we can gain some knowledge of this from the records that survive and taking into account the lack of records from most of those who suffered; and 2. that we need to pay more attention to the social construction of suffering in particular contexts, whereby social construction applies both to the experience of the one who suffers and to the interpretations others place on their suffering, although in some cases these obviously interact. My view does not imply an extreme form of social constructivism of the type associated with discourse idealism. Nor do I deny that a certain species-wide intelligibility applies to the overwhelming majority of known cases. In many ways the view I put is neither surprising nor unexpected. However, I will suggest that the degree to which it is the case has not been generally grasped, and also that the implications of my view for the alleviation of suffering have not yet been fully taken into account. What follows prepares the reader for these substantive claims.


Publication title

Perspectives on Human Suffering


J Malpas and N Lickiss






School of Humanities



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Copyright 2012 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

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Expanding knowledge in philosophy and religious studies

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