Pain, Pleasure, and Masochism.

To some, a slap to the face may be a highly unpleasant experience; however, to others, a slap to the face may be a pleasurable experience. Those who derive pleasure from suffering physical pain are swept under the term ‘masochist’. In order for one to understand why a person would willingly subject themselves to physical pain, one needs to understand what ‘pain’ is, as well as why it is perceived and felt differently amongst human beings.

The impact an experience with pain has on one’s psychological state can heavily influence a person’s perception and interpretation of pain. It is necessary to look at the subjective psychological conditions that may influence an individual’s action or reaction although examining it through a philosophical lens can result in the realization that pain is not solely a psychological event.

My project in this piece is to question D.C. Dennett’s notion of pain by challenging his definition of pain with the case of the masochist. More particularly, I shall explore different ways of understanding a masochist’s reaction to pain by employing the modes of thinking proposed by Donald Davidson and Jennifer Hornsby.

Pain is universally understood as a distressing sensation. In his essay “Personal and Sub-personal Levels of Explanation,” D.C. Dennett describes the experience of pain as “an afferent input which produces efferent output resulting in certain characteristic modes of behavior centering on avoidance or withdrawal.” (Dennett 20). However, a masochist’s reaction to pain is neither avoidance nor withdrawal, but rather more of an intentional putting one’s self in harm’s way. The masochist does not avoid pain but rather anticipates and desires it.

If pain is, by Dennett’s description, followed by an act of avoidance or withdrawal, yet a masochist doesn’t avoid pain but rather embraces it, then can it be said that a masochist does not know what pain is?

No. I believe a masochist knows what pain is, he is no different from you and I. We all know what pain is. We’ve all had experiences with pain and it is for this reason that our perception of pain differs. Just as we don’t all find the same events to be pleasurable, a painful experience may not be as so to another.

There is no universal standard to how people should react when they are in pain; we innately differentiate which sensations are painful to us and which are not.

In the fairytale “The Princess and the Pea” the princess felt unpleasant back pains after a night of sleeping on top of twenty mattresses that were stacked on top of a pea. A pea, a little green bean, caused her pain. Although a hyperbole, this fairy tale epitomizes what Dennett meant when he said “painful sensations are things discriminated by people.” (Dennett 18). If I were to sleep on top of twenty mattresses stacked on top of a pea, chances are I will not feel a thing. For this reason, it is not shocking to me that a person can claim to derive pleasure from being slapped around. Perhaps at the time they felt a feeling similar to when a thrill-seeker skydives; a rare rush of ecstasy. Or perhaps it is not the act but rather the idea of being humiliated that turns the masochist on. However, whatever the reasons may be, it all boils down to subjectivity.

We are all tolerant to different sensations. So to say that a masochist does not feel pain, because he does not react to a perceived-to-be-painful act the way someone else would, is erroneous thinking. Pleasure is synonymous with pain in the sense that one cannot tell another person what he is feeling; only you can state what you are feeling. Therefore, when a masochist claims to be feeling pleasure during a perceived-to-be-painful act, one cannot say otherwise; there is no debate.

How can something be painful yet at the same time pleasurable, one may ask. Pain and pleasure are both on the polar opposite ends of the sensations spectrum, this is true; however, both have in common the subjectivity factor. Pain is personal; it is a private experience that cannot be measured by anyone but you. Dennett argues that we “take painfulness as necessarily abhorrent — something which by definition we withdraw from or avoid.” (Dennett 19) However, Dennett fails to realize that people do not withdraw from or avoid pain. Everyone, not just masochists, has intentionally put themselves through something painful — these events range from dentist visits to plucking one’s own eyebrows.

Now, to single out a masochist for enjoying rough acts during sexual intercourse would be similar to ostracizing a boxer for setting himself up for a pay-per-view match in which he can be hurt. Although different in degree and circumstance, a boxer and masochist both intentionally endure physical suffering. The answer to why a person would subject themselves to physical suffering exists within that person’s propositional state. If a boxer believes that he must fight in order to prove he is the champion, then it makes sense why he wouldn’t stop to cringe in pain every time his opponent lands a punch. If a masochist believes that only through rough acts he will reach ultimate satisfaction, then he will act on such beliefs.

It is difficult to assess a person’s beliefs without communicating with them. If there is no line of communication, and instead one is explaining another’s action through observation, then one cannot accurately infer what that person believes in. However, in his essay “Psychology as Philosophy,” Donald Davidson discusses the difficulty in ascertaining why someone would act or behave a certain way even if you understand the man’s language. According to Davidson, “we can explain why someone acted as he did by mentioning a desire, value, purpose, goal, or aim the person had, and a belief connected the desire with the action to be explained.” (Davidson 25). Even if one is able to make such connections, the problem arises in the fact that “beliefs cannot be ascertained in general without command of a man’s language; and we cannot master a man’s language without knowing much of what he believes.” (Davidson 29). In order to understand whether or not a masochist is truly experiencing pleasure instead of pain, one must know that the masochist believes he is being pleased. This is complicated by Davidson’s notion which states that “in order to interpret verbal behavior, we must be able to tell when a speaker holds a sentence he speaks to be true.” (Davidson 29). The process of determining whether a person is truly feeling a certain way involves constructing a theory about what he believes. Dennett, on the other hand, says that pain is something that just is, thus leaving little room to find transcendent explanations or theories. However, because pain and pleasure are private experiences, they cannot be described in public language.

A masochist’s reason or motive or belief, although speculated, cannot accurately be described a second party. Only the masochist can describe the pleasure he derives from affliction. The masochist can communicate his feelings to another in common language; however, it can only be executed effectively through comparison and speculation. The masochist knows the extent of his pleasure, and the only way he can explain it to someone else is by communicating it through a universal simile — e.g. when she slapped me it felt like I died and went to heaven. Someone that has never experienced the same thing may have an idea of what it is like if presented or explained to them in comparison with something that they do know. However, even this can be ineffective since everyone has different experiences with the same thing.

Since no one can honestly know whether a masochist truly experiences pleasure while engaging in pain-producing acts, it would seem reasonable to say that a masochist is mistaken when they claim to experience pain as pleasure. However, it is impossible for that person to be mistaken. One’s concept of pain derives from what one observes to be painful.

In other words, if I see you have received a paper cut and you start crying, I will assume paper cuts hurt. Therefore, whenever I get a paper cut I too will think it hurts, unless proven otherwise. If you get punched in the face and express that you are in pain, I will assume being hit is a painful experience. A masochist has a concept of what is painful; he is not numb to the world. Masochists know that a paper cut stings, and that getting punched in the face can be hurt, but it is not about the painful act. The masochist knows what pains are good pains because only he knows what pleases him.

In her essay “Physicalist Thinking and Conceptions of Behavior,” J. Hornsby discusses how we ascribe propositional attitudes to one another. In the process of understanding why a person acted or behaved a certain way, we tend to give a ‘rational’ explanation to an action that can be perceived to be irrational. According to Hornsby, we suppose that “people’s answers to questions as ‘Why did she keep to the edge of the pond?’ or ‘Why did she turn on the burner?’… give psychological explanations for behavior.” (Hornsby 32). In the case of the masochist, you cannot expect an immediate psychological explanation when asking ‘Why do you like it rough?’ — best case scenario you’ll receive a ‘because it feels good’ response. If we did try to elicit an answer, it would be best to adopt the behaviourist mode of thinking. According to Hornsby, the behaviourist would say that “to believe something is to be disposed to certain behavior.” (Hornsby 34). If a masochist believes that rough acts are pleasurable then he will be disposed to rough acts. If he continues to engage in rough acts, it is because he enjoys them. As an observer, we can only speculate why he enjoys pain. Therefore, one cannot say that a masochist is mistaken when he claims to derive pleasure from pain because there is no way of proving such claim.

The folly of man is that he views others the way he views himself. When another person acts or behaves in a way that is not familiar to how we would behave, we try to assign a rational explanation as to why they behaved as such.

According to Hornsby, there is no such thing as a deterministic law that allows us to categorize behavior or actions. Since pain and pleasure is subjective, there is no definitive way of determining whether someone has experienced them or how one experiences them. For this reason, I look within the soul of the action to try to understand how a person could get off on pain. If one enjoys physical pain in the sense of getting their hair pulled in bed, it is because one enjoys the dominant-subservient relationship. However, not even this explanation can captivate why a person prefers this type of treatment. Hornsby says there are limits placed on our ability to understand or explain behavior “when we decide to view men as rational agents with goals and purposes, and as subject to moral evaluation.” (Hornsby 43).

Because we consider people that enjoy pain to be irrational we get stuck on the term “masochist” and never truly get to understand what it means when a person perceives pain as pleasure. Our conceptions of pain, as well as our conceptions of pleasure, bar us from understanding how anyone else could have a different interpretation of the same experience.

Pain is a two-part function; there is an induction of pain and a reaction to pain. Physically, all human beings feel pain. However, subjectivity exists within the way we react and respond to it. Some may react with a moan of discomfort or displeasure while others may moan out of pleasure and satisfaction. Those that moan out of pleasure and satisfaction either do not perceive an act to be painful or have a tolerance for such pain. Whatever the case may be, it is nearly impossible to understand why a person would enjoy pain since not everyone experiences it the same way.

It is difficult to understand a masochist without employing psychological means of explanation. Even with such explanations one cannot truly grasp why a person behaves or reacts a certain way to something that a reasonable person may consider to be painful since pain cannot be objectified.


Bermudez, Jose Luis. “Personal and Sub-personal Levels of Explanation.” Philosophy of psychology: a contemporary introduction. New York: Routledge, 2005. 17–21. Print.

Bermudez, Jose Luis. “Psychology as Philosophy.” Philosophy of psychology: a contemporary introduction. New York: Routledge, 2005. 22–30. Print.

Bermudez, Jose Luis. “Physicalist Thinking and Conceptions of Behaviour.” Philosophy of psychology: a contemporary introduction. New York: Routledge, 2005. 31–47. Print

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