The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons

Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill:

English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache…The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself…

William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy:

In this work I have attempted to treat Economy as a Calculus of Pleasure and Pain…

I hesitate to say that men will ever have the means of measuring directly the feelings of the human heart. A unit of pleasure or of pain is difficult even to conceive; but it is the amount of these feelings which is continually prompting us to buying and selling, borrowing and lending, labouring and resting, producing and consuming; and it is from the quantitative effects of the feelings that we must estimate their comparative amounts. We can no more know nor measure gravity in its own nature than we can measure a feeling; but, just as we measure gravity by its effects in the motion of a pendulum, so we may estimate the equality or inequality of feelings by the decisions of the human mind. The will is our pendulum, and its oscillations are minutely registered in the price lists of the markets….

Many readers may, even after reading the preceding remarks, consider it quite impossible to create such a calculus as is here contemplated, because we have no means of defining and measuring quantities of feeling, like we can measure a mile, or a right angle, or any other physical quantity. I have granted that we can hardly form the conception of a unit of pleasure or pain, so that the numerical expression of quantities of feeling seems to be out of the question. But we only employ units of measurement in other things to facilitate the comparison of quantities; and if we can compare the quantities directly, we do not need the units.


  1. mark April 26, 2017 at 4:43 am | #

    According to Joseph Frank, in an article of 1860 Chernyshevsky had argued that even when claiming to act selfishly men were, as Bentham had put forward, in fact acting the best for the greatest number.

  2. Glenn April 26, 2017 at 11:02 am | #

    Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

    The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

    • Glenn April 26, 2017 at 9:31 pm | #

      The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

  3. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant April 26, 2017 at 1:43 pm | #

    Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

    Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

    Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

    “The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic
    growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to
    accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United
    States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social
    crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or
    even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines
    would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

    And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

    “5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social
    trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising
    ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far
    from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see
    Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in
    Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism
    and inter-ethnic understanding.” [I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

  4. jonnybutter April 26, 2017 at 7:21 pm | #

    I’m sure there is much more to the Woolf than this passage would suggest. I haven’t read the essay but this part is not very convincing. No language for pain? In English?!

    But it’s the Jevons that’s really remarkable. Remarkably obtuse; remarkably shallow. ‘The will is our pendulum’!

  5. Dean April 26, 2017 at 11:02 pm | #

    The blurb on Amazon states, “Virginia Woolf observes that though illness is part of every human being’s experience, it has never been the subject of literature.” Is this accurate? “On Being Ill” was published in 1926. Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” appeared in German in 1924. The Lowe-Porter English translation appeared in 1927. If the blurb is accurate, and if “literature” means “English literature” as the quote suggests, then Woolf was just barely correct, because illness is certainly a subject of “Magic Mountain.”

    • jonnybutter April 27, 2017 at 1:04 pm | #

      Hmm. Here it is again: “English..has no words for the shiver and the headache…..let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself”

      Again, I know that the missing context must matter a lot, but this, on its own, just sounds wrong. For one thing, having ‘readymade’ language for an intimate or deep feeling isn’t necessarily normative. Moreover, not only is it perfectly good for us to ‘coin our own words’ – both to devise our own narrative, and to literally coin words (like ‘shiver’ was coined) – but there is already a ton of words, and likely chunks of literature in English describing physical pain and illness. I seem to remember pain and illness in Swift, at the very least.

      If we assume she means only physical pain, then maybe yes – there was, up to then, no ‘Literature Of’ physical illness or pain, whatever that means.

      Now I’m curious to read the actual essay, but this passage suggests a modernist false start or something.

  6. Roquentin April 26, 2017 at 11:57 pm | #

    One of the things that stuck out the most to me in Lukacs History and Class Consciousness was how he identified rendering everything countable and quantifiable was the definitive bourgeois project. It was one of those excellent threads you could follow through countless phenomena, this unending need for everything to become quantifiable because it can then be registered in the form of currency and the medium of exchange. It was the first thing I thought of when reading that passage from Jevons you posted.

    There was a much less compelling argument along the same lines in Boris Groys’ The Communist Postscript which I started and never finished.

    Also, on the subject of quantifying happiness, I’ll just leave you with this little gem from the blog Hotel Concierge. Every since The Last Psychiatrist got doxxed (turns out he really was a highly credentialed forensic psychiatrist) and quit writing, I’ve been trying to find someone who could do that level of analysis. Hotel Concierge comes close on a good day.

    “Lies of Omission”

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