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Saturday 4 December 2010

Saturday Essay (1) Knowledge of Illness

Initial notes: (1) Herman is no longer in pain and fully recovered, (2) This was written in August of this year, (3) I'm going to try and write at least 1000 words for every Saturday on different topics (will follow any useful suggestions)


My dog, Herman, is today very ill.
This has made me think about how we treat those with illness and how the perspective on mortality cannot ever be a permanent one. Firstly, whether our patient is human or not, it is the inability to communicate what is troubling them that causes more pain to the carer of the ill. The ill suffer anyway, although perhaps knowing that there are others to care for you helps eleviate some of this other angst, which in turn might make their suffering less. Can a dog understand or know that they are cared for?
Certainly, we are given this impression from their behaviour and what else can we go on?
Well, returning to the original example, this can be helped by communication. However, neither a dog nor a baby can exactly tell us what is wrong. They can only communicate their pain and discomfort. This leaves us the carer feeling the pain of powerlessness, our inability to help a person or creature we care for induces a kind of guilt.
However, if we are unable to eleviate the other's pain or help in some way or else disuade ourselves of this apparent guilt then we can ourselves become sick. This sickness is not physical in the same way a broken bone is, but it is a stage into the kind of self-pity that comes with depression. This can described as a chemical inbalance in the brain. What are we to make of this? That being unable to help the sick (due to communication) makes us more unable to help.
Is the correct response to ignore the others pain as being lesser pain in that it cannot be targetted by their communication? Certainly not, I would hope.
This 'failure of communication', which is itself an exception, could be taken as a wider example of communication or such like. However, this temptation to level or generalise all things into a pre-exisiting schema must be avoided. When must investigate these occurances in life with a clear mind, albeit an entirely human one; one always effected by context, emotion and other influences, but in doing this or rather accepting this need not collapse our investigation into baseless claims or nonsense.

The investigations of philosophy are of the everyday in a way that seeks to make sense, not in order to widen the mystery. This is not simply problem solving, problems are easily solved if one wishes to remove them, rather, it is ongoing clarity that we seek. Thus, we might equate this to the lack of permanent closure or understanding of illness, or deathliness, in that neither can we always be suffering nor can we find a final answer. There is no cure for death as there is no cure for life, both are to be understood in their connection, that is to say, life would cease to be life if death were not in some sense part of it. This understanding itself can only be accepted temporarily. Much as Heidegger says for all his talk of 'authenticity' it is not some drive for perfect understanding of Being beyond the lesser They, indeed, we can only come to these conclusion through these generalised public views. One which attempts to see life instead as endless possibilities (eternal youth) or countless other fantasies. No one is above this, is what Heidegger says, but this doesn't mean we should blindly give in. Authenticity is a good pursuit not that he would wish to use such ethical terminology. However, it is only good in that it does not exclude all else. A good man must live in the World with others afterall.
What does it exclude? That which is evil. Ignorance at any cost (but also accepting that not all ignorance is evil), blind assumption, infliction of suffering, failing to act, attempting to summarise a master concept at all.

Herman's pain, like that of a baby is not merely a thought experiment, it is an actual occuring event. We can see it.
It is, however, a pain that will cease. My pain at my uselessness will also cease, or at least diminish, once the Vet diagnoses the condition for then I'll know what I can do to help (if anything). At least, my place will be made clear and perhap this is the fear – being uncertain – being without knowledge – not knowing one's place etc.
Can knowledge only be proved via (spoken) communication? Isn't being in pain communicating something? That they are in pain. How can they (dog or baby) know this? Why must they know it in the same way we do? And in what sense do we know it ourselves? In that we can communicate the location and/or type of pain, but this comes in reflective hindsight. It is a narrative story we tell to others.
Do I tell myself “I'm in pain” and must I do this to know I'm in pain? The yell of pain is not an acknowledgement but an outburst, an outburst built first on our social communicative approach, not that the occurance of this pain is the pain and nor does it stand in for it.
Why must we talk of knowledge here? Surely this is not the same knowledge of; I know what this sign means, I know what the capitol of Scotland is, I know were I was last night, I know what her name is, I know what the artist was saying in that painting, I know what the ending of this film will be, I know she loves me, I know how to finish this sentence. Knowledge means different things in different contexts.

If we say that there are types of knowledge then we are immediately in trouble, because all these 'types' (scientific for example) are then capable of further division until the point where we have multitudes of cross-overs and eventually something that is unclassifiable by the current system. So much so that it warrants (or seems to warrant) a further classification. This process continues on and can seem therefore to be accomplishing something. Scientists once spoke of the recording of everything and one would hope that this talk is less prevalant nowadays (although apparently not). However, this classification as a means to represent knowledge seems to fail in that its conclusion seems to be the opposite from that which was originally intended. Rather than us having true knowledge or firm foundations for knowledge, we have the reverse, knowledge as an ongoing process. One without a conclusion (although some still aim for one) but we are still capable of apprehending, thus we seem to be able to know in a manner that defies traditional thought. Our knowledge then is a make-shift construction, one that we are constantly altering or upgrading. So, instead of truth we are left with a kind of social relatvism it seems. That true is true in context or true in its practical use. That is to say, it is true because in its current use it is accepted as true, but here's the trouble. Who does the accepting?
It seems to be partially socially and individually defined without making one the final arbiter of the other (and thus advocated a formula for knowledge). However, it seems true enough to say that we cannot learn except from others. However, as this seems to be leading me towards a wider discussion of rule-following practice then perhaps it is best left for another essay.

Why is it only death (the experience of another's deathly illness) or its proximity that gives us an understanding of life? Rather, why does this experience give greater insight in a more visceral manner? Could it simply be because of the stark contrast?