PleasureReview - Pleasure
A History
by Lisa Shapiro (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2018
Review by Christopher Bobier
Dec 4th 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 49)

In Pleasure: A History, Editor Lisa Shapiro brings together a wide variety of scholars to address the questions, what is pleasure and why is it philosophically interesting? These questions are of central importance to our understanding of virtue (e.g., is virtuous activity pleasant?), emotion (e.g., is joy a kind of pleasure?), and action (e.g., do we act for the sake of pleasure?), and yet, these questions often do not receive the attention they deserve. For instance, both the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion and The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory contain less than ten page references to pleasure, while the Oxford Handbook of Free Willl (2nd ed.) contains no references to pleasure. Readers interested in the history and present-day accounts of emotions, moral psychology, virtue, and action will benefit from the essays in the volume.

The book 'challenges' the common view of pleasure as an unanalyzable motivator of action by showing how nuanced historical thinking about pleasure is (p. 2).   To be sure, this book does not contain an exhaustive history of pleasure. The book offers insight into particular figures of significance, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Mill; it does not address, among others, Stoic, Epicurean, Augustinian, Hobbesian, or Nietzschean theories of pleasure. Moreover, most of the chapters focus only on the writings of the philosopher at issue and do not situate the philosopher in context. With the exception of Sajjad Rizvi's chapter on Islamic approaches to pleasure and Martin Pickavé's chapter on Thomas Aquinas, most essays overlook historical context.  For instance, there is no discussion of Aristotle's influences in Matthew Strohl's chapter, "Aristotle on the Heterogeneity of Pleasure", nor is there explanation of the accounts of the Fall which Malebranche takes issue with in Lisa Shapiro's chapter, "Malebranche on Pleasure and Awareness in Sensory Perception" (p. 129). The foregoing observations are not a criticism but are intended for readers who appreciate historical context or are looking for an extensive history of pleasure. Shapiro notes that 'this book neither is comprehensive nor aims to be so' (p.13).   

The book is comprised of three sections. In the first section, readers are presented with various snapshots of how different philosophers conceived of the variety of pleasures in ancient and medieval periods. Emily Flecther shows that, despite consistently criticizing pleasure as leading to false belief and pain, Plato's view evolves over time, such that, in the Philebus and Republic he recognizes the existence of pure pleasures, pleasures which are immune to his criticisms. Matthew Strohl argues that, although Aristotle's thesis that pleasures vary according to activity entails the denial of the claim that pleasure is a 'phenomenally characterized type of pleasure', Aristotle nevertheless thinks that pleasure experiences have the same phenomenal structure (p.42). Sajjad Rizvi and Martin Pickavé show how theological commitments encourage Islamic and Christian philosophers to think of pleasure along different lines. On the one hand, pleasure is something we experience with animals; on the other hand, we have a soul and are made in the image of God. Thus, Islamic and Christian thinkers distinguish between bodily pleasures and spiritual pleasures, or pleasures of the mind.

The second section of the book brings readers to the early modern period. The unifying theme of the chapters on Malebranche, Berkeley, and Kant is that pleasure has a cognitive role. Lisa Shapiro examines the difference between Adam's pre- and postlapsarian perceptual cognition of the apple (p. 124). Specifically, she argues that Malebranche thought of pleasure as a structural feature of perceptual representations. Melissa Frankel argues that, for Berkeley, sensory pleasures provide us with knowledge of things outside of us, i.e., things outside of our perceptions. According to Berkeley, sensations are constituents of objects, and since pleasure is a sensation, pleasure is a constituent of objects; this entails that pleasure and pain are subject to natural law. Keren Gorodeisky argues that Kant adopts a rationalistic understanding of pleasure, according to which pleasures are responsive to reasons. Focusing specifically on aesthetic pleasure, Gorodeisky shows that pleasure is responsive to judgment and may even ground judgment: Judgment and pleasure are reciprocal. Dominique Kuenzle examines Mill's scientific understanding of pleasure. Utilitarianism demands that we maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but this demand requires a proper, scientific understanding of pleasure and pain. Mill, according to Kuenzle, adopts an associationist psychology, according to which pleasure is associated with other mental states and is thereby reducible to their physical causes. Pleasure, for Mill, is a quality of our experience. 

In the final section, Murat Ayded defends "an adverbialist, a functionalist, or an experiential-desire account" of pleasure (p. 241). The adverbial component captures the phenomenology of pleasure: pleasure is an "adverbial modification of the instantiation of sensation" (p. 254). The functionalist component captures the role of pleasure in our psychic lives, while the experiential-desire account that takes pleasure to be an experienced desire about something in the world (p. 262). Readers may wonder how these three 'levels' relate or comprise one account of pleasure, but, as Ayded notes, 'comprehensive theories are hard to nail down' (p.266).

          In the end, Shapiro's Pleasure: A History provides a nice collection of focused essays that will be of interest to scholars and students interested in the figures discussed in the book. Interspersed throughout the chapters are 'reflections' or short pieces on the role of pleasure in music, teaching, and schizophrenia, which shed interdisciplinary light on pleasure. Although the book is relatively narrow in scope (e.g., it does not engage much work in psychology nor does it engage philosophers outside those discussed in the chapters), it is a welcome addition.


© 2018 Christopher Bobier


Christopher Bobier, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota


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