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CHAPTER XXV: Sir William Hamilton’s Theory of Pleasure and Pain - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume IX - An Examination of William Hamilton’s Philosophy 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume IX - An Examination of William Hamilton’s Philosophy and of The Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in his Writings, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alan Ryan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979).
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Sir William Hamilton’s Theory of Pleasure and Pain
i have now concluded my remarks on the principal department of Sir W. Hamilton’s psychology, that which relates to the Cognitive Faculties. The remaining two of the three portions into which he divides the subject, are the Feelings, and what he terms the Conative Faculties, meaning those which tend to Action. On the Conative Faculties, however, he barely touches, in the concluding part of his last lecture; and of the Feelings he does not treat at any length. What he propounds on the subject, chiefly consists of a general theory of Pleasure and Pain. Not a theory of what they are in themselves, for he is not so much the dupe of words as to suppose that they are anything but what we feel them to be. The speculation with which he has presented us, does not relate to their essence, but to the causes they depend on; “the general conditions which determine the existence of Pleasure and Pain . . . the fundamental law by which these phænomena are governed in all their manifestations.”*
The inquiry is scientifically legitimate, and of great interest; but we must not be very confident that it is a practicable one, or can lead to any positive result. It is quite possible that in seeking for the law of pleasure and pain, like Bacon in seeking for the laws of the sensible properties of bodies, we may be looking for unity of cause, where there is a plurality, perhaps a multitude, of different causes. Such attempts, however, even if unsuccessful, are far from being entirely useless. They often lead to a more careful study of the phænomenon in some of its aspects, and to the discovery of relations between them, not previously understood, which though not adequate to the formation of an universal theory of the phænomenon, afford a clearer insight into some of its forms and varieties. This merit must be allowed to Sir W. Hamilton’s theory, in common with several others which preceded it on the same subject. But, regarded as a theorem of the universal conditions which are present whenever pleasure (or pain) is present, and absent whenever it is absent, the doctrine will hardly bear investigation. The simplest and most familiar cases are exactly those which obstinately refuse to be reduced within it.
I shall, as usual, state Sir W. Hamilton’s theory in his own words, though in the present case it is a questionable advantage, the terms being so general and abstract that they are scarcely capable of being understood, apart from the illustrations. “Pleasure,” he says, “is a reflex of the spontaneous and unimpeded exertion of a power, of whose energy we are conscious. Pain, a reflex of the overstrained or repressed exertion of such a power.”* By a “reflex” he has shortly before said that he means merely a “concomitant;”† but I think it will appear that he means at least an effect. At all events, these are what he regards as the ultimate conditions of pleasure and pain; the most general expression of the circumstances in which they occur.
This theory was of course suggested by the pleasures and pains of intellectual or physical exertion, or, as it is otherwise termed, exercise. These are the phænomena which principally afford to it such foundation of fact, and such plausibility in speculation, as it possesses. As we all know, moderate exertion, either of body or mind, is pleasurable; a greater amount is painful, except when set in motion by an impulse which renders it, in our author’s meaning of the word, “spontaneous:” and a felt impediment to any kind of active exertion, when there is an impulse towards it, is painful. It at first appears as if Sir W. Hamilton had overlooked the pains and pleasures in which the mind and body are passive, as in most of the organic, and a large proportion of the emotional pleasures and pains. He claims, however, to include all these in his formula. The “powers” and “energies” whose free action he holds to be the condition of pleasure, and their impeded or overstrained action, of pain, include our passive susceptibilities as well as our active energies. Accordingly he suggests a correction of his own language, saying that “occupation” or “exercise” would perhaps be fitter expressions than “energy.”‡
The term energy, which is equivalent to act, activity, or operation, is here used to comprehend also all the mixed states of action and passion of which we are conscious; for, inasmuch as we are conscious of any modification of mind, there is necessarily more than a mere passivity of the subject; consciousness itself implying at least a reaction. [What has become of his doctrine that to be conscious of a feeling is only another phrase for having the feeling?] Be this, however, as it may, the nouns energy, act, activity, operation, with the correspondent verbs, are to be understood to denote, indifferently and in general, all the processes of our higher and our lower life of which we are conscious.§
Understanding the theory in this enlarged sense, let us test it by application to one of the simplest of our organic feelings, the pleasure of a sweet taste. This pleasure, according to the theory, arises from the free exercise, without either restraint or excess, of one of our powers or capacities: what capacity shall we call it? That of tasting sweetness? This will not do; for if the capacity of having the sensation of sweet is called into play in any degree, great or small, the effect is a sweet taste, which is a pleasure. Besides, instead of a sweet taste, let us suppose an acrid taste. In this taste the capacity exercised is that of tasting acridity. But the result of the exercise of this capacity, neither repressed nor overstrained, which therefore, according to the theory, should be a pleasure, is an acrid taste, which is a pain. It must, therefore, be meant that the capacity which when freely exercised causes pleasure, and when repressed or overstrained, pain, is some more general capacity than that of sweet or acrid taste—say the power of taste in the abstract: that the power of taste, the organic action of the gustatory nerves, by its spontaneous exercise, yields pleasure, and by its repression, or its strained exercise, produces pain. The theory thus entirely turns upon what is meant by spontaneous; as is shown still more clearly by our author’s comments. “It has been stated,” he observes in a recapitulation of his doctrine,
that a feeling of pleasure is experienced, when any power is consciously exercised in a suitable manner; that is, when we are neither, on the one hand, conscious of any restraint upon the energy which it is disposed spontaneously to put forth, nor, on the other, conscious of any effort in it to put forth an amount of energy greater either in degree or in continuance, than what it is disposed freely to exert. In other words, we feel positive pleasure, in proportion as our powers are exercised, but not over-exercised; we feel positive pain, in proportion as they are compelled either not to operate, or to operate too much. All pleasure, thus, arises from the free play of our faculties and capacities; all pain from their compulsory repression or compulsory activity.*
All, therefore, depends upon what is meant by “free” or “spontaneous,” and what by “compulsory,” activity. The difference cannot be that which the words suggest, the presence or absence of will. It cannot be meant, that pleasure accompanies the process when wholly involuntary, and that pain begins when a voluntary element enters into the exercise of the sensitive faculty. There is nothing voluntary in the agonies of the rack, or of an excruciating bodily disease: while, in the case of a pleasure, the exercise of will, in the only mode in which it can be exercised on a feeling, namely, by voluntarily attending to it, instead of converting it from a pleasure into a pain, often greatly heightens the pleasure. This doctrine, therefore, would be absurd, nor is Sir W. Hamilton chargeable with it. What he means by “spontaneous” as applied to the exercise of our capacities of feeling, we gather from the following passage, and others similar to it.
Every power, all conditions being supplied, and all impediments being removed, tends, of its proper nature and without effort, to put forth a certain determinate maximum, intensive and protensive, of free energy. This determinate maximum of free energy, it, therefore, exerts spontaneously: if a less amount than this be actually put forth, a certain quantity of tendency has been forcibly repressed: whereas, if a greater than this has been actually exerted, a certain amount of nisus has been forcibly stimulated in the power. The term spontaneously, therefore, provides that the exertion of the power has not been constrained beyond the proper limit,—the natural maximum, to which, if left to itself, it freely springs.—Again, in regard to the term unimpeded,—this stipulates that the conditions requisite to allow this spring have been supplied, and that all impediments to it have been removed. This postulates, of course, the presence of an object.*
The spontaneous and unimpeded exercise of a capacity means, therefore, it would appear, the exercise which takes place when “all conditions” are “supplied,” and “all impediments removed.” Let us apply this to a particular case. I taste, at different instants, two different objects; an orange, and rhubarb. In both cases, all conditions are supplied; the object is present and in contact with my organs; and in both cases, all impediments are removed to the unstrained and natural action of the object upon my gustatory organs. Yet the result is in one case a pleasure, in the other a sensation of nauseousness. On Sir W. Hamilton’s theory, it ought, in both cases, to have been pleasure: for in neither does anything interfere with the free action of my sense of taste.
Sir W. Hamilton can scarcely have overlooked this objection, and the answer which he may be supposed to make, is that in the case of the rhubarb, the object itself was of a nature to disturb the gustative faculty, and exact from it a greater degree of action (or less, for I would not undertake to say which) than is exacted by the orange. But where is the proof of this? and what, even, does the assertion mean? A greater degree of what action? Of the action of tasting? If so, a pain should differ from a pleasure only by being more (or perhaps less) intense. Is the action that is meant, some occult process in the organ? But what ground is there for affirming that there is more action of any kind, on the part of the organ or the sense of taste, in a disagreeable savour than in an agreeable one? It is perhaps true that more than a certain quantity of action is always painful: every sensation intensified beyond a certain degree may become a pain. But the converse proposition, that wherever there is a pain there is an excess of action (or a deficiency, for we are offered that alternative), I know of no reason for believing. Moreover, if admitted, it would seem to involve the consequence, that in every case of pain, a less or a greater degree of the cause which produces it is pleasurablea, which is certainly not true, however true it may be that in many cases of organic pleasure (especially tastes and smells) a less or a greater quantity of the substance which produces the pleasure is either insipid or positively disagreeablea .
Our author is more than half aware that his theory bbreaks down when applied to pleasures or pains that are heterogeneous to one anotherb ; for he says, “When it is required of us to explain particularly and in detail, why the rose, for example, produces this sensation of smell, assafœtida that other, and so forth, and to say in what peculiar action does the perfect or pleasurable, and the imperfect or painful, activity of an organ consist, we must at once profess our ignorance.” He lays the responsibility of the failure, not upon his theory, but upon the general inexplicability of ultimate facts. “But it is the same with all our attempts at explaining any of the ultimate phænomena of creation. In general, we may account for much; in detail, we can rarely account for anything: for we soon remount to facts which lie beyond our powers of analysis and observation.”*
This appears to me a great misconception, on our author’s part, of what may rightfully be demanded from a theorist. He is not entitled to frame a theory from one class of phænomena, extend it to another class which it does not fit, and excuse himself by saying that if we cannot make it fit, it is because ultimate facts are inexplicable. Newton did not proceed in this manner with the theory of gravitation. He made it an absolute condition of adopting the theory, that it should fit; and when, owing to incorrect data, he could not make it fit perfectly, he abandoned the speculation for many years. If the smell of a rose and the smell of assafœtida are ultimate facts, be it so: but in that case, it is useless setting up a theory to explain them. If we do propound a theory, we are bound to prove all it asserts: and this, in the present case, is, that in smelling a rose the organ is in “perfect” activity, but when smelling assafœtida, in “imperfect,” which is either greater or less than perfect. It is not philosophical to assert this, and fall back upon the incomprehensibility of the subject as a dispensation from proving it. What is a hindrance to proving a theory, ought to be a hindrance to affirming it.
What meaning, in fact, can be attached to perfect and imperfect activity, as the phrases are here used? Perfection or imperfection is treated as a question of quantity; activity is called perfect when there is exactly the right quantity, imperfect when there is either more or less. But what is the test of right or wrong quantity, except the pleasure or pain attending it? The theory amounts to this, that pleasure or pain is felt, according as the activity is of the amount fitted to produce the one or the other. In this futile mode of explaining the phænomena our author had been preceded by Aristotle, one of the greatest of recorded thinkers, but who must have been more than human if, in the state of knowledge and scientific cultivation in his time, he had avoided slips which hardly any one, even now, is able completely to guard against. Aristotle’s theory, which, as understood by our author, differs little from his own, is presented by Sir W. Hamilton in the following words:
When a sense, for example, is in perfect health, and it is presented with a suitable object of the most perfect kind, there is elicited the most perfect energy, which, at every instant of its continuance, is accompanied with pleasure. The same holds good with the function of Imagination, Thought, &c. Pleasure is the concomitant in every case where powers and objects are in themselves perfect, and between which there subsists a suitable relation.*
The conditions whereon, upon this showing, pleasure depends, are the healthiness of the sense, and the perfection of the object presented to it. This is simply making the fact its own theory. When is a sense in perfect health, and its object perfect? The function of a sense is twofold; as a source of cognition, and of feeling. If the perfection meant be in the function of cognition, the doctrine that pleasure depends on this is manifestly erroneous: according to Sir W. Hamilton, it is even the reverse of the truth, for he holds that the knowledge given by an act of sense, and the feeling accompanying it, are in an inverse proportion to one another. cThere remainsc the supposition that the perfection, of which Aristotle spoke, was perfection not in respect of cognition but of feeling. It cannot, however, consist in acuteness of feeling, for our acutest feelings are pains. What then constitutes it? Pleasurableness of feeling: and the theory only tells us, that pleasure is the result of a pleasurable state of the sense, and a pleasure-giving quality in the object presented to it. Aristotle and Sir W. Hamilton did not, certainly, state the doctrine to themselves in this manner; but they reduced it to this, by affirming pleasure or pain to depend on the perfect or imperfect action of the sense, when there was no criterion of imperfect or perfect action except that it produced pain or pleasure.
The theory of our author, considered as a résumé of the universal conditions of pleasure and pain, being so manifestly inadequate, this is not the place for sifting out the detached fragments of valuable thought which are disseminated through it. Such stray truths may be gleaned from every excursion through the phænomena of human nature by a person of ability. What Sir W. Hamilton says of the different classes of mental pleasures and pains, though brief, is very suggestive of thought. To make a proper use of the hints he throws out towards an explanation of the pleasures derived from sublimity and beauty, would require much study, and a wide survey of the subject, as well as of the speculations of other thinkers regarding it. The question has no direct connexion with any other of those discussed in the present volume, and but a slight one with Sir W. Hamilton’s merits as a philosopher; since the brevity with which he treats it, gives ground for believing that he had not bestowed on it the amount of thought which would enable his opinion to claim the rank of a philosophic theory.
[* ]Lectures, Vol. II, p. 434.
[* ]Ibid., p. 440.
[† ]Ibid., p. 436.
[‡ ]Ibid., pp. 435n, and 466.
[§ ]Ibid., p. 435. [The words in square brackets are Mill’s.]
[* ]Ibid., p. 477.
[* ]Ibid., p. 441.
[b-b]651, 652, 67 does not fit the passive organic feelings
[* ]Ibid., pp. 494-5.
[* ]Ibid., p. 452. [See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, p. 594 (X, iv, 1174b27-33).]
[c-c]651, 652 Remains