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The Table Video

Eleonore Stump

What It Feels Like: The Phenomenology of Suffering (Eleonore Stump)

Professor of Philosophy / Robert J. Henle Chair in Philosophy, Saint Louis University
March 19, 2018

Philosopher Eleonore Stump and CCT Director Evan Rosa discuss the phenomenology of suffering. Despite our culture’s tendency to equate pain with suffering, Dr. Stump takes the position that pain is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for suffering. She proposes the ancient perspective, which is that suffering is a disruption of our flourishing, and it is ultimately a loss of what we care about and desire most.

I wonder if you’d comment on what you take the nature, perhaps the psychological aspects, the phenomenology of suffering to be. What is suffering?

Well that’s a good question. So often unreflectively we think that suffering is a matter of pain. If you have pain you’re suffering, and if you don’t have any pain you’re not suffering. But that’s a kind of, for sure. There’s a lot of bad things that happen to people that don’t have pain in them, and there are even some things that have pain in them that don’t really count as suffering. So there are women who strongly prefer what we call natural childbirth, which is childbirth without anesthetic. And they suffer, for sure they do. But even after having tried it once, there are women that will want to do it again because something about that pain doesn’t seem to them to be adversive, but seems to them to be ingredient in something that they prize and value. And really nobody says that the fact that there are women who choose to have natural childbirth and suffer in it, “that’s what shows me there is no God.” I mean people don’t talk that way. So what this shows you is that pain is not necessary or sufficient for suffering. So another way to think about suffering, and it’s an age old way that is very wise, is to see suffering as a function of what we care about. We care about our own flourishing, as the human beings that we are, and the things that get in the way of that flourishing, those are the things that cause us suffering. If you know that something about the oppressive society in which you’ve lived makes it impossible for you to give your child an education of any kind, you will suffer on behalf of your child, because education is part of what goes into human flourishing. So there are all those things that make humans beings the best they can be, and when a person is deprived of some of those, she suffers. But on top of that, on top of that, there are the things that have value for us, just because we set our hearts on them. So–

Based on our desires.

Yeah. These are things that we care about not because in themselves they are intrinsically valuable, on the contrary. They have value for us because we set our hearts on them. So I have children, you have children. And I don’t think my children are more valuable than your children, I really don’t. But, I love my children way more than I love yours.

Evan: Yeah.

So, my children have much more value for me than you children have for me. Not because I assess the intrinsic value of the children that way, but this is a case where something has value because you set your heart on it.

Something matters to you.

Something matters to you and has value to you because it matters to you.


So, maybe your grandmother has passed away and was very dear to you, but before she died she left you the quilt she had made when she was a young girl. And now that quilt which may be old and tattered and faded, this is a priceless object to you. So we have things we set our hearts on, and when we lose those or we fail to get those, then we suffer too. So one way or another, it’s what we care about that makes suffering. And therefore, the question is really something like this. If there’s an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, perfectly loving God, why wouldn’t He want you to have what is good for you and what you care about? That how you would feel about your own child. Why wouldn’t the Deity think that about His children?