Knowledge and Pain



The multiple facets of pain – as a cultural event, personal experience, physiological process, and as a historical phenomenon that has persevered in spite of radical epistemic shifts in its interpretation – constitute an ineradicable link between disparate periods and cultures. The need to endow pain with meaning is cross-culturally embedded, and shared by all four of the thought systems here under investigation; Judaism, Christianity, sociology, and science. Therefore, the investigation of pain as a cultural construction and its manifold representations in the past and present, presents a unique opportunity and foundation for an interdisciplinary study.  

Pain is a paradigmatic phenomenon for multidisciplinary studies: of experimental and experiential methodologies; as a "subjective” and "objective” event; as a phenomenological and empirical object; and as an important cultural artifact for the humanities and the exact sciences. For the past decade scholars have begun to investigate this new and complex field; the history of emotions and its attendant history of sensations. Scholars were divided into two camps: one group, under the influence of psychology, believed that human nature is universal and therefore posited the underlying unity of the primary emotions of individuals or groups in various cultures and periods. A limited repertoire of these universally felt emotions and feelings function as a shared foundation upon which different cultures construct their responses to reality. As the field developed it became apparent that it is not possible to draw a clear demarcation between these ‘natural’ primary feelings and their cultural expression. Even today scholars (historians, anthropologists, etc.) have not been able to identify a feeling or emotion that is independent of cultural determinants. Most cultural historians today would agree that the most we can accomplish is to investigate the culturally constructed expression of feelings and emotions.  

Furthermore, constantly shifting representations of pain appear in all aspects and discourses of human knowledge. This fact stands out ever more clearly in the light of the ever widening gap (since the nineteenth century), between the sciences and the humanities. The methodologies of investigation in social and physical sciences, conceptual and representational categories, and the personae of their practitioners have become segregated from and contrasted with the various "non-scientific” practices and disciplines of knowledge. An interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study of pain presents an opportunity to reunite the disparate discourses and cultures of knowledge around a common theme. Pain therefore presents a rich and fruitful venue for reuniting the "Two Cultures” of knowledge around a shared focus, and an intellectual opportunity for gathering scholars from various fields — and from the different campuses of the Hebrew University – in order to create a shared dialogue around a complex but coherent focus.  

The study of pain intersects various fields of knowledge and disciplines, each of which employs its own methods and perspectives. This ‘embarrassment of riches’ has often worked to hinder the creation of an intelligent and intelligible exchange. It is our hope that the proposed project can create an intra-university platform for the study of pain – both as an object of investigation, and as a subject for manipulation, eradication and treatment. We envision encounters between representatives of various arenas and techniques that both work on and with pain – whether they are practitioners of assuaging or curing pain, or of cultural and historical practices for representing, imagining or managing it. We are proposing this project not only as an opportunity to further our intellectual enquiries of pain qua pain, but also as an opportunity to create an interdisciplinary dialogue between the various cultural, scientific and therapeutic sites of discourses and praxes among the different campuses of the Hebrew University.  


Group Members: 

Prof. Esther Cohen  

Prof. Manuela Consonni  

Dr. Otniel E.  

Prof. Leona Toker  

Dr. Michal Altbauer  

Dr. Na'ama Cohen-Hanegbi  

Dr. Omri Herzog  

Dr. Noa Shashar  



March 2009 – The group organized a workshop titled: 'Perspectives on Pains'.  

May 2010 – The group held an international conference concluding their activity at Scholion: 'Knowledge and Pain'