Friday, 17 May 2013

Wellbeing: conceptual or preconceptual?

There was an interesting moment in a supervision with Laura Buckley today, this time prompted by something my colleague Bernie Carter (pictured) said. Thinking about how effective the older people whom Laura had interviewed were in thinking through and communicating their thoughts about their wellbeing, Bernie, who is interested in children's pain on the nicest interpretation of that phrase, commented on the broad opposing views of pain and language. On one, language fails to communicate the real nature of pain, which is private to the sufferer. On the other, there is an essential connection between pain, expressing pain, and communication and hence no gap between what is felt and what communicated. (As an ex Wittgensteinian, my hand is tied in this debate, of course.)

Now in the somewhat boisterous cut and thrust of supervision without the steadying hand of Laura's director of studies, I missed the exact nature of the connection Bernie was suggesting. But it prompted the following thought. Unlike the pain case, where maintaining the second view takes a bit of philosophical work against the insidious idea that pain is pain whether or not it is there to be expressed (and hence it would be merely good fortune if it could be put into words), my intuitive thought about wellbeing goes the other way.

Roughly, it is a pre-philosophical view that to enjoy wellbeing is already to be in the space of reasons. A state of wellbeing is not one which one can enjoy without some conception of a life to be lived and a realisation that one is living it, even if merely in part.

(Perhaps one needn't have a conception of a life as a whole but merely of an aspect. For example, that one likes the conviviality of the pub with friends on a Sunday lunchtime. But my hunch, an argument for which I rather owe, is that that only works in the context of at least an inchoate conception of a life into which that aspect fits. The context in which the beer is pulled by slaves and the pub heated by burning kittens is not one which will enable such a visit to sustain wellbeing. One will need to take it - truely or falsely - to be the case that that is not how things are. Hence an escalation of conceptions from the specific to the general.)

But although I want to suggest that it is pre-philosophical, the hunch comes under threat from the fact that 'wellbeing' simply isn't a word in vernacular use. Laura has had to fish for an appropriate understanding of it whilst not pressing specific interpretations (and thus undermining the objectivity of her research). So how could it be that one must be self-conscious to enjoy wellbeing if neither the word, nor a convenient synonym (had there been one, Laura would have used it) is in popular use?

I think that the answer to that is that there are a number of distinct ways for agents or actors to pick out aspects of living which the interpretator or theorist take to be wellbeing. So the conception under which the life is so conceived is a mere aspect for which the theorist can provide a rationale for taking it to be an aspect of wellbeing.

This suggests something like the following interesting possibility. There may be a different kind of gap to the one Bernie was sketching. Not between a preconceptualised state (wellbeing as akin to pain on a non-Wittgensteinian view) and its linguistic expression but between the theorist's conception of wellbeing at an abstract level and the agents' conceptions of different ways in which it can be realised. Perhaps agents' conceptions of what the theorist takes to be wellbeing have nothing independent of the theorist in common?