What the Body Commands

What the Body Commands

The Imperative Theory of Pain

By Colin Klein

A novel theory of pain, according to which pains are imperatives—commands issued by the body, ordering you to protect the injured part.





A novel theory of pain, according to which pains are imperatives—commands issued by the body, ordering you to protect the injured part.

In What the Body Commands, Colin Klein proposes and defends a novel theory of pain. Klein argues that pains are imperative; they are sensations with a content, and that content is a command to protect the injured part of the body. He terms this view “imperativism about pain,” and argues that imperativism can account for two puzzling features of pain: its strong motivating power and its uninformative nature. Klein argues that the biological purpose of pain is homeostatic; like hunger and thirst, pain helps solve a challenge to bodily integrity. It does so by motivating you to act in ways that help the body recover. If you obey pain's command, you get better (in ordinary circumstances). He develops his account to handle a variety of pain phenomena and applies it to solve a number of historically puzzling cases. Klein's intent is to defend the imperativist view in a pure form—without requiring pain to represent facts about the world.

Klein presents a model of imperative content showing that intrinsically motivating sensations are best understood as imperatives, and argues that pain belongs to this class. He considers the distinction between pain and suffering; explains how pain motivates; addresses variations among pains; and offers an imperativist account of maladaptive pains, pains that don't appear to hurt, masochism, and why pain feels bad.


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262029704 224 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • Klein offers a detailed, realist account of the semantic contents of pain imperatives. And he makes clear that he believes this content (alone) explains both the phenomenology and primary motivating role of pain.

    Matthew Fulkerson

    Philosophical Reviews


  • Arguably, the most thought-provoking, resourceful, and imaginative book on pain written by a philosopher in recent decades. Klein develops a novel philosophical account of pain—imperativism—that brilliantly manages to be both empirically informed and theoretically insightful. Well-argued and clearly structured, devoid of excessive professional jargon, lucid and often quite witty—this is a must-read book for any curious mind, not just for philosophers.

    Murat Aydede

    Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia; editor of Pain: New Essays on Its Nature and the Methodology of Its Study

  • Pain is such a bizarre life experience, and philosophers are appallingly bad at elucidating its fundamental nature. Colin Klein is the rare exception. His imperative theory of pain is at once a deeply profound idea and a simple one. What the Body Commands is the rare masterwork: it musters a clear, cogent, extended case for why Klein is right—and it is sheer delight to read, to boot.

    Valerie Gray Hardcastle

    Professor of Philosophy, Psychology, and Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, Scholar-in-Residence of the Weaver Institute of Law and Psychiatry, and Director of the Medicine, Health, and Society Program, University of Cincinnati; author of The Myth of Pain


  • Winner of the 2016 David Harold Tribe Philosophy Prize, sponsored by the University of Sydney's School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry