the problem of other minds

Why is it considered a philosophical problem at all? I could understand if it were an epistemic problem, or a problem in trying to predict/control people’s actions, but I don’t see any philosophical conundrum in the notion that we simply don’t know for certain whether other people have minds or are walking, talking, breathing automata.

I consider a problem to be philosophical in nature if 1) it is either one to which no answer comes readily to mind, or 2) if it seems to lead irrevocably to too many conflicting answers. Examples of the first might be questions like “What is the meaning of life?”, “How did the universe begin?”, “What are space and time?”. Examples of the second might be things like Kant’s antinomies, or the conflict between free will and determinism.

Now I don’t see the problem of other minds falling into either camp. One doesn’t have to struggle to come to the, quite frankly, trivial answer that we don’t know that other people have minds (at least not for certain). And I don’t think there are any conflicting answers to this question, both of which seem impossible to dismiss. One can say that we certainly act as though others had minds of their own, and we certainly go about our business assuming that they do, but it doesn’t follow from this that we know that they do. We seem to believe it, we infer it, but we believe and infer a lot of things that don’t technically pass for truly justified knowledge. So if the question were phrased “How is it that we can know others have minds without any obvious rational/empirical proof?”, that would indeed pose a problem fitted for philosophy to address, but I don’t think the question is a valid one since I don’t think we can establish that we do know that others have minds.

The only thing that leaves us with, as far as I can tell, is a problem of inconvenience. It can be inconvenient that we don’t know for certain that others have minds. We’d like to know, to be certain. But to argue on the basis of this that we need to figure out how to prove that others have minds is to commit the logical fallacy of “appealing to the consequence” - that is, establishing conclusions based on its desirability rather than its logical necessity. So we don’t know - can’t know - if other people have minds. Deal with it!

To argue otherwise smacks too much of the arguments for God’s existence that rest on the supposed awfulness of the state of our world should He not exist. Just because it might be inconvenient for us that we have to resign to the fact that we can’t know, and never will, whether others have minds or not is no justification for resisting this fact - at least, not as a philosophical stance.

If the problem were phrased a little different, it might become somewhat philosophical after all - for example “How is it that we know others have minds of their own yet we can’t prove it?” or “How can we know if others have minds of their own?” - but I personally think these question are misleading or that they reflect certain misunderstandings of the problem - the former for reason I already mentioned above, and the latter because, though it may seem like a variant of the first kind of philosophical problems mentioned above (i.e. those for which answers don’t come readily to mind), it does (at least in my mind) seem to have a simple and easy answer: we can’t. Why can’t we just live with that?

Wittgenstein of course said that I know that other people have minds, but I cannot know whether I have one.

Also, Witt said that there are no philosophical questions, and where there is one, like the meaning of life, then we know that we have embarked on dodgy metaphysics for which good old grammatical analysis is the only answer.

Interesting that I just finished a book on Wittgenstein.

I’ve always had a problem with Witty (I disagree with him), but for him too, it seems there is no problem of other minds. For him there is a definitive answer. There is not a multiplicity of conflicting answers and it is not an unanswerable question. So though my take on the issue and his are starkly different, we can at least agree that it isn’t a real problem (or at least that if it is a problem, it doesn’t belong to philosophy).

We can at least know that what we have are aspects of a reality, such that it must surely follow that those aspects occur in other forms like us. It would invite a greater problem if we had to explain reality by ourselves alone? I mean how do we come to exist [can we know we have at some point not existed] and think etc, how are these things created within us, and how can we go on to describe our reality map with only us in it.

Usually find that the description of the reality map provides for all the things we presume to be true e.g. that there are other people who have minds.

Well, what it provides for sure is the possibility of other minds - but the problem traditionally is put in term of how one can know that he in particular or she in particular has a mind or no. You could certainly say, more reasonably, that some people (other than yourself) have minds - and even more reasonably - that it is possible in principle that you are not the only one with a mind - but the real challenge is how to prove that, for example, the person you are presently conversing with has a mind. How do you know I’m not a cleverly designed computer program? :wink:

I do too, but I don’t have a problem with him. I like my philosophers fallible :slight_smile:

Have you read Ryle’s The Concept of Mind? It’s a long anti-dualist ordinary language work on mind; effectively, the thesis is that minds and all the characteristics of mind, personality etc. are not things in our heads, or mystical motor forces, but a collection of propensities and tendencies - effectively, modal propositions about the person.

Indeed. Yet I know that a computer doesn’t have info and cannot see colour, but those things are in the world and only experienced by mind. Hence I would have to determine that such things are only within me but how… What comes first me experiencing colour and info or those things in the world? To say they are only in me would be to make the presumption that only I exist, to wit I then have to qualify that. I would surely build a reality map with infinity, qualia and quanta, just as I would anyway.

Can we say that anything is in us? Is anything of our mind even if we first presume that only my mind exists.


If you’ve just finished a book on Witt you might like to know that for some time I have considered myself to be Wittgenstein, born 1953. We went to the same places, got the same temperament, same abilities, same thoughts, same conceptual skills, same hobbies, same physical problems.
If you want to know what Witt would have thought, straight from the horses mouth, then now is a good time to ask, while I’m still here. Here’s something I wrote, with some Wiitgenstein toward the end, though really, the whole lot is Wittgenstein: … bject.html

Wow, really? Are you practically a reincarnation of the man himself? :smiley:

The two main beefs I have with Witty are his private language arguments and his theory of knowledge. I’ll start by asking what your take on these are (if at all different from Wittgenstein’s).

I’ll read your paper when I have time.

That’s interesting… why is that Wittgenstein? My impression is that he was ultimately anti-systemic, and that piece very definitely seeks to categorise things.

Yes. It’s as I said it.

The problem with Witt is that you have to get the idea almost before he starts to talk about it, because the ideas are so novel. Witt never denied private utterances. It seems that his point was quite simple, once we get past the blag: there isn’t any role for a private utterance (beetle) in a public forum, and language is a public forum. That doesn’t deny a private utterance or even a private language.

His theory of knowledge isn’t a theory but is a take on the way we use words. To “know” something is to have tested it, confirmed it. We simply do not do that regarding our own pain, but we do it regarding the pain of others. So, I don’t “know” when I am in pain, but I do know when others are in pain. It’s just a matter of standard grammar, there is no theory here.

Witt was not into metaphysical invention, but re-presenting or reminding us of what we already know. But then he would have had a harder time formulating what he exactly DID than other philosophers would. What I wrote was removing the bias that accompanies ontologies and their favoured objects by getting rid of ontologies themselves, and instead focusing on the every-day way we experience objects (and what other way are we to engage with objects?). This is comparable to Witts philosophical grammar - to examine what we have in front of us, whether words or objects.

I used the word “model” to describe what I wrote. It isn’t a model in the sense of metaphysical or genetic structure. I used the word model to indicate a particular way of looking at things - a reminder, not a new way.


It comes as no surprise to me that whenever one wants to make a point or wants to get something out of what the other chap is saying, suddenly there’s a ‘mind.’ If there is no want, there is no concern for whether there is a ’mind’ or not.

Living is for us actually a way of getting what we want. If we change, it is only to get what we want in a different way.

If psychological or spiritual wants are without foundation, then to seek psychological satisfaction or any sort of spiritual gain, is to miss the point entirely.

Yes, I can agree with that. It would have been better if Witty had said, and perhaps he did mean to say, not that a private language denoting inner states was impossible but that it just wouldn’t happen (because there would be no need for it). I agree that we are highly dependent on our connections with a community in which we share a common language, play the common language-games, and partake in the same “forms of life”, in order to learn the meaning and use of words, even those refering to inner mental states, but one thing I think Witty overlooked in arguing that the meaning of words is their use is that one of the most typical of their uses is just to denote things - and this includes not only outer objects but inner states. So we can’t verify whether one is feeling pain or just acting in such a way to fool us - we infer it based on our own experiences of pain and the correlating behavior we see ourselves engaging in as a response. I can quite easily use the word “pain” - and it is a use here - in order to refer to my inner sensation of pain and let others know I’m feeling it.

On a related note, we also use language to convey information - that too is a use - but what is it to convey information but to convey meaning? So the meaning of an expression is to convey meaning? That almost sounds like a vicious circle.

Again, I think Witty is overlooking something here. If his whole theory (or method? Outlook?) turns on decyphering the meaning of words based on investigating how we use them, then I have to say that we do use the term “to know” in such a way as to meaningfully say “I know I’m in pain”. It’s quite simple to grant that if you were in pain and told me so, and I asked “Do you know you’re in pain?” you would say “Yes, I know I’m in pain” - you might think it was a silly question, but it wouldn’t stump you, you wouldn’t say “I don’t know the answer to that”. If this is really a game we play, and if we are really following the rules of that game when we use words, then it seems you are quite verily following a rule - that is, you know what the rule is and how to follow it - when you answer my question with “Yes, I know I’m in pain”. Otherwise, my question should leave you speachless - not knowing the rule for answering it.