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Other Minds

.. enough, but it is hard to know precisely what he means. It seems certain that in referring to mental states, it is implicit that someone owns (or is) the mind in which those states are occurring. Although Ayer is right in his claim that we need not refer to the ‘owner’ of the state when we talk about the state itself, and therefore that the owner ‘could’ be us, this doesn’t seem to address the issue at hand. The problem is one of other minds, and we are, all of us, in a situation where we find ourselves confronted with apparent minds other than our own which are problematic.

>From the realisation that a belief in other minds can only arise through observation of the behaviour of others arose the ‘cul-de-sac’ philosophy of logical behaviourism. This theory, now largely discredited, holds that all statements about mental states can be translated, without loss of meaning, into statements about observable behaviour. Thus to say that Jones is in pain is to say that (for instance) Jones is wincing, crying out, grimacing etc. The statements are equivalent, and consequently the problem of other minds is not so much solved by behaviourists as dissolved. But the terminal problem for behaviourists lies in the case of first-person psychological statements.

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We certainly don’t learn about our own mental states by observing our own behaviour. When I say ‘I have a headache’, I don’t mean that I am clutching my head, that I am taking aspirin etc. The feeling of the headache seems in some way to pre-empt all of this behaviour, and generally to be the primary cause of it. The behaviourists made a valiant attempt to solve the problem of other minds by doing away with the asymmetry between my mental states (normally taken to be learnt through introspection), and the mental states of others (normally taken to be learnt through introspection), but they ultimately failed because their account of first-person psychological statements was utterly inadequate. Wittgenstein, in his 1953 work Philosophical Investigations, attempted to show that the construction of a private language (a language that no-one other than the creator is logically capable of understanding) was impossible because languages must follow rules, and it would be impossible for a language with no external reference to follow rules. For instance, if I have a certain experience x one day and call it ‘pain’, and then have another experience y the next day which happens to be different to the one I had the day before but which seems to me identical, and so I also call it ‘pain’, how, as far a I am concerned would this situation differ from one in which the second experience was actually x? It would not, so I could conceivably be wrong in every statement I make regarding my own mental states.

The point Wittgenstein is trying to bring out is that, contrary to the philosophies of Cartesianism and traditional empiricism, the language we couch our mental statements in is a public language: the words we use only acquire their meaning through public usage. And thus if there were no other minds in the world other than our own, we could not make publicly understandable statements about our mental states. This is a powerful argument, although it is open to at least two criticisms. Firstly, it is claimed by some philosophers that it leads inexorably to a form of behaviourism in which my knowledge of my own mental states through introspection is not accounted for. Secondly, the argument tells us very little about the content of other minds. What is the relation between words and mental states?, and more importantly, how could it conceivably be discovered? By appeal to our own case? That would just beg the question. Nevertheless, I believe that Wittgenstein’s approach is the correct one.

It is a truism to say that I cannot have your experiences, and it always remains logically possible that an malin gnie has set me amongst a world of unthinking, unfeeling robots who have been programmed to exhibit behaviour (both verbal and non-verbal) leading me to assume that they have thoughts and feelings. But this seems somewhat unlikely. Rather, it seems more sensible to believe that there are minds animating all the beings around me. If I am not to be subject to the sorts of criticisms that Malcolm makes of the argument from analogy, then I must define some sort of criteria for asserting that Mr X is feeling y etc. And my only criteria, of course, can be my observations of his behaviour. To ensure that my interpretations are as accurate as can be, I must take into account everything about him: his simple overt behaviour, his environment and social context, his biological make-up etc. And my reference point can only be myself, as I am the only example in the world of whose mental states I can be confident.

So as far as X’s circumstances and behaviour mirror my own, I can say that his mental states mirror mine. And I can go slightly further: I can claim that my knowledge of my own case can give me an idea of how certain properties and the connections between them can affect mental states, and so if I notice some property x in X that happens not to belong to me but of which its significance concerning mental states I am aware, then I can make statements regarding X’s mental states with a certain confidence. If this conclusion seems rather weak, then I can only appeal to the enigmatic nature of the problem itself and ask others to better it. Finally, I would like to mention an observation of mine regarding the nature of the problem itself. The problem of other minds arises because we have no certain criteria for ascertaining the possessing of a mind (or mental states) by a being, and this in turn arises because we do not know precisely what a mind is. If philosophers of mind ever produce a theory of mind which provides us with knowledge, to a certain extent, of the nature of mind, then it would at least theoretically be possible to have criteria for the possessing of mind, which would provide very good foundations for the solving of the problem of other minds. Bibliography Sartre by Arthur C. Danto. Fontana, 1975.

Strawson’s Transcendental Deduction of Other Minds by J.L. Martin in New Essays in the Philosophy of Mind ed. John-King Farlow and Roger A. Shiner. Canadian Association for Publishing in Philosophy, 1975. The Philosophy of Sartre by Mary Warnock. Hutchinson & co., 1965. Analogy by Bertrand Russell in Essays on Other Minds ed. Thomas O. Buford.

University of Illinois Press, 1970. Our Evidence for the Existence of Other Minds by H.H. Price in Essays on Other Minds. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations by Norman Malcolm in Essays on Other Minds. Knowledge of Other Minds by Norman Malcolm in Essays on Other Minds. Other Minds by J.L. Austin in Austin’s Philosophical Papers ed. J.O. Urmson and G.J.

Warnock. Clarendon Press, 1979. One’s Knowledge of Other Minds by A.J. Ayer in Philosophical Essays by Ayer. Macmillan and co., 1953. The Mind and its Place in Nature by C.D.

Broad. London, 1925. The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle. London, 1949. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed.

Ted Honderich. Oxford, 1995.


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