Other Minds

Can I know what another person is thinking or feeling? If so,

by Tom Nuttall (tutor: Anthony Rudd)

The problem of Other Minds is a true philosophical enigma. It is
apt to strike children with no philosophical education
whatsoever, yet remains intractable to many academics. Broadly
speaking, the problem can be divided into three questions.
Firstly, how do I come to believe that there are minds in the
world other than my own? Secondly, how can I justify my belief
that there are minds in the world other than my own? Thirdly,
what can I state about the mental states of minds other than my
own?. The question we are dealing with here falls largely into
the third category, although of course issues relating to the
other two will also be involved.

Firstly, it is imperative to assert that, in looking for
?knowledge', we are not aiming for logical certainties - we are
not aiming to show that any propositions about other minds
can be demonstrated with absolute certainty equivalent to that of
mathematical truths. Philosophy ever since Descartes has tended
to be defined by scepticism: either it aims to produce sceptical
theories or it aims to refute them. And sceptics tend towards
extremity in their doubts. It must be stated here and now that
there are not, and never can be, any theories that prove
demonstratively that other minds exist, or that I know others'
mental states. This is not what should be aimed at in attempting
to solve the problem. As Austin puts it "To suppose that the
question ?How do I know that Tom is angry?' is meant to mean ?How
do I introspect Tom's feelings?' is simply barking up the wrong

Most philosophers agree that their theories only bestow a greater
or lesser amount of probability onto statements about other minds
(although there are exceptions, e.g. Peter Strawson's attempt to
argue transcendentally for the existence of other minds
through our own self-consciousness). There have been a number of
different attempts to do this. J.S. Mill, who produced the first
known formulation of the Other Minds problem, used the so-called
?Argument from Analogy' both to explain how we come to
believe in other minds and to justify this belief. Briefly, the
argument holds that I am directly aware of mental states in
myself, and I am aware of the behaviour of mine that
results from and is caused by these mental states. As I can
observe similar physical behaviour in others, I draw the analogy
that it is caused by the same (or at least similar) mental states
to my own. As in all arguments from analogy, I assume that
because x is similar to y in some respects, it will be similar in
others. So as I know how I behave if I am feeling, say, angry, I
assume in someone else's case that his behaviour is an indication
of the mental state I call ?anger'. My opinion in this respect
is aided by the fact that most humans' behaviour when they claim
to be angry is broadly similar.

The argument from analogy, also employed by Bertrand Russell in a
slightly simplified form, is subject to a devastating criticism.
Unlike most analogies, in the case of other minds, there is no
conceivable way of verifying the conclusion we make. We have
no way of discovering whether someone else is angry or not, and
our position means that this is a necessary disadvantage. The
only way to have someone else's experiences would to become that
person, and in doing that, I would no longer be myself and I
would no longer be having someone else's experiences. Thus it is
impossible to conceive of any set of experimental circumstances
under which I would be able to ascertain whether or not the human
who is expressing anger-behaviour really is angry or not. And as
Norman Malcolm has pointed out, as there are no conceivable
criteria I could use to determine whether someone is angry or
not, simply claiming that they are angry is a meaningless

Many philosophers, perceiving this fatal flaw in the argument
from analogy, have attempted to produce theories on other minds
that are not based on analogy. Malcolm himself held that the