Other Minds

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

2. Who has the epistemological problem?

The heroic way of avoiding the problem of other minds is to deny that the claimed asymmetry, between ourselves and others, holds. Some have done so by insisting that we have direct knowledge of the mental states of others, though this has generally been seen as implausible. However, there seems to be an important strand of thinking within feminist theory that would endorse this rejection of our asymmetry (see Feminism and psychoanalysis). Similarly, continental European philosophy has commonly taken the view that other people are needed for us to acquire our own sense of ourselves as persons (see Alterity and identity, postmodern theories of). So our sense of others goes before our sense of self. That would seem to demand some capacity to know about others before one knows about oneself. The asymmetry would, presumably, be reversed, and the problem of other minds give way to the problem of our own minds.

Given that the asymmetry is accepted, and thus the traditional understanding of the problem of other minds, it has been almost a commonplace to believe that only a traditional dualist view of the mind produces a difficult problem of other minds (see Dualism). Though generally theories of mind accept the asymmetry, not all are thought to have a difficult problem. Behaviourism (see Behaviourism, analytic) is a theory of mind that either is thought to have no problem at all, or, if it does, nevertheless has no difficulty in solving the problem. There is no special problem about knowing about the behaviour and behavioural dispositions of another.

Functionalism is another theory of mind that is thought not to have a difficult problem. Mental states are viewed as internal states of the organism, regulating its responses to its surroundings. The various mental states are differentiated by their various roles, and they have no other features relevant to their being the mental states they are (see Functionalism). It is then claimed to be straightforward, faced with the behaviour of others, to infer that such internal states exist, in the appropriate relations to the behaviour. Eliminative materialists have been seen as not having any problem. If there are no minds, then there are no other minds, therefore there is no problem of other minds (see Eliminativism).

However, it has been argued that all theories of mind leave the other minds problem intact, and difficult. Theories of mind are, indeed, theories of mind, all minds, one’s own and others. Given that they are to be true of all minds, including other minds, they cannot, it has been argued, be used to show that there are, indeed, other minds. It is unacceptable to argue that, say, functionalism is true, and then use this to solve the other minds problem, since it cannot be known to be true, to hold of minds in general, unless it holds of other minds. How could that be known without the other minds problem having been, somehow, solved?

In conjunction with this line of argument, it has been pointed out that a theory of mind, embracing all minds, needs to embrace its propounder’s mind as well as other minds. So a crucial part of the evidence (generally implicit) for a theory of mind will be that the theory fits the propounder’s experience. That is the only way direct evidence in its favour can be obtained. So the propounder’s experience is crucial. It has been argued that there is no escaping dependence on that experience and, as we shall see, any such dependence has been seen to be a fatal weakness, whenever it exists, in any would-be justification for belief in other minds.

Citing this article:
Hyslop, Alec. Who has the epistemological problem?. Other Minds, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles