Monthly Archives: January 2023

It’s a tic in the intellectual style of analytic philosophy to circle round one’s problem and come out with the answer insistently. Look, this is simple, they seem to say: given all that complicated stuff I said against the received view, it is now obvious that X! Saul Kripke does it about rigid designators, John Searle does it about the Chinese room. There is even a certain tone of voice in the seminar: I can conjure to my mind’s ear the voice of a philosopher I know saying that something or other “just IS” something else, with an inflection just so. That moment must be the point of action, or fruition, of the analytic in “analytic philosophy”.

So it is with Wittgenstein on skepticism of other minds. We can just tell when someone is in pain, he keeps saying. Well, I think so too; but isn’t skepticism just a thought experiment? And couldn’t the person with a sore look just be a very good method actor, Richard Burton, say? No, because it is someone we know, whose habits we know — on the whole, we are much less likely to notice someone in pain in a public setting, not least because decorum then requires one to keep a lid on it.

The limitation of this venue for “musings” is that it might be better to head off to the library at this point and find out a bit more about it. From such engagement might come something more substantial. But the layman’s insight I’m trying to catch by the tail (having written in my journal this morning, following on from yesterday’s reflections: so maybe Wittgenstein was wrong about other minds) is a pragmatic one. I agree that actual skepticism about other minds, like pretty much all skepticism, is false; though there may well be a conversation to be had (it will not do just to say, like the philistine father of someone I once knew, with a dreamier and more Bohemian cast of mind, that “a bus stop is a bus stop is a bus stop”). The thrust of it is actually to shore up some commonsensical view of everyday reality. We have an ethological propensity to read one another wordlessly, but in rather limited ways. Just as there are optical illusions, or adverse conditions (driving at night in the rain, with an old man’s eyes) we can get it wrong, but on the whole, it works; and there is probably some well-worn philosophical argument waiting to be brought to bear at this point, along the lines that it must work at least most of the time, or else we wouldn’t be able to know anything at all, even about ourselves, pace Descartes.

But that is not the same as saying that we directly intuit the other’s pain, or love, or irritation, or whatever it may be, even though it generally feels very much like that; any more than we can perceive Kant’s things in themselves. We see the signs we instinctively know (or we may learn them as a foreign language, as for instance that when a cat stares at you and blinks, that is sign of affection; this goes both ways, as for instance dogs may learn to hold hands with their humans). We know the meaning of the signs, and can feel their echo in our own bodies, by a natural empathy, that must have been in us before we learnt language. This can even occur below awareness; and we might speak of the mood in the room. That fits together with contextual information, knowledge of what happened before (a gale of laughter, an accident with a hammer — or both, perhaps) and how and who the people there are, demonstrative, loquacious, worried about something, and so on, the argument yesterday, the ends not being met, the elephant in the room, all seamlessly bound together, so we may feel as though we directly intuit quite complex things about other minds, and the social situation as a whole. To assert that this is not a true picture is not to deny our facility for mutual understanding of this kind.

And it breaks down all the time. Such failures are far more common than with vision, for example, though there are optical illusions. In both cases, the failure doesn’t feel representative of how it works when it’s working; but that doesn’t mean it “just works” and will hold the full weight of our lives, like the ice on a Finnish lake in February, much as we might like to think so. The complexity of this “sixth sense” is much greater, with a different order of possible points of failure. Cross purposes are a daily fact of life.

Then there is language, of course, with the advantage of its public tokens (Wittgenstein again). But that advantage is bought at the cost of their plainness. Like money: each coin of that denomination is the same. It is washed clean of the subjective.


I may have posted about this before. It is now a trope of the internet, but I discovered it in a Polish author decades ago. There is, or so the story claims, a method of trapping monkeys by putting a piece of something tasty inside a coconut attached to something fixed, such as a tree. The monkey’s fist is too tight to pass the hole, but it could escape by letting go of the treat. Monkeys, or if this is true, probably one particular species, can’t get their heads round this dilemma, and end up in the stewpot or laboratory. Closer to home, sometimes we can work out what our domestic familiars must be thinking, a corner our minds can see round, but they can’t. Before we get too complacent about our conceptual prowess, I am pretty sure the reverse is true also.

Reason traps us in much the same way, as the self-help of the internet will explain. Where I read about the coconut, the punchline was the question: what general advice would you give the monkey? So, “just let go” is not allowed. I am not at all sure there is anything you could usefully say to help the monkey get unstuck.

I have expressed considerable pessimism here of late about reason as our helpmeet. Sweet reason ought to serve us, but she has lately turned shrewish and strident. The thought is that reason has fallen. The last thing I want to do is let go of that better memory, with bitter barely a phoneme away. We can talk ourselves into anything, and burn witches. I’m sure I have posted about that too: we laugh at the barbarism of the ducking stool and the pyre, but the judges at witchcraft trials were not fools, and they believed they were defending rationality and progress against atavistic herbal pagan remnants. There’s a strange sleight of hand between the idea of those simple remedies (the willow bark) as dangerous superstition, and diabolical truth.

There’s a relativistic can of worms lying around near here that I will not open. Perhaps that’s where the intellectual interest lies, but my focus is desperately practical. Granted we are at loggerheads, all around; my pessimism is an aporia. Either reason is fallen, irremediably corrupted, and we have no recourse; or we should hold as tight as that monkey to the ideal of reason that we remember from just a few short years ago, before the world went mad. But what if the mistake is not that we have swapped that sweet helpmeet for Luther’s harlot, but that we turn to reason when it cannot illuminate? Each believes he holds the truth, but all are trapped. Reason, perverted, is a blinker, not a glass; but the fault is ours for pressing it too hard.

The warning sign is too much theory, what I have called here the “superstructure”. For instance, various political positions are commonly defended by a sort of folk economics, which to unpick would require far more subtlety; and economics isn’t even a real science — indeed, to be useful it must be modest in much the same way I am trying to work out. There is a famous sociology book by Thomas Merton in which he advocates the development of “mid-range” theories, that is, sociology as a discipline becomes ineffective when it tries to explain how everything fits together, but the pieces with which that might be attempted can be quite robust. He may be agnostic about whether more comprehensive progress could come later, but I dare say by the time that might become possible, sociology as a discipline will have turned into something else altogether.

I was thinking this morning about my mother. Like all mothers, she is difficult; that is the tragedy of motherhood. After all these years, I think I understand her quite well, which is to say I have a theory of my mother which she would be unlikely to find congenial or convincing, which I (inevitably) nonetheless believe is broadly correct. And I really do believe it, I can’t summon any false humility, though I understand in the abstract that my view is partial. But it doesn’t help. She won’t change. It would be cruel to say any of it. It just makes me sorry for her pain, a sorrow not softened by the view that we all suffer in similar ways, each in our own private cave.

What is left, after reason, but kindness?