A bee in Wittgenstein’s bonnet

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.


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