Ayer and Husserl on the Problem of Other Minds

Tonight I found myself in the strange position of reading A. J. Ayer – just for fun. Traditionally I identify as a Continental Philosopher, which means I dismiss all readers of Bertrand Russell as full of nonsense and devote myself solely to Heidegger, Hegel and Kant and followers. However, after attending TAPSS this seems an exceedingly stupid way to do philosophy. Not that I’m a convert – I still think analytic philosophy is a weak tradition. But, its foundations must have a certain potency to them – it is after all still chugging along today (although that might have more to do with the Nazis than the actual rigour of the thought).

Anyway, it turns out Ayer’s view on the problem of other minds is an interesting twist on Husserl‘s view. Husserl, in brief, believed that one can not have experience of other minds, because precisely what distinguishes me from another person is that their experiences are not possible experiences for me. If I could experience the experiences of another, I would simply be them. Therefore, I understand other people’s having of experience analogously from my own, through a process called “transference”. Ayer’s view is similar, but instead of distinguishing between the impossible experience of another’s experience, and the possibility of empathy by transference, he seeks to re-define what we mean by experiencing the experience of another. In fact, in Ayer’s view it is nonsensical to talk about the experiences of another as radically epistemically cut off from me, because that would mean claims concerning them would not be verifiable, and therefore “metaphysical”:

If [one] regards the experiences of others as essentially unobservable entities, whose nature has somehow to be inferred from the subjects’ perceptible behaviour, then, as we have seen, even the proposition that there are other conscious beings becomes for him a metaphysical hypothesis. Accordingly, it is a mistake to draw a distinction between the structure and the content of people’s sensations – such as that the structure alone is accessible to the observations of others, the content inaccessible. For if the contents of other people’s sensations really were inaccessible to my observation, then I could never say anything about them. (Language Truth and Logic, p 132)

What Ayer is disputing is not whether I can experience the experiences of others as they are experienced by them, but rather the assumption “that their experiences are completely inaccessible to my observation”(129). Given Ayer’s verificationist epistemology, there are many things which, while not directly available to my experience, I can nevertheless be justified in believing in. For instance:

…the conclusion to be drawn from the fact that Locke’s notion of a material substratum is metaphysical is not that all the assertions which we make about material things are nonsensical, but that Locke’s analysis of the concept of a material thing is false. (129-130)

The proper way to deal with the problem of “other people”, for Ayer, is then to simply change what is meant by “other people”:

And just as I must define material things and my own self in terms of their empirical manifestations, so I must define other people in terms of their empirical manifestations – that is, in terms of the behaviour of their bodies, and ultimately in terms of sense-contents. The assumption that “behind’ these sense-contents there are entities which are not even in principle accessible to my observation can have no more significance for me than the admittedly metaphysical assumption that such entities “underlie” the sense-contents which constitute material things for me, or my own self. (130)

This to me does not feel so far off from Husserl’s attempt do deal with the problem of knowledge with the phenomenological bracket. In fact, perhaps Ayer’s notion of “verification” and sense-content could be reduced to a kind of bracket – I can know about the world, and by the world I mean the world-for-me, and by world-for-me I mean that which is revealed in sense content and subjectible to reliabalist, empirical judgements. But, what I like most about Ayer’s analysis is the notion (which is perhaps a slight extension of his argument). that the question of whether other people have inner (i.e. unobservable) mental life is itself a poorly formed question. Because, if you could experience their inner mental life, they would just be you (Husserl), and if you can’t experience it, it’s nonsense talk (Husserl because it’s outside the bracket, and Ayer because it isn’t verifiable).

This is really my favourite move in philosophy – where one is able to demonstrate that what appears an insoluble problem is in fact a pseudo-problem. There is no worry about “philosophical zombies“, because there is no sensible way of formulating this possibility. A “philosophical zombie” would need to, for me, appear exactly as if they were conscious. But, since it’s malformed to ask a question about that which essentially exceeds my possible experience, I can’t properly assert that while for-me they appear conscious, they may not appear conscious for-themselves.

However, we’re left to explain why this problem arises at all. I think religion is a decent way to think about this – religion starts in an experience which can’t be explained on the basis of the-world-for-me, and culminates in a long series of irrational beliefs and genocidal institutions. Levinas believes that the desire that extends towards others is religious in this sense; the unknowability of others makes the experience of their otherness essentially distinct from the experience of otherness of physical objects. Roughly, whereas tables and chairs, and pies and beers are all graspable and possess-able (sometimes consumable), other people remain always at a distance – we never incorporate them into ourselves. When we forget this, i.e. in a lover’s quarrel where each despises the other for not playing the role they wish in their personal narrative about the relationship, things go horribly wrong. Personally, I’ve become wary of romantic entanglements precisely because of the difficulty therein to maintain the appropriate distance required to recognize the genuine alterity of another person. At the same time, there is something deeply true in Ayer’s position – that while we can’t know the unknowable other, we can actually know the knowable one – and the knowable one includes (imperfect) knowledge of others’ personal experience. If humans are essentially dialogical beings, if my self consciousness is literally my consciousness of another (as it is according to Hegel), then the recognition of the religious alterity of the other is, while perhaps not a mistake, only possible because of a logically and temporally prior ability to in some sense essentially grasp the autonomy of another in a positive sense. Another way to think about this is Davidson’s principle of charity – it is only because I presume to share a great majority of beliefs with another that I am able to become aware of differences.


2 thoughts on “Ayer and Husserl on the Problem of Other Minds

  1. The Fifth Meditation inside the Cartesian Meditations is not the end of what Husserl will say about “other minds.” Moreover, this type of problem is not a problem in the sense that analytics think of philosophy as a subject with problems to be solved. Instead, Husserl means how is it that the Other has meaning for me. Meaning found within the intentional moment of the Other is a different type of phenomenological givenness than Husserl’s other phenomenological descriptions that are epistemically founded like the perception of an object is given in terms of its profiles. These would be more akin to something like what Ayer would mean. The move made here in the 5th Med in CM is a type of abstractive reduction–a different type of phenomenological reduction completely than is usual in Husserl’s works. My only point here is to suggest that Husserl’s 5th Meditation is on a completely different order than an epistemically situated subject that is typical of the problem of other minds. More evidence for this can be gleaned from the fact that by understanding intentionality in terms of Husserl, there is no inner or outer, no interiority pure and simple (even though Levinas comes to use that term), but a consciousness that lives in these different modes of experience from the directedness it has. To put it similarly, consciousness is consciousness of IS just what Heidegger means by saying that Dasein is its ownmost possibility.

    Next, it’s not a question of being outside the bracket. But let me be clear what I mean by saying this. When you say that verification and sense-content are a type of bracket, that’s not Husserl at all. In fact, verification and sense-content would amount to a reification of the sense-content one comes to verify to the point that one will inevitably posit the general character of the natural attitude to take over all of explaining our experience. So for your Heideggerian inclinations, it would “conceal over” what can be shown forth. Verification is exclusionary as to what can be talked about at all and restricts the type of evidence one can talk about where all phenomenology seeks to legitimate more experiential considerations as evidence.

  2. ” Husserl’s 5th Meditation is on a completely different order than an epistemically situated subject that is typical of the problem of other minds. ”

    Fair enough, I’m certainly not a Husserl expert. Perhaps Husserl is considerably closer to Levinas than I was thinking. Maybe Heidegger’s anti-“problem of realism/idealism” is a better continental example of Ayer’s reductio ad absurdem of the problem of other minds. But, I’m not sure about this:

    “In fact, verification and sense-content would amount to a reification of the sense-content one comes to verify to the point that one will inevitably posit the general character of the natural attitude to take over all of explaining our experience.”

    There is an ambiguity here in “explaining our experience”. As for explaining the content of our experience, doesn’t verification and reduction work just fine? What other forms of explanation could give us knowledge (within the bracket) of the contents of our experience? If rather than the content of experience, you mean the form of experience itself, then sure, this is a phenomenological issue – and verification and reliabalism will fail horribly (see most of 20th century cognitive science).

    Anyway, thanks for commenting.

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