Empathy and Other Minds: Autism and Solipsism

The classical philosophical problem of other minds has been replaced with the cognitive tasks of mindreading, simulating worlds and minds, and, more particularly, accounting for false belief. More about these latter in the post on Empathy and Analogy devoted to these topics. Less attention has been paid to the contribution of empirical results and methods in addressing other minds, since it is supposed to be a conceptual issue. The philosopher forgets that empirical experience can point to conceptual distinctions that have been overlooked; that the conceptual joints at which experience is carved up by our ways of bringing into language (“languaging”) shared and vicarious experiences can sometimes highlight or hide particularly relevant conceptual distinctions; and even occasionally where yesterday’s science fiction becomes today’s empirical results, annoyingly impacting the boundary between the imaginable and the actual. For example, advances in biological cloning may present issues of personal identity and Philip K. Dick’s negative fantasy of the future posits that lack of empathy is one way of distinguishing artificial clones from real animate organisms.[1] With that in mind, to the best of my knowledge, little work has been done on empathizing with the skeptic who has doubts about other minds. Yes, that’s right, empathizing with the skeptic. That will be the goal and the argument of this essay.

The classical philosophical problem of other minds resonates between two absurdities. The first that the one individual is so much alike the other that the one is the other. This is the thesis of identity, the position that devolves into solipsism, the solus ipse, the alone self. No man is an island; but there is only one island, a mystical one. Individuals merge together in the mystical, identical proposition “I am you.” The second absurdity is that one individual is so different from the other that the two individuals have no access to interrelation with one another. Every man (person) is an island, one irretrievably disconnected and the abyssal depths between the two are an unbridgeable ontological distance too far. This is the thesis of difference: “I am I; and you are you” and never the twain shall meet. Ironically this position ends up being solipsistic, too, as no method of access to the other is adequate to the situation. If one frames the other individual as being so transparently revealed in its original kernel of self-existence that one experiences the world just the same way that the other experiences the world, then the distinction between oneself and the other collapses and the absurdity that the one is the other results. If the other is framed as being so inaccessible that one is separated from the other by the abyss of an absolute difference of unrelated distance, the one is condemned to an unintelligible isolation, which ultimately succeeds in annulling one’s own egoistic awareness – the one who says “I” – in so far as one cannot even be oneself unless another is with one. To this degree the problem of one’s relation to the other has the form of what Immanuel Kant called an antinomy – an unavoidable conflict of reason with itself that originates in the structure and application of reason to experience and our lack of experience. In this case, the antinomy is that of identity and difference. The persistence of the problem of other minds suggests that there is a dimension of dialectical illusion to it. The existence of so many solutions, ranging from introspective approaches to behaviorist ones, may be a symptom that the underlying problematic has ambiguities that remain unresolved.[2] Benefits are available in bringing the problem solving power of Kant’s transcendental dialectic to bear on one of the recalcitrant conundrums of modern philosophy. The truth of solipsism is that one remains different form the other even as a necessary condition of interacting with the other. One retains a kernel of distinctiveness – individual spontaneity and autonomy – that remains unshareable and conditions the possibility of meaningful exchange between individuals. On the other hand, the poverty of solipsism is to ignore the degree to which all individuals go through experiences that basically belong to the same common (“universal”) types in being born, struggling to grow up, working to survive and bring forth child in a family unit in a community, growing old, and dying. The enormous variety of ways in which these core experiences are storied and given meaning in the context of language communities, cultures, and social organizations is a significant area of study in its own right.

Of course, invoking Kant’s skeptical method – to be distinguished from skeptical results – points in the direction of Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy as a kind of therapy as well as Heidegger’s statement that the scandal is that such questions as the existence of the external world were raised in the first place.[3] In the spirit of such methods, three therapeutic approaches to engaging the skeptic’s doubts about other minds will be applied.

First, we will try empathizing with the skeptic in the interest of understanding what he really wants. Reiterated doubts will be treated as a symptom of an underlying conflict. If the desire turns out to be something that can be addressed, even if unreasonably, then progress will have been made in identifying the form of therapy required. If the desire turns out to be something that is impossible, then progress will also have been made in mapping the scope of the dis-ease – what makes us uneasy about other minds – from the inside. However, we will have established the hope in the skeptic that we can address his requirement. In other words, a transference – a reenactment in the psychoanalytic sense of the original breakdown – will have been established such that the skeptic’s desire can be represented as being fulfilled. The task will then be to interpret the meaning of the transference in such a way to transform the skeptic’s position from isolation to interrelation without thereby necessarily fulfilling an inherently unfulfillable desire.

The second response will be to tell a story that incorporates the unfulfilled desire and makes sense out of the skeptic’s experience as a fellow in a community of fellow travelers. This will address skeptical doubts that he is in pain and is alone and in pain.

Finally, if story telling does not create a state of calm quiescience, then the heroic alternative is to radicalize the problem. Notwithstanding the Kantian clue that other minds turns on ambiguities of reasoning about other minds, Edmund Husserl tried to solve the problem in the 5th book of his Cartesian Meditations. What has been little noted is that the step-by-step constitution of the other individual out of one’s sphere of ownness maps remarkably closely to the recovery of the mind of the autistic individual in milieu therapy. In short, the proposal is to join the skeptic in the extreme situation of his skeptical situation and to model a therapeutic process of recovery on the extreme situation of the autistic individual. The result is to join him in his skeptical hell (or at least so it seems to any normal philosopher if not the skeptic) and to persuade him to climb out together.

The logic is relatively simple though the details are not. The argument of this post is that autism as a so-called mental illness is an implementation of skepticism about other minds. Indeed autism radicalizes solipsism in a very specific way, so that the autistic individual becomes the ultimate solipsist to the point of a reduction to absurdity. But the absurdity is not the end, not the refutation. It is just the beginning. Autism stands skepticism on its head, and the solipsist is the ultimate autistic individual. We turn now to the details of the argument –>CHEmpathyAndOtherMinds20080901


[1] The movie Blade Runner is based on the novella “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (1968) in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.

[2] In the continental tradition, the classical statement of the problem is to be found in E. Husserl, Cartesian Meditations(1931), tr. D. Cairns, the Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973; also E. Stein, On the Problem of Empathy (1917), tr. W. Stein, the Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970, (Zum Problem der Einfühlung, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Freiburg, 1917); M. Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy (1922), tr. P. Heath, Hamden, CN: Archon Books, 1979, (Späte Schriften in Gesammelte Werke, ed. M. Scheler and M. Frings, Vol. 9, Bern: Franke Publishing, 1976); in the analytic tradition, the exchange between J. Wisdom (“Symposium: Other Minds” (1946) in Other Minds, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968: 206-229) and J.L. Austin (“Other Minds (1946)” in Classics in Analytic Philosophy, ed. R.R. Ammerman, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965: 353-78) defines the terms of the debate, but did not lay it to rest. For example, see D. Davidson, “The Irreducibility of the Concept of Self” (1998) in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001: 85-91;T. Nagel, The View From Nowhere (1986), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986 and J. Searle Intentionality: an Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[3] L. Wittgenstein, (1945), Philosophical Investigations, Tr. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1953: ¶ (paragraph) 133; M. Heidegger, (1927), Being and Time, Tr. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962: 249, H205; (Section 43(a)).

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Categories: autism, Einfühlung, Empathy, Intentionality, Other Minds, Psychoanalysis, Self

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2 replies

  1. Empathy and Other Minds is an engaging idea. That philosophical skepticism where the skeptical philosopher doubts the existence of other people – others are some kind of automaton – does resemble a psychological disorder – think of the extreme isolation of certain forms of autism – think of the isolation of the schizophrenic mind of such celebrity paranoid people as Daniel Paul Schreber, Antonin Artaud, or Ezra Pound. THey are speaking an attenuated form of truth of extreme isolation – solus ipse – solipsism. Along those same lines I just watched the DVD video Refrigerator Mothers from Kartemquin Films – a moving portrayal of what not to do in treating forms of autism – do not blame [one of] the victims – do not blame the mother. http://www.lapavoni.it/versions.asp

    • Thank you for your thoughtful contribution. Much appreciated. If you are interested in further exploring the issues of diagnosable mental disorders and extreme philosophical positions such as radical skepticism and doubts about other minds, then check out the works of Louis B. Saas such as Madness and Modernity and his book on Schreber and Wittgenstein. Very original. Very innovative.

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