Skepticism Unrefuted: Strawson, Stroud and Other Minds


1. Introduction 
Prof. Stroud uses P.F. Strawson's "Persons" to refute
skepticism about other minds. But does the refutation
succeed? I doubt it. Strawson is correct that "in order to
ascribe experiences to oneself in the way that one does,
one must 'also ascribe them (or be prepared to ascribe
them) other others who are not oneself,'" but his analysis
of the meaning of "person" doesn't follow. And even if it
did, Strawson's work is completely irrelevant to the
problem of other minds: for all that he does is provide a
conceptual analysis of "person" without proving that the
concept has any real-world referents other than oneself -
hence skepticism remains untouched. Put another way, before
one could know that there were other persons, one would
first have to know that they had minds. Hence to use the
concept of a person to solve the problem of other minds, in
Hume's famous words, "must be evidently going in a circle,
and taking that for granted, which is the very point in
2. Strawson on Ascription of Mental Predicates 

Strawson states that if we ascribe mental predicates to
ourselves, we must at least "be prepared" to ascribe them
to others. "It means, for example, that the ascribing
phrases should be used in just the same sense when the
subject is another, as when the subject is oneself. The
dictionaries do not give two sets of meanings for every
expression which describes a state of consciousness."2 And
presumably, since we do in fact ascribe mental predicates
to ourselves, we must in fact be prepared to ascribe them
to others. I see no objection. Strawson's troubles begin
once he tries to use this principle to establish that the
concept of a person is "primitive." Let us first hear the
argument in his own words: "[1] one can ascribe states of
consciousness to oneself only if one can ascribe them to
others; [2] one can ascribe them to others only if one can
identify other subjects of experience; [3] and one cannot
identify others if one can identify them only as subjects
of experience."3 (numbers mine) Unfortunately, there is a
major equivocation here. When Strawson says that one "can
ascribe states of consciousness" does he mean that it is
logically possible to do so? Or does he think that it must
be possible in fact? On either meaning, the argument
doesn't work. If Strawson means logical possibility, then
premise #3 is incorrect. It is at least conceivable that
someone could have the ability to identify other minds only
as subjects of experience - with telepathy, perhaps. It
would be hard to argue that it is logically impossible to
notice others' mental states without noticing their bodies.
Or suppose that we interpret Strawson the other way. Now
premise #1 seems dubious. Isn't it at least possible that I
am empirically able to pick out myself, but lack the
faculties to pick out others? Indeed, this is precisely
what the other-minds-skeptic is saying: You can know that
you're conscious, but not that anyone else is. So on either
reading the argument fails. I think that Strawson's
initial premise is unobjectionable: if it is meaningful to
say that I am conscious, then it is meaningful to say that
you are conscious. But this hardly shows that I am able to
know if you are conscious; it only shows that it is
meaningful to assert it. And the empirical possibility
remains that I am quite able to know if I am conscious,
even though I could never tell if you were. Unfortunately,
Strawson appears to equivocate later in the argument,
leading him to think that it is somehow illogical to affirm
knowledge of oneself and deny knowledge of others. But if
we read the initial premise strictly (and take seriously
his "dictionary" argument) then we see that it discusses
nothing but the meanings of mental predicates, not our
ability to locate their presence in ourselves or others. 
3. Persons and Other Minds To his credit, Strawson does
not explicitly claim that his analysis of the concept of
persons solves the problem of other minds. But Prof. Stroud
apparently does, and perhaps Strawson thinks that his
analysis helps. This section will show that even if
Strawson's analysis of person were completely correct, his
article doesn't take us any closer to a solution to the
skeptical problem of other minds. Strawson argues that
the concept of a person is "primitive." As he puts it, "The
concept of a person is not to be analyzed as that of an
animated body or an embodied anima."4 At first, this might
seem to solve the problem of other minds. If the concept of
a person - an entity with both mental and physical aspects
- is coherent, and if the concepts of a mindless body or a
disembodied mind are incoherent, then the problem is indeed
solved. The skeptic might ask, "How do you know that these
creatures around you aren't just bodies without any mental
life?" And Strawson, on this interpretation, could reply,
"The concept of a person can't be so analyzed; your notion
of a mindless body is incoherent." Put more formally: 1.
The concept of a person - an entity with both mental and
physical attributes, is coherent. 2. The concepts of a
body without a mind and a mind without a body are
incoherent. 3. Therefore, any body you see must also be a
person, i.e., must also have mental states. Now this
argument would follow from the premises and would solve the
problem of other minds. However, Strawson explicitly
contradicts this argument. "This is not to say that the
concept of a pure individual consciousness might not have a
logically secondary existence, if one thinks, or finds, it
desirable. We speak of a dead person - a body - and in the
same secondary way we might at least think of a disembodied
person, retaining the logical benefit of individuality from
having been a person."5 This is a plain denial of premise
#2. At this point I am reminded of one of Stroud's points
on the problem of induction. Suppose, he asked, that we try
to solve the problem by just saying, "By bread I mean
something that nourishes." Why is wrong with this solution?
Well, previously, I could know that the stuff in front of
me was bread, but I couldn't know if it would nourish me.
After I re-define bread, I can be certain that "bread" will
nourish me, but I have no idea whether the stuff in front
of me is bread. Stroud's attempt to use Strawson's
concept of a person to solve the problem of other minds
faces exactly the same problem. We wonder whether the
people around us have mental states, but seem to have no
easy way to know for sure. Then Strawson comes along, and
defines "person" as "An entity with both physical and
mental attributes." Can we now conclude that the creatures
around us have mental states? No. At this point, we no
longer know whether the creatures around us are really
persons. We have a choice of two sorts of ignorance: we can
either know that the creatures around us are persons, but
not whether all persons are conscious; or we can know that
all persons are conscious, but not whether the creatures
around us are persons. Neither route solves the problem of
other minds. As I noted above, there is one way to make
the argument valid. If the very concept of an automaton
were incoherent, then the creatures in front of us would
have to be persons (i.e., entities with both physical and
mental attributes). Logically, every body either has mental
attributes or it doesn't. If the latter option is
incoherent, then the former is the only remaining
possibility. A parallel argument might be to say that the
very idea of something that looks like bread but doesn't
nourish is incoherent. We would then have to admit that
everything that looks like bread also nourishes. 
Unfortunately, this argument is very difficult to make. As
Hume argued, "To form a clear idea of any thing, is an
undeniable argument for its possibility, and is alone a
refutation of any pretended demonstration against it."6 We
need not agree with Hume completely to see his point: if we
have a clear idea of something, then we can't show that it
is impossible by definition.7 And the concepts of automata
and spirit seem to fit the pattern well. We can imagine
clearly that such things exist, so the concepts must be
coherent. Anyway, Strawson concedes this point. He admits
that the concepts of a body without a mind and a mind
without a body are coherent. So suppose that he notices a
body walking over to him and wants to know whether it is
conscious. How does his analysis of a "person" help? I
don't see how it does. If the body is a person, it is
conscious; if it is an automata, it isn't. But is the
creature a person or an automata? In order to tell, we
would first have to ascertain whether it is conscious. So
the analysis of a person is beside the point. Indeed, we
could also make the same argument about a spirit. Since the
concepts of a person and a disembodied spirit are both
coherent, how would we know what we are? If I am a person,
then I have a body; if I am a disembodied spirit, then I
don't. So before I could know if I were a person, I would
first have to know that I had a body. But this is the very
thing that someone like Descartes wants proof of - and for
Strawson to answer him, he would have to assume the very
thing in question. Perhaps Strawson would point out that
he said that the concepts of automata and spirit are
"logically secondary." Well, suppose that they were. They
may be logically secondary to the concept of a person; but
nevertheless, mightn't automata and spirits exist even
though persons don't? Suppose, for example, that we said
that the concept of an "orphan" has a logically secondary
existence; it is meaningful only in relation to other
concepts such as "parent." It would be illogical for
someone to accept the concept of "orphan" but not of
"parent." Nevertheless, in the real world, isn't it
possible for there to be nothing but orphans without a
single parent among them? If so, why would it matter if one
concept is "logically secondary" to the other? Empirically,
one can exist without the other; hence, knowing the logical
relations among the concepts doesn't tell you anything
about what you will find in the real world. In all
fairness to Strawson, his thesis does undermine one form of
skepticism about other minds. One such version argues that
it is meaningless to say that other people are conscious,
since all mental concepts derived from our own
introspection. One might call this "definitional skepticism
about other minds," since it argues that ascribing mental
states to others is impossible by definition. Strawson's
view - that if we ascribe mental predicates to ourselves,
we must also be prepared to ascribe them to others -
strongly undermines this version of skepticism. However,
the kind of skepticism that Stroud brought up was quite
different: it wasn't skepticism about whether it was
meaningful to ascribe mental predicates to others; it was
skepticism about whether we could verify the admittedly
meaningful claim that other people have mental states. And
for this kind of skepticism about other minds, Strawson is
no help at all. 
4. Conclusion Since Strawson never claims that he solves
the problem of other minds with his analysis of "person,"
it would be unfair to criticize him for failing to do so.
Stroud, in contrast, cannot escape criticism so easily; for
he certainly argued that Strawson's article helped solve
the problem of other minds. The really crucial question is
this: Granted the analysis of "person," isn't the concept
of an automata equally meaningful? And if so, what progress
against skepticism have we made? We could only know that
the other bodies around us were persons if we first knew
that they had minds. If we do know that, Strawson's
analysis isn't necessary; and if don't know that, then his
analysis won't help. Stroud's use of Strawson's article
is particular strange in light of his earlier, incisive
critique of the attempt to solve the problem of induction
by re-definition. It doesn't help to define a person as
"possessing both mental and physical attributes." Why?
Because that doesn't tell us whether the creature in front
of us is "really" a person. In order to know that he was,
we would first have to know that he had mental attributes.
And this is precisely what the skeptic wants us to
establish: namely, whether the creatures around us have
mental attributes. Stroud's use of Strawson to solve the
problem of other minds is viciously circular; and the error
is quite hard to forgive since Stroud himself thoroughly
refuted parallel solutions to the problem of induction.
Notes 1: David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding, p.23. 2: P.F. Strawson, "Persons," p.134. 3:
ibid, pp.134-135. 4: ibid, p.137. 5: ibid. 6: David Hume, A
Treatise of Human Nature, p.89. 7: As I argued in my
previous papers (Bryan Caplan, "A Enquiry Concerning Hume's
Misunderstanding," and idem, "Underived Knowledge: An
Answer to Skepticism About Induction and the External
World"), Hume leaves out the possibility that pure reason
may do something other than merely locate the presence or
absence of self- contradictions. Thus, even though
examining definitions with our reason will never tell us
about the world, turning our reason to the world itself
often does inform us about it -- e.g., by grasping the law
of cause-and-effect or logical laws. Similarly, just
because something isn't impossible by definition doesn't
imply that reason alone couldn't tell us that it were
impossible by some sort of non-definitional reasoning. 

Quotes: Search by Author