The Epistemological Problem of Other Minds and the Knowledge Asymmetry

European Journal of Philosophy 25 (4):1476-1495 (2017)


The traditional epistemological problem of other minds seeks to answer the following question: how can we know someone else's mental states? The problem is often taken to be generated by a fundamental asymmetry in the means of knowledge. In my own case, I can know directly what I think and feel. This sort of self-knowledge is epistemically direct in the sense of being non-inferential and non-observational. My knowledge of other minds, however, is thought to lack these epistemic features. So what is the basic source of my knowledge of other minds if I know my mind in such a way that I cannot know the minds of others? The aim of this paper is to clarify and assess the pivotal role that the asymmetry in respect of knowledge plays within a broadly inferentialist approach to the epistemological problem of other minds. The received dogma has always been to endorse the asymmetry for conceptual reasons and to insist that the idea of knowing someone else's mental life in the same way as one knows one's own mind is a complete non-starter. Against this, I aim to show that it is at best a contingent matter that creatures such as us cannot know other minds just as we know a good deal of our own minds and also that the idea of having someone else's mind in one's own introspective reach is not obviously self-contradictory. So the dogma needs to be revisited. As a result, the dialectical position of those inferentialists who believe that we know about someone else's mentality in virtue of an analogical inference will be reinforced.

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Michael Sollberger
University of Lausanne

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