August 09, 2012

Getting under their skin

This blog is in (partial) response to the latter part of David Cockburn’s comment on “What you see is what you grasp”. My thinking has been enriched through numerous discussions of the topic with my wife Merete. (She still disagrees with some of my claims.)
                      David writes:
(1) “the notion of a visual appearance does not need to come with any picture of it as a ‘mediator’ (in some, or all, perception); there is a respectable, everyday, use of such locutions (often closely linked with the notion of ‘seeing as’ as Wittgenstein discusses this.)”
I agree.
(2) “the urge to wonder what it is like for, say, someone with severe autism is, it seems to me, such a basic and significant form of concern for others I am reluctant to suppose that it rests on a philosophical confusion.”
Again, I agree. There is a serious task of trying to get clear about what life is like for someone with severe autism – or, for that matter, for someone who is blind, or has recently been widowed, or is physically disabled, or suffers from chronic pain, or is deeply in debt, etc. The seriousness of the task is bound up with the sense that these people suffer an affliction, that we have an obligation to share their burden if only in the sense of trying to be attentive to what life is like for them (or, as we might also put it: what life must be like for them). The seriousness of the task is also bound up with the sense that it is hard for us to imagine what things are like for them, partly because we may not wish to think about it, and partly because we lack the imagination to do so.
We may feel we have to get under their skin, that we should be able to share their “subjective experience”. Now this may be an intelligible way of setting out the nature of the task, and then again it may be misleading. I guess this may be why David speaks about the risk involved in trying to spell out how things appear to another.
What makes it so hard to get under someone’s skin? In order to get clear about this question, we should keep several ideas apart.
                      For one thing, there’s the idea of a metaphysical barrier between you and me, also known as solipsism: “It’s not just hard to imagine what life is like for another, it is impossible. In order to understand someone else’s affliction, I would have to be that person.”

Moderate solipsism
There are also more moderate forms of the idea that there’s something we can’t do: “I can imagine what things are like for another, but not entirely”, or “I can only imagine what things are like if I’ve been afflicted in the same way myself.” I think there are legitimate ways of talking of an inability here: one may be expressing a form of respect for what the other one is going through, bowing to his authority concerning his experience, or admitting that he’s the one who’s suffering. (On the other hand, if I’ve gone through the same affliction as the other, we may feel that this creates a bond between us, perhaps giving me the right to say: “I know what you’re going through.”)
I think we only resort to this form of discourse in connection with highly significant experiences.
(Perhaps we’ll say that his suffering can’t have as great a significance for us as it has for him. To this it can be retorted that in some cases, those close to a person may be more troubled by his affliction than he is himself.)
In these instances, we are not really addressing a philosophical issue about the imaginability of other people’s experience, but rather expressing a moral attitude*. Yet we may feel drawn to giving this attitude a metaphysical grounding, arguing that there is a limit in principle to how far we can get under someone’s skin.
(I’m not here addressing the difficulty the afflicted person may feel trying to communicate her experience to others. I touched on this in my earlier blog, “On trying to capture reality in language”.)

A genuine difficulty
I believe focusing on philosophical solipsism is liable to make us ignore a more genuine difficulty: the difficulty of getting an overview of the actual, specific problems of living with a particular affliction: what the pain does to you on an everyday basis, what activities are made impossible or unimaginably harder to carry out, etc.
I call this a genuine difficulty because it is not logically insuperable. Some people are better at this than others: say, Sarah may have an eye for the way Joe´s movements are hampered by his back pain, or she may have a sense for how the pain affects his moods. (This may or may not be connected with Sarah suffering or having suffered similar pains herself, or having been around someone who does.) Or she may be able to imagine the kinds of daily problems a deaf or blind person may face. Such abilities may be rare, but some people do have them, and one may get better at this. It is because of this that coming to terms with a person’s affliction may be a moral challenge to others.
(Solipsism, on the other hand, may serve as an alibi for not caring, while what I called moderate solipsism, on the contrary, may be an expression of care; one could imagine someone like Sarah combining her sensitivity with an attitude of not being able to get under Joe’s skin.)

The idea of a mental shortcut
I believe our jumbling together the different sorts of real or imaginary difficulties we experience in connection with other people’s afflictions may converge in an idea of the absolute inaccessibility of the other’s mind. How does all of this connect with my remarks about Gopnik and autism? I would contend that the wish to picture another’s life from the inside, as it were, goes hand in hand with solipsism. The “inside picture” is what we believe we could see if we could get into the other person’s mind. The idea is that, if we could only do this, then the other would be comprehensible. (We could understand the other “as she does herself”, we think. But  to what extent is “understanding” an adequate term for a person’s relation to her own predicament?*)
                      In other words, we would have a shortcut to the other person’s life, we could then see all the difficulties involved in her affliction at a glance. This, I believe, is the illusion. There can be no shortcuts;  for one reason because coming to understand the other requires a moral deepening.
                      (I wish to mention an excellent treatment of related issues by Benjamin Tilghman in his essay “What is it Like to be an Aardvark?” – a spoof of Thomas Nagel’s well-known essay  “What is it Like to be a Bat?” – in Philosophy 66 (1991), 325-338.)

P.S. I have marked with asterisks points concerning which my wife is particularly hesitant.


  1. I wonder if there is a general problem here with other minds, or just a family of problems. I mean, it seems to me there are many differences here to consider. There is a difference, for instance, between trying to understand what having a certain pain FEELS like, and what having a certain pain IS like. There might also be a difference between trying to understand what it is like to have a certain pain, and what it is like to believe in God (suppose someone was born into a completely atheist society)--a difference between trying to understand another’s particular experience, and trying to understand another’s mode of living. And it may also be puzzling for someone who used to be a believer but is not any longer that she was. Is this still a case in point? (It is not a case of trying to understand another’s mind, but it seems to me to belong in this family of issues.) If this case is allowed, then maybe we can also regard as relevant cases where we discover in ourselves--not our past selves, but our present selves--things that we are surprised by: like discovering that we are disgusted by a certain gesture someone made, or that we can still get so angry with our mother when she pries into our personal business, even after all these years. Is this still asking the same question we started with? And if there is a change of topic, is the change warranted? And of course, there might also be questions here about the difference between understanding a human mind, and understanding a dog’s mind (or a bat, or an aardvark).

    One thing I think I like about the idea of thinking about this matter as a family of matters, is that when we think about it this way, it makes it easier for us (for me at least) to attend the particulars of what it would actually take to get in contact with another mind, to understand, to empathize. It thus may help to dispel the metaphysical mystery of other minds; or better: it restores the right mysteries.

    But how does the case of autism fits into this? Might there be something extra difficult about this case of other minds? There seem to me to be something to be said for the idea that the autistic person is more foreign to us than, for instance, the religious person is to the non-religious, or the wealthy is to the poor, or the sick is to the healthy. I’m not sure how to think of this, though. Would it be an apt description of the difficulty here that this case seems to us to go beyond the scope of the human, or below that scope?

  2. Yes, I strongly agree: the so-called problem of other minds really involves a family of cases, and this (or rather, the failure to consider cases one by one) contributes to making the problem seem intractable. A different way of putting the point is to say that what constitutes a problem of understanding varies with the context in which the problem is felt to arise. Solipsism, on the other hand, seems to assume that there is a question of understanding that is quite independent of context.
    It might be added that the fact that problems of understanding arise in a context doesn’t mean that they are always *specific*. There is also the kind of reaction we might put by saying “I simply don’t understand *him*”, without this necessarily boiling down to any particular range of puzzling things. (Here we might talk about understanding – or rather not understanding – as a two-part rather than three-part relation.)
    Questioning the meaningfulness of solipsism doesn’t mean questioning the fact that there are cases in which we may say, about an individual, that we find him utterly incomprehensible. (However, a solipsist would simply respond that remarks like that are trivially true, and that is not the case.)
    Concerning autism, you ask: “Would it be an apt description of the difficulty here that this case seems to us to go beyond the scope of the human, or below that scope?” I’m a bit hesitant about going along with this, partly because I don’t know enough about autism, and partly because phrases like “beyond / below the human” seem to carry a lot of philosophical baggage that I would prefer not to have to handle.

  3. Many thanks for that.

    I want to ask about what you say about the solipsist: Is it open to the solipsist to say that “I don’t understand him” is correct? You say that the solipsist would say that it is trivially correct; but can she even allow that it is meaningful? I mean, it seems to me part of the problem with the solipsist is that there is unclarity about her conception of ‘understanding another’; it is not clear she has any to begin with. For, it seems, the solipsist doesn’t just want to say that we cannot understand others, but that there is no such thing as understanding others in the first place--that the concept is somehow confused. But then it is not clear anymore what she is trying to deny. Am I wrong about that?

    I also would like to ask about something else you say. You say that this generalized failure to understand you talk of (“She is a complete mystery to me”) is not something specific. Do you mean that it is not a failure to understand something in particular about them, or do you mean that it is not a specific kind of failure to understand?

    To clarify, I think we can experience generalized forms of inability to understand, for instance, when someone is from a different culture, or has a strange personality. In both those cases I can imagine there being a kind of general wonder about this person’s motivations and beliefs and so on. But in both cases, I tend to think, the failure to understand has a particular shape, a particular grammar. And if so, then it is a specific kind of failure. Am I wrong about that?

    I don’t sense much difficulty about the idea that we may fail to understand another when the failure is not a failure in regards to something specific about them. But I am having difficulty with the idea of a failure to understand that is not a particular kind of failure. If I’m right about that, this leaves us with the idea of an unspecific form of failure to understand another. And I’m not sure what to do with this idea--if it’s useful or not, if it can characterize some sort of interpersonal encounter or not. Perhaps this: Perhaps sometimes our failure to understand someone is so great that we don’t only fail to understand them, but also fail to understand our own failure to understand them. And maybe this latter failure is something we can be aware of, while having no clue as to what to do to overcome it, or what understanding them could possibly come to.

    I’m saying this partly with the autistic person in mind--I’m very intrigued by the topic you raised--as if encounters like this can put us up against, not only the limits of our own specific ability to understand others, but up against the very absolute limits of our own humanity: the limits of what human understanding can in principle be, and what sharing the world with others can in principle come to. – Possibly this also means that the grammar of “I can’t understand him because he’s from another culture” is very different from “I can’t understand him because he’s autistic,” despite the surface similarity.

    I hope I didn’t go too much off topic.

    1. As for what you say about the kind of situation in which we say “I don’t understand him”, we may not be very far apart. This kind of expression, too, as you say, has its grammar (or maybe a range of grammars). I’m not sure whether I should like to speak about a “generalized” lack of understanding, though, since that seems to indicate that it is an attitude one arrives at in consequence of a number of particular failures to understand. And it doesn’t have to be like that. There’s the case in which we say “I don’t know what makes him tick”, or “I don’t understand what’s in it for him”, where the problem is not that he is enigmatic or unpredictable, or that we can’t make sense of his words, or that we don’t know how to address him, as much as the fact that we feel distant from his whole approach to life. He’s one great puzzle – that’s how we feel like expressing our attitude towards him – which doesn’t necessarily mean that he presents a large number of small puzzles.

      The following picture might suggest itself: our capacity for understanding can be presented by means of a sequence of concentric circles. In middle am I, whom I understand perfectly, the next circle comprises my family and my close friends, then normal people in my own culture, then members of other cultures, then (in whatever order one deems fit), infants, animals, people who are severely disturbed. I don’t believe you accept this picture (in fact, in what you say about being puzzled by oneself you makes it clear that you reject it), yet some of the things you say seem to carry remnants of it. Be that as it may, it may be helpful as an exercise to ask oneself what is wrong with the picture. I can think of three things:
      (1) One’s relation to oneself is not a paradigm of what it means to understand someone. Not only because I may be a puzzle to myself, but also because, with regard to the things about myself that do not puzzle me, it would be strange to say that I *understand* myself. (“I understand myself” is not a very common locution.)
      (2) The idea of what determines the order between the circles is obscure. If my family is close to me, is that because we tend to be similarly constituted, or because I am familiar with them, or because we stand in interactive relationships? And so on for the rest of the circles. Clearly, these different parameters may crisscross: I know my dog better than my neighbour, members of my culture may feel totally alien to me, etc. (Cp. e.g. Peter Winch’s remarks about English football hooligans, in “Can We Understand Ourselves?”, *Philosophical Investigations* 20 (1997), 193-204.)
      (3) It makes no sense to compare my relation to any category of beings in terms of the degree to which I understand them or am puzzled by them. The claim to understand or not to understand someone or something is normally made against a background of requirements and expectations. There are ways in which a good friend may be a puzzle to me in which I would never be puzzled by a bat or an aardvark. I might not think that my sibling is a riddle *unless* he/she were my sibling. Etc.

      On the whole, I would contend that the idea of characterizing a certain category of people in terms of their being easy or difficult to understand independently of context, doesn’t make much sense.

  4. About the solipsist: I agree that it isn’t quite clear what the solipsist is claiming, or denying. Part of the problem is that there aren’t many self-confessed solipsists around. Rather, we (I) use the word “solipsism” to indicate the kind of position to which people (in many cases non-philosophers), whether they realize it or not, commit themselves when they point to the actual difficulties we may have in finding our feet with others, or sharing their afflictions, etc. *as evidence of an absolute barrier* to the understanding of others. The suggestion that is being made is that once you invoke this absolute barrier you are committed to denying that we can *ever* be justified in attributing *any* kinds of feelings, thoughts, etc to another. (If the barrier is indeed absolute, it cannot be limited to certain contexts.) And, if we follow through along that line of thought, that would mean that the whole idea of understanding another becomes unintelligible. Which in fact means that we have lost hold of the difficulty we started out with – the intractablity of the problem of understanding others can no longer be expressed.

    But this, I suppose, is a conclusion our interlocutor does not wish to draw. She is caught in a dilemma: on the one hand, she wants to insist that there may be intractable problems of understanding, and on the other hand, she does not want to surrender the idea that there is such a thing as understanding another. And the way out, I suppose, is to look closely at the sorts of thing people are actually trying to say when they speak of the impossibility of understanding another in this or that particular situation. The sense of an impossibility actually arises from situations of life, not from philosophical speculation.

    I think we are both agreed on this.

    1. I am not certain what is your answer to your question in relation to Gopnik: ‘Wrong goal or wrong method?’ But I think you lean clearly towards: ‘wrong goal’. You suggested earlier (16/7/12) that she makes the assumption that ‘the way human beings appear to people with autism has to differ from how they appear to others, since it is through their appearance that it is given to those others, and is not given to people with autism, that what they all see are human beings’. I take the implication to be that it is only a philosophical mistake that will lead one to suppose that the way human beings appear to people with autism differs from how they appear to others: and so only a philosophical mistake that will lead one to adopt Gopnik’s goal. But if that is your view (and, as I say, I may have you wrong here), I remain unconvinced.

      You remark that: ‘the seeing-that locutions generally give a more direct expression to how my seeing bears on my activities. My seeing the red traffic light explains my stopping the car only provided I saw that there was a red traffic light.’ That is true I think – at least, on a natural reading of the term ‘activities’. But where we are dealing with things gestured at by Wittgenstein’s phrase ‘fine shades of behaviour’ matters are, I think, different. I may see that someone is angry (I have been told that he drums his fingers when he is angry) without being able to see anger in his face or hear it in his voice; I may see that this Chinese woman is smiling warmly at me (I know that this is how they do it) without being able to see the warmth (or perhaps even the smile). Following a way Wittgenstein articulates this: I am not at home with this way of taking what I am confronted with – and this may well show in an absence of ease with which I relate to the other. (There is, I think, an interesting contrast within ‘direct-object’ seeing locutions. As a general rule we can say that someone saw the queen without any implication that he recognised her as such; whereas this is not so in the case in which we say he saw the queen’s smile. Similarly with ‘saw the book’ and ‘saw the book’s colour’. But I’m not sure just how clear this point is, or whether it this has any bearing on this discussion.)

      I take it that an observant and determined individual with severe autism (such as Temple Grandin, the woman Sacks speaks of) may become pretty proficient at seeing that others are friendly, angry, and so on. What such a person still can’t do is see, or hear, the other’s friendliness or anger. And that is to say: the way human beings appear to people with autism differs from how they appear to others.

      And suppose that we tried to characterize how people appear to them by saying: ‘They appear to them just as Chinese faces appear to us’, or ‘Other faces appear to them flat, uniform and expressionless’. Certainly such characterisations could be misunderstood – could be developed in inappropriate directions. (For us, an ‘expressionless’ face, expressionless over an extended period or in particular contexts, is disturbing in a way that is not a possibility for one with severe autism.) But the fact that the description could be taken up in an inappropriate way does not, in itself, indicate that there is anything wrong with it.

    2. You’re quite right to draw attention to a distinction I was inclined to overlook: the distinction between saying, e.g., “He saw that the queen was smiling” and “He saw the queen’s smile”. There are cases in which we might say the former but not the latter – and you also suggest that the latter is not to be assimilated to some other kinds of direct-object expressions.
      One way, and I suppose the normal way, of seeing that the queen is smiling would consist in (1) seeing the smile. But the case might be one in which (2) I have learnt to judge her expression without really seeing it that way myself.
      How could I learn? Maybe by being told by others who knew her better, or by learning to recognize the expression she would have in certain circumstances, e.g. when greeting visitors, paying someone a compliment, watching children opening presents, or the like.
      (I guess the distinction between (1) and (2) is unstable in the sense that (2) would normally develop into (1) with time.)
      How would the difference come out? I believe in the way you suggest: in fine nuances of behaviour. Say, the response of someone who can’t see the smile won’t be as immediate and finely attuned to the occasion as that of someone who does. Like the difference between a fluent reader and someone who was learning to read, perhaps. Another difference might be that I do not feel warmed or reassured by the smile I cannot directly experience.
      You suggest that this distinction would bear on how we might think about the way someone with autism experiences people. I.e. they might learn to tell that someone is smiling, but not to see their smile. This may well be right. (Or is it that they would have a much harder time than others learning to see smiles? I don’t know.)
      You propose that one might say about people with autism: “Other faces appear to them flat, uniform and expressionless”, though you admit that that might be developed in inappropriate directions. I’d prefer to say: “To them faces don’t appear interesting, varied or expressive.” I.e. drawing attention to an absence rather than a presence.