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.)
(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.)”
(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.”
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.