Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Merleau-Ponty vs. Husserl on other minds

To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Merleau-Ponty vs. Husserl on other minds
Date: 14 August 2004 10:44

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your email of 1 August, with your second essay for the Associate program, in response to the question, 'Contrast Merleau-Ponty's account of how we know another person's mental state with the account given by Husserl in the 'Cartesian Meditations'.

This is a very good piece of work which is well up to the standard for the Associate award. I have a couple of suggestions for changes/ improvements. However, I will mainly be talking about philosophical issues raised for me by your essay. These should not be taken as criticisms but rather contributions to an on-going dialogue.

First, two issues. Husserl's 'Cartesian Meditations' is noticeably absent from the footnotes and bibliography. Given that the essay leans quite heavily on Kearney "Modern Movements in European Philosophy' and Smith 'Husserl and the Cartesian Meditations', an examiner will be looking for evidence that you have read both Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Citations from Husserl will gain a more credit than citations from a commentary on Husserl. This is something I strongly advise doing before you submit the essay as part of your portfolio.

The second issue is about the question. It would help to distinguish two, or possibly three linked questions:

(a) How we actually gain knowledge, or working knowledge, of another person's mental state - i.e. how do language, observation of physical actions, facial and bodily expressions all figure in the process of acquisition of our knowledge of others.

(b) How is it *possible* to have knowledge of another person's mental state. Here again there are two angles on this: the ordinary sceptical doubt that we can never be sure what another person is feeling (e.g. because they might be lying), or, (c) the more metaphysical worry that no amount of 'knowledge' in the ordinary sense is sufficient to prove that the other person is not a 'zombie' who merely speaks and behaves just like a person.

It might help to give some indication of what the problem really is here. It seems to me that we are concerned with the third problem.

An answer to (a) will not suffice because our problem is one of principle, not of details.

Nor are we concerned with (b). Scepticism of the 'it could always turn out that' variety (e.g. 'it could turn out that she is lying') applies generally to all fields of knowledge. E.g. a recorded delivery parcel arrived for me today which I *know* is from M. On second thoughts, it could always turn out that by coincidence someone else sent me a parcel of similar dimensions which I was not expecting.

Here is our predicament as Husserl sees it: here I am, with 'objects' and 'other persons' around me. 'Other persons' is just a label for certain kinds of objects which move in interesting ways. If one of these objects is crying out 'in pain', then an aspirin will reduce the noise. If one of these objects expresses the desire for an ice cream, then they will look in the fridge, and so on. I know I am more than this. But how do I place the 'extra something' in these other objects of my perception? What does it mean to do this? What am I seeing when I see the other person as being *in pain* and not merely 'in pain'?

Up until the point where Husserl discusses the question of other persons, he is arguably following in the footsteps of Kant's transcendental idealism. The self is the transcendental ego whose very identity over time depends on the perception of objects in space which are identified as not-self. That is Kant's, and Husserl's, position regarding the necessity that I experience my world as a world of objects in space outside me, rather than subjective experiences happening inside my own mind. But when we come to other persons, Husserl departs from the Kantian method. The other person is another 'transcendental ego' over there. I know this by analogy with my own case. And this looks incredibly weak.

What is Merleau-Ponty's position, in contrast to this? There is a point in your essay where it looks superficially as though Merleau-Ponty is also relying on a process of analogy: 'Just as I experience my body as a means of behaving, of manipulating things in the world, I experience other 'bodies' doing the same things in the same familiar way...'.

For Merleau-Ponty, other people as real individuals are in some sense 'already there' for me. Problem (c), the metaphysical problem of distinguishing real people from zombies does not arise because [...] (and now we have to fill in the blank: e.g. '...because I would not be real for myself if other people were not real for me').

So what work, exactly, is the account of other people 'doing the same things in the same familiar way' doing? Here's one way to investigate this using a thought experiment. Suppose as a baby you were kidnapped by aliens. Is it conceivable that, using their knowledge of human life, the aliens could somehow succeed in giving you something that passed for a human childhood and education (perhaps using specially designed robots), but all the while you have always aware that you are the only one of your kind, that every alien does similar things, but they are all doing different things from you? How would Merleau-Ponty respond?

(I don't know - and I'm not saying that you have to answer that question. It's just something to think about!)

I do have my own reasons for suspicion that Merleau-Ponty establishes the reality of others too easily. This has to do with the work of Emmanuel Levinas (see, e.g. his magnum opus 'Totality and Infinity' Alphonso Lignis tr Nijhoff 1979). - Read what Kearney has to say about this.

Possibly a topic to look at next?

All the best,

Geoffrey