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Video: Other minds
Duration: 00:24:28
Date: 21-02-1973
Portrait photograph of Dr. Anita Avramides, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oxford and St Hilda's College, Oxford.
Image : Dr. Anita Avramides
Date: 2021

Other Minds


This video is a classic and still very relevant today. The position defended by Ayer, or something closely related to it, continues to be dominant in analytic philosophy. Vesey struggles to identify an alternative.

What exactly is the problem here? Vesey begins by formulating it in terms of the reference of words. This not only reflects the ordinary language of the times, but also the influence of Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Note that Ayer accepts a (Cartesian) starting point:  words like “pain” and “sadness” stand for something I experience inwardly. And Ayer points out how this connects to a problem about my right to believe that anyone else has experiences. Vesey rejects this starting point - but he is less clear about the alternative. Ayer presses Vesey on several key points: he insists that the (radical) sceptic can raise his question, and he gets Vesey to admit that behaviourism is to be rejected. Ayer then presses – and presses – Vesey to say what he takes the relationship between mental states and behaviour to be. Vesey struggles. According to Ayer, the relationship here is inductive: all we observe in the case of others is (e.g.) water falling from their eyes. That my child, for example, is in pain is a “useful theory” – something that helps me to make sense of her behaviour.

Vesey seems a little stunned by Ayer’s capacity to ‘bite the bullet’. He points out that what Ayer says is contrary to common sense. In response, Ayer reveals that he “doesn’t care tuppence” if it turns out that his views are at odds with common sense. And herein lies at least part of the problem. Ayer is the man who brought logical positivism to Britain, and his allegiance is to science. Vesey, following Wittgenstein, aims to align himself with common sense. As this video reveals, the scientific standpoint can prove easier to defend.

So where does philosophy go from here? Despite the continued dominance of Ayer’s position (consider the argument from best explanation), some today defend a perceptual account: I can just see that my child is in pain. Philosophers like John McDowell and others have taken the line Vesey tried to defend and have developed it in the direction of such a perceptual account. The rejection of Ayer’s position, and the formulation of a viable alternative, is still a work in progress for analytic philosophers thinking about other minds in the 21st century.

Anita Avramides

Anita Avramides is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oxford and St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.


Related videos and essays (all links open in a new window):

  • Mind and Brain: Charles Taylor and Anthony Quinton discuss the mind-body problem.
    Accompanying essay by Tim Crane.
  • Free Will: Geoffrey Warnock and psychologist B. F. Skinner discuss free will and determinism.
    Accompanying essay by Daniel C. Dennett
  • The Concept of Mind: Gilbert Ryle and Susan Haack discuss Ryle’s work on the mind.
    Accompanying essay by Susan Haack.
  • Perception: Rodney Hirst and Alan White discuss perception.
    Accompanying essay by Ian Phillips.
  • Personal Identity: Sidney Shoemaker and Hywell Lewis discuss the question of identity. Accompanying essay by Amy Kind.

Debates and Discussions (page 4 of 14)