10.   Ayn Rand and Other Minds

By Paul Vanderveen

May 22, 1998

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Many thinkers have regarded knowledge of other people's mental processes as inferred, not direct. Bill Stoddard (May 7) challenges this position, claiming that it leads to skepticism. "Other minds can be known to exist," he writes, "in the same way that physical objects can be known to exist, by perception."

He draws upon Ayn Rand's ideas about axioms and appears to be suggesting that he is carrying on with her work, extending her anti-skeptical approach into a new realm, but his analysis suffers from a significant problem. He labors under the false impression that she did not "address the question of knowledge of other minds at all."

What were her views? Where does the truth regarding knowledge of one's own and other minds lie?

"An individual's consciousness, as such, is inaccessible to others," she wrote; "it is only when mental processes reach some form of expression in action that they become perceivable (by inference)" ("The Psychology of 'Psychologizing,'" The Objectivist, 10, emphasis added). She described the units of the concept of consciousness as "every state or process of awareness that one experiences, has ever experienced or will ever experience." She also included, parenthetically, "similar units, a similar faculty, which one infers in other living entities" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 56, emphasis added).

In these and other passages, she did address the question of one's knowledge of "other minds," denying any direct awareness of others' mental processes and resting knowledge of them squarely on inference. Her views conflict sharply with the position Mr. Stoddard takes up, and it is difficult to see how he can argue on the basis of her ideas about axioms that knowledge of other minds is direct.

Rand held that axiomatic concepts identify that which we perceive or experience directly but can grasp only conceptually. "Existence, identity and consciousness are concepts in that they require identification in conceptual form. Their peculiarity lies in the fact that they are perceived or experienced directly, but grasped conceptually" (p. 55).

According to Mr. Stoddard, however, Rand stated that "axioms are known by direct perception." One may wonder where she stated this, for he gives no quotations or references. Here is something relevant she wrote. "When we speak of 'direct perception' or 'direct awareness,' we mean the perceptual level" (p. 5). She held that axiomatic concepts are implicit on the perceptual level--for instance, "in the consciousness of an infant or of an animal" (p. 57), which was not to say that axioms are known by direct perception. We directly perceive existence, in her view, not axioms. To know or identify the fact that existence exists (or to describe the fact that we perceive it), we must function on the conceptual level, using "the widest abstractions" possible to us (pp. 55-56, 262).

While Mr. Stoddard misconstrues Rand's views, she made a mistake herself in this fundamental area. In addition to the concepts of existence, identity and consciousness, she identified the concept of self as axiomatic (p. 252) and held that "your self is your mind" (Atlas Shrugged, p. 1030). She also affirmed that the only fact of reality that you need to grasp in order to form the concept of self is "your being conscious" (Introduction, p. 255). She thereby contradicted her own theory of concepts, according to which a concept is "a mental integration of two or more units" (p. 13) and a unit is "an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members" (p. 6). A concept that subsumes a single unit (only yourself) is a contradiction in terms. I find no other concept that she even hinted was exceptional with respect to the "two or more" element, not even other axiomatic concepts such as existence and identity. A concept of self that subsumed only yourself would be like the invalid notion of "God," which "isn't even supposed to be a concept," according to her, because "a concept has to involve two or more similar concretes" (p. 148).

Let me emphasize, lest anyone misconstrue this, that I am not denying the validity of axiomatic concepts or axioms. The question is not whether the concepts of self and consciousness are valid--they are--but how we form them. If you cannot describe the process of forming them without self-contradiction, you are in the awkward position of knowing that certain concepts are implicit in all knowledge, yet not knowing how you reached them and how to validate them, making you somewhat vulnerable to criticism, to put it mildly. I would point out, furthermore, that it is unrealistic to expect an error at the level of axioms not to have reverberated elsewhere in Rand's thinking, attitudes and philosophy.

Where exactly did she go wrong? How do we remedy her mistake?

"You have to have a certain amount of knowledge," she said, "a sufficient knowledge both of the outside world and of the process of your own consciousness before you can begin to identify the widest abstractions," and you need "a very significant degree of introspection" (p. 262). She focused on the outside world and your direct experience of your own consciousness, while apparently assuming a priori that you do not need your inferential knowledge of others' mental processes in order to reach any of these wide abstractions. I see no reason for her to have supposed this, no reason to limit the preliminary or minimally necessary content of all axiomatic concepts to those existents you perceive or experience directly.

As long as you subsume those existents and recognize the difference between what you perceive and experience directly and what you do not, you may appropriately subsume every existent you know about, however you know about it. Moreover, if you fail to do so, you have not fully reached axiomatic concepts and not made proper use of them. The most important function of axiomatic concepts, according to Rand, is confining "knowledge to reality, to existence, and delimiting it from non-existence, imagination, falsehood, etc." (p. 261). Existents that you know about indirectly such as microorganisms, atoms and other minds are in existence, they are real, and it is not epistemologically optional whether you subsume them under the axiomatic concept of existence--you must do so. Similarly, it is not optional whether you subsume, under the axiomatic concept of consciousness, any mental processes or minds of which you are aware, including those of others.

Finally, the "two or more" nature of conceptual awareness makes it mandatory that you integrate direct and indirect knowledge just to reach the specific concepts of self, mind and consciousness (in the modern and Objectivist sense of the latter concept, in which the notion of self is implicit, p. 252). You directly experience just one consciousness, as does every other conscious organism; you need two or more units, so you must incorporate indirect knowledge, experiences of consciousness which you do not experience. (In contrast, forming the axiomatic concept of existence does not require knowledge of existents which you cannot perceive or experience directly, making it easier to form. This is one reason Western philosophers reached it "in the right order," before reaching the axiomatic concept of consciousness, cf. pp. 262-63).

It is arbitrary to assume that you must be able to reach every axiomatic concept, identify every basic fact--which you can do only conceptually--by defying the identity of your own consciousness and forming a concept of a single existent, whatever that would mean exactly.

To summarize, Rand held that you directly experience only your own consciousness and cannot perceive or experience others' mental processes directly. Her views in this area conflict with Mr. Stoddard's contention that we can perceive other minds directly. She was mistaken, however, in assuming that you can form the concept of self by grasping only "your being conscious." To form the concept of self or mind, you must cognitively integrate that directly experienced existent, your own mind, and other similar existents which you do not directly perceive or experience, every other person's mind. You must cognitively integrate "two or more," self and others.

Mr. Stoddard's attempt to enlist Rand in philosophic support of his claim that we have direct knowledge of others' minds fails, not only because she articulated the opposite position, but also because he misconstrues her ideas about axioms. While Rand did make a mistake in this axiomatic realm and we should not discount possible reverberations elsewhere, her mistake is correctable and her premises do not lead to skepticism. Even though she did not realize that you must identify your own and other minds to reach the concept of mind, none of this alters the fact that you directly experience only your own mind and do not directly perceive or experience any others.

In a separate move, Mr. Stoddard looks for scientific support to Simon Baron-Cohen's 1995 book about autism, Mindblindness. Marsha Enright (September 28) had previously mentioned this book as possibly "relevant to the issue of our formation of the concept of mind." I have read the book and hope to be able to respond to Mr. Stoddard's claims and Ms. Enright's suggestion in the future.

Bill Stoddard responded to this post, conceding that he was mistaken about Rand, but arguing further that we can perceive other minds directly. In my next response, I addressed his various arguments in detail, including his argument that inferring others' mental processes requires sophisticated theorizing, his analogy with the false assumption that we do not perceive material objects directly, his illustrations, his claim of scientific support, his discussion of axiomatic knowledge and his suggestion that his account follows from basic principles of Objectivism, whereas Rand's own account does not.

  1.  Forming the Concept of Mind
  2.  Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality
  3.  Proper Names and Concepts
  4.  The Concept of Mind and Certain Symmetries
  5.  Concluding Remarks about Forming the Concept of Mind
  6.  Recognizing Minds
  7.  The Problem of "Other" Minds
  8.  Concept of Mind and Early Development
  9.  Retaining the Concept of Mind
10.  Ayn Rand and Other Minds
11.  Perceiving Other Minds Directly?    < Next
12.  Preconceptually Apprehending Other Minds?
13.  Inferences about Other Minds
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind