Knowing Other People’s Mental States as if They Were One’s Own

  • Frédérique de Vignemont


As trivial as it may seem, James’ thought experiment highlights the irreducible privacy of the mind. Each of the 12 men is aware only of his own word, and he is not aware of the others’ words. Let us imagine now that we take 12 men and pinprick each of them. They will not be directly aware of what the others feel. Consequently, they will not be able to compare their pain with the others’ pain and they will not be entitled to assume that they all share the same sensation. The problem of other minds arises from the privacy of the mind. It is important, however, to distinguish different versions of the privacy claim (Ayer 1963). Mental states are not private in the sense that one would be the only one able to detect one’s own states. The men know that they are all in pain. The privacy of the mind does not entail the logical impossibility of mindreading. Nonetheless, the men do not detect the pain sensation in others in the same way that they detect pain in themselves. Mental states are private in the sense that one has a direct access to one’s own mental states that nobody else has. There is an asymmetry between self-knowledge and knowledge of other minds.


Direct Access Mirror Neuron Motor Representation Mirror System Motor Resonance 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frédérique de Vignemont
    • 1
  1. 1.Institut Jean-Nicod, EHESS – ENS – CNRSParisFrance

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