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Comparative Philosophy

Making Sense of the Other: Husserl, Carnap, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein

William Cornwell
Mary Washington College

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ABSTRACT: Phenomenology and logical positivism both subscribed to an empirical-verifiability criterion of mental or linguistic meaning. The acceptance of this criterion confronted them with the same problem: how to understand the Other as a subject with his own experience, if the existence and nature of the Other's experiences cannot be verified. Husserl tackled this problem in the Cartesian Meditations, but he could not reconcile the verifiability criterion with understanding the Other's feelings and sensations. Carnap's solution was to embrace behaviorism and eliminate the idea of private sensations, but behaviorism has well-known difficulties. Heidegger broke this impasse by suggesting that each person's being included being-with, an innate capacity for understanding the Other. To be human is to be "hard-wired" to make sense of the Other without having to verify the Other's private sensations. I suggest that being-with emerged from an evolutionary imperative for conspecific animals to recognize each other and to coordinate their activities. Wittgenstein also rejected the verifiability criterion. He theorized that the meaning of a term is its usage and that terms about private sensations were meaningful because they have functions in our language-games. For example, "I'm in pain," like a cry of pain, functions to get the attention of others and motivate others to help. Wittgenstein's theory shows how Dasein's being-with includes "primitive" adaptive behavior such as cries, smiles, and threatening or playful gesture. As Dasein is acculturated, these behaviors are partially superseded by functionally equivalent linguistic expressions.

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I. Introduction

There are obvious and important ways in which analytic and continental philosophy differ, but this should not make us overlook their thematic and historical similarities. Both traditions had their roots in phenomenalistic theories that attempted to reduce all meaning to the immediately given. Even though phenomenology was more generous in construing what was immediately given, neither phenomenology nor logical positivism could do justice to our understanding of the subjectivity of other people. Heidegger and Wittgenstein each dealt with this problem in unique but complementary ways.

Phenomenology and logical positivism both subscribed to the verifiability criterion for meaning ('verificationism' for short). Logical positivists emphasized linguistic meaning, and in their most antimetaphysical stage asserted that a synthetic sentence is meaningful for a person only if that person could use experience to discover the sentence's truth-value. Husserl was more interested in thoughts about the existence and nature of phenomena and believed that they gained meaning only through acts of verification. This is not an important distinction given positivists and phenomenologists' assumption that whatever could be understood could be expressed.

Both Husserl and the positivists conceived of their project as being a priori and transcendental. The logical positivist Moritz Schlick wrote:

If we but once attain the insight that the meaning of every proposition can be determined only by means of the given we can no longer conceive the possibility of another opinion, for we see that we have discovered simply the conditions under which opinions in general can be formulated. Hence it would be quite mistaken to see, somehow, in what we have said a "theory of meaning".... What precedes every formulation of a theory cannot itself be a theory. (1932/33, 88)

Husserl similarly wrote:

Moreover, transcendental phenomenology is not a theory,... it is a science founded in itself, and standing absolutely on its own basis; it is indeed the one science that stands absolutely on its own ground. (1962, 13)

Philosophy can take root only in radical reflexion upon the meaning and possibility of its own scheme. Through such reflexion it must in the very first place and through its own activity take possession of the absolute ground of pure pre-conceptual experience, which is its own proper preserve; then self-active again, it must create original concepts, adequately adjusted to this ground, and so generally utilize for its advance an absolutely transparent method.... The entire absence of this procedure... had this for its consequence, that we had and have many and ever new philosophical "systems" or "directions," but not the one philosophy which as Idea underlies all the philosophies that can be imagined. (1962, 20)

Here we see two verificationistic assumptions shared by both schools: there is "pure pre-conceptual experience" (Husserl) or the "given" (Schlick), and all meaning is founded upon it.

The acceptance by Husserl and the logical positivists of verificationism confronted each with the same problem: how to understand the Other as a subject with his or her own experiences. How can the Other be talked about or thought about in a meaningful way when the existence and nature of the Other's experiences cannot be verified? Husserl attempted to show that this problem was only apparent and could be solved without discarding verificationism, and it is to him we first turn.

II. Husserl's poison

After the publication of Ideas, critics contended that Husserl was a transcendental solipsist. In the "Author's Preface to the English Edition" of Ideas, Husserl acknowledged, "the objections raised against this Idealism and its alleged Solipsism seriously impeded the reception of the work" (12), but referred the reader to the Cartesian Meditations, which contains "an essential supplement in the detailed treatment of the fundamental problem of transcendental intersubjectivity, wherewith the solipsistic objection completely collapses." (22) Let us examine that work.

By the end of Meditation IV, Husserl had shown how, within the strictures of verificationism, we understand the existence of physical objects, but he had not demonstrated how one understands the Other as an experiencing agent. The next task was to show that a person could understand the Other while respecting "the insight that every sense that any existent whatever has or can have for me—in respect of its 'what' and its 'it exists and actually is'—is a sense in and arising from my intentional life, becoming clarified and uncovered for me in consequence of my life's constitutive syntheses, in systems of harmonious verification." (Husserl 1991, 91)

Husserl maintained that the understanding of the Other cannot be exhausted by the physical presence of the Other, because "neither the other Ego himself, nor his subjective processes or his appearances themselves, nor anything else belonging to his own essence, becomes given in our experience originally" (1991, 109). The Other's experiences have not just happened to escape my experience; they necessarily elude me, because "if what belongs to the other's own essence were directly accessible, it would be merely a moment of my own essence, and ultimately he himself and I myself would be the same" (1991,109). All attempts to verify the existence or nature of the Other's experiences will be thwarted, so how can I understand them?

To explain without illicitly presupposing the concept of the Other how I constitute the Other, Husserl effected a reduction to the sphere of owness at the beginning of the Meditation: "we exclude from the thematic field everything now in question: we disregard all constitutional effects of intentionality relating immediately or mediately to other subjectivity and delimit first of all the total nexus of that actual and potential intentionality in which the ego constitutes within himself a peculiar owness" (93). Husserl then argues that within the sphere of owness I can reach the Other by means of an non-conscious analogizing apprehension that occurs in three stages, each adding its own layer of meaning.

In the first stage I apprehend the Other's physicality. At this stage the Other exists solely as an object of my intuition, not as a subject who performs intuitive acts. I constitute this thing by the same verificatory procedure used to constitute any object and see him or her as a thing to which I can return repeatedly for a series of fulfilled encounters. The second layer of meaning comes from grasping the similarity between the Other's body and my body. I recognize the similarity both in appearance and in expression and behavior. I know that my body has an external appearance that does not present all of my nature. So, the third level of meaning is seeing the Other as having a hidden psychic dimension, as being ensouled. My own body always is primordially present and paired in my consciousness with my ego, so my body can serve at all times as the primally institutive original in my analogizing apprehension of the Other. Thus, I always am able to see the Other as a conscious being.

Husserl's solution is ad hoc. Verificationism was a poison intended to destroy philosophical weeds, but it would kill the Other too. Alarmed, Husserl decided that Other did not have to take the verificationist toxin, because the Other has the peculiar quality that he or she "never demands and never is open to fulfillment by presentation" (1991, 119). Why stop there? For instance, Husserl had dismissed Kant's things in themselves, because they cannot be encountered within experience (1991, 56). Kant could retort, "It is in the nature of things in themselves that they, like other minds, never demand and never are open to fulfillment by presentation." How quickly the weeds return!

Indeed, the logical positivist Rudolf Carnap criticized reasoning such as Husserl's because it violated verificationism by granting meaning to untestable sentences about the feelings of the Other (1932/33, 176). Let us examine Carnap's attempts to deal with this conundrum.

III. Carnap's behaviorism

Carnap advocated behaviorism, the thesis that "all sentences of psychology describe physical occurrences, namely, the physical behavior of humans and other animals." (1932/33, 165) Thus, a statement such as "Mr. A is excited" asserts:

... the existence of that physical structure (microstructure) of Mr. A's body (especially of his central nervous system) that is characterized by a high pulse and rate of breathing, which, on the application of certain stimuli, may even be made higher, by vehement and factually unsatisfactory answers to questions, by the occurrence of agitated movements on the application of certain stimuli, etc. (Carnap 1932/33, 172)

Although behaviorism was and continues to be criticized severely, we should not lose sight of its virtues. Although some people criticized the theory because it endorses physicalism, today most analytic philosophers agree that mental states are physiological, so some type of physicalistic analysis of talk about mental states is correct.

Most physicalists reject behaviorism, because they do not accept that psychological states are merely behavioral dispositions, but did Carnap believe such a thing? When Carnap wrote, "Every psychological property is marked out as a disposition to behave in a certain way" (1932/33, 186), he meant that psychological states can be given operational definitions in terms of behavioral dispositions. That does not mean that there is no more to these states than the behavioral dispositions. In fact, Carnap believed that a task of psychology was to discover the underlying physiological properties (1932/33, 187). A complete 'universal science' would not treat Mr. A as simply a black box whose internal states were unspecified. So in this sense, Carnap is different from many behaviorists.

Some philosophers objected to Carnap's theory on the grounds that mental states should be specified on the basis of introspective evidence, not behavioral evidence. If phenomenological sensations and behavior were perfectly correlated, the objection went, then behavioral analyses would be adequate, but how could we know that this is so? For instance, perhaps two people's color sensations differ systematically, so that the sensation which one associates with 'red' the other associates with 'blue' and vice versa. There would be no relevant behavioral differences: both people would agree that the sky is blue, that blood is red, etc. Nonetheless, the objection continued, these people's mental states should be specified differently, because each person means something different by 'red'. Another example is that perhaps a robot could simulate pain-behavior even though it does not feel pain. Again, the objection went, we should not say that such a robot is in pain. Behaviorist rebuttals that the objections were nonsensical because they could not be verified struck people as dogmatic and unconvincing. Most people could imagine these scenarios. Did the logical positivists have impotent imaginations (perhaps because of their long abstinences from art and music)? Behaviorism seemed philosophically unsatisfactory, but alternative theories of the mind were equally problematic.

IV. Heidegger's rejection of verificationism

Within the constraints of verificationism, there seemed to be no alternatives to either solipsism (Husserl) or behaviorism (Carnap). Heidegger's solution to this conundrum was to appeal to an a priori understanding of the Other:

...because Dasein's Being is Being-with [Mitsein], its understanding of Being already implies the understanding of Others. This understanding, like any understanding, is not an acquaintance derived from knowledge about them, but a primordially existential kind of Being, which, more than anything else, makes such knowledge and acquaintance possible. (1962, 161)

Heidegger asked in a Husserlian vein, "does one not start by marking out and isolating the 'I' so that one must then seek some way of getting over to the Others from this isolated subject?" Heidegger responded that this is a misunderstanding. The Others are not ones from whom we already have distinguished ourselves: "They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself—those among whom one is too" (1962, 154). Dasein inherently identifies with other Dasein, so the philosophically interesting problem is not reaching out to the Other but separating from the they (das Man) to establish an authentic identity. Husserl's apparently methodologically-neutral assumption - that the route to the Other begins within the sphere of owness - put out of reach the only way to understand the Other.

Heidegger did not explain how Dasein has come to have being-with. As with Kant, some things remain transcendental mysteries. Nonetheless, biology can help answer that question. All species have undergone natural selection, so an animal is adapted to respond distinctively to its natural environment, which includes conspecific animals. For example, out of the many species of birds in its environment, a bird will recognize conspecific birds and act appropriately toward them by showing its plumage, recognizing territorial boundaries, etc. Much of this recognition is innate (receptors to detect species-specific chemical signatures, for instance) and is part of the genetically coded a priori knowledge of the species. (1) Homo sapiens' being-with is more complex but also was caused by selective pressures upon the "design" of the species. Dasein's biologically dictated actions toward and responsiveness to other Dasein is part of the foundation upon which the acculturation that makes us fully human takes place.

Identifying conspecific animals is just one task for which nature needs to give animals an innate skill. Further research may reveal other aspects of our Being-with. For instance, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, who has conducted experiments with other scientists on human imitation, said, "Even at birth we can imitate. We have this built-in mechanism that allows us to imitate both movements and facial expressions we see in other people. The same regions of the brain that send commands to our muscles when we act also seem able to recognize the same action when performed by others. We believe that this brain mechanism allows us to understand the intentions of others."(2)If Iacoboni is correct, then verificationists are wrong: understanding the intentions of others is not based upon verifying - in the sense of directly experiencing - the mental states of others. It will take more research to determine whether Iacoboni's theory is correct, but his experiments demonstrate how science may bolster Heidegger's account of our understanding of the Other. (Unlike Heidegger, I think Being-with must be studied empirically, not a priori.)

V. Wittgenstein's rejection of verificationism

Wittgenstein thought that the phenomenological/positivistic problem of understanding the Other came from applying verificationism and the Augustinian picture of language to talk about feelings and sensations:

[The Augustinian picture] is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names.—In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. The meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands. (Wittgenstein 1958, §1)

Thus, I cannot know what 'her pain' means when used in some context unless I have epistemic access to the object being named by that phrase, because her pain is the phrase's meaning. Of course, I do not have that access, so such talk is meaningless. Consequently, I reduce her pain to observable behavior or deny its existence altogether.

It is clear from his writings and conversations that Wittgenstein was attracted to behaviorism, and his solution in the Philosophical Investigations to the problem of the Other is indebted to behaviorism. He recognized that behaviorists such as Carnap were correct to insist that language is a public activity, so its meanings must be publicly accessible. Thus sensation-terms cannot have as their meanings private sensations. He further agreed with the behaviorists that behavior is important for the operation of language-games in which sensation-talk occurs. Behavior usually is the only evidence we have to make judgments about the psyche of the Other. Yet, Wittgenstein parted from the behaviorists when he argued that first-person talk using sensation-terms are typically avowals, not descriptions. If I say, "I am in pain," I neither am describing my phenomenological, inner life nor am I describing a physiological state of my body. In fact, I am describing nothing. Rather, I am giving expression to my pain, much as I would do by moaning or crying. A moan or cry could do just as well as "I'm in pain," because they all have the same meaning. Moans, cries, and language meaningful because they have a function in a form of life. They are understood to typically demand a response of help or sympathy - although this demand is not always intentional. A newborn infant does not intend anything by crying, but the cry's demand for attention is communicated and understood just the same.

I cannot discuss here Wittgenstein's assertion that "I am in pain" is not a description except to note that the similarity between, say, moaning and saying "I am in pain" could mean that both a moan and "I am in pain" are assertions. In any case, for our purposes the significant element of Wittgenstein's theory concerns how he related some uses of language with instinctive behaviors (1958, §244, 310). If, as it seems reasonable to assume, a person has an innate but defeasible disposition to produce distinctive sounds (moans, for instance) under distinctive conditions, and other people either innately know or learn (perhaps from their own cases) under what conditions these sounds usually are produced, then people can communicate about 'private' experiences without literally having the Other's experiences. This innate communicative ability is important, because it is the substratum upon which the teaching of 'pain' and other sensation-words takes place. The vocal and body signals that humans instinctively produce from the beginning of life (but which we can suppress to some extent as we grow older) are central elements of Being-with that enable people to teach the public language of sensations, emotions, and other 'inner' states. (3)

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(1) I am not dogmatic about to what extent species-recognition is genetically determined. (Strictly speaking, nothing is solely genetically determined.) For instance, imprinting is an example of how some animals use a fallible, genetically-determined response to learn who their parents are, but imprinting requires experiential input.

(2) Robert Lee Holtz, "Imitation Instinct is more Basic than just Flattery," Los Angeles Times, 18 May 2000, www.latimes.com/news/science/science/20000518/t000047017.html

(3) I understand that many readers will believe that this is an unsatisfactory response to skeptical worries about knowledge of other minds. Some will object that I am begging the question by assuming that evolution has designed a person to have knowledge about or to be able to acquire knowledge about things beyond the limits of experience. One response is the functionalist response: mental states are individuated in terms of their publicly observable functional roles in a cognitive economy. Yet, even functionalism cannot answer the question, "How do you know that equivalent functional experiences are phenomenologically similar?" I would respond by appealing to the doctrine of the uniformity of nature. If someone else is physiologically like me, then how could he or she have phenomenologically different perceptual experiences from mine when under the same circumstances as I am in? I acknowledge that important questions remain, such as (a) how similar our systems need to be in order to necessarily have phenomenologically equivalent experiences under the same circumstances and (b) how we can know that nature is uniform. On the other hand, as Wittgenstein observed in On Certainty, the fact that I could be wrong about something shows that I might not know it, but the fact that I might not know it does not show that I do not know it. If other minds are as nature has equipped us to believe them to be, then I see no reason not to say that we know the nature of other minds. All of these points would need to be considered more carefully in another essay.

Works Cited

Carnap, Rudolf. 1932/33. Psychology in physical language. Erkenntnis 3. Translated by George Schick in Logical positivism, ed. A. J. Ayer, 165-98. New York: The Free Press, 1959.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and time. Translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. New York: Harper Collins, Harper San Francisco.

Husserl, Edmund. 1991. Cartesian meditations: An introduction to phenomenology. Translated by Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

________. 1962. Ideas: General introduction to pure phenomenology. Translated by W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier Books.

Schlick, Moritz. 1932/33. Positivism and realism. Erkenntnis 3. Translated by David Rynin in Logical positivism, ed. A. J. Ayer, 82-107. New York: The Free Press, 1959.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1958. Philosophical investigations: The English text of the third edition. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

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