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David Hume and the Problem of Other Minds by Anik Waldow (review)

From: Hume Studies
Volume 38, Number 1, April 2012
pp. 123-126 | 10.1353/hms.2012.0000

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As the title of her book suggests, Anik Waldow brings the philosophy of David Hume to bear on the problem of other minds. This is an interesting and worthwhile endeavor given Hume's reputation as one who exacerbates rather than mitigates this intractable problem. Waldow argues that Hume offers us a way of justifying our belief in other minds. Her strategy is two-fold. First, using only Hume's austere resources of perceptions and relations between perceptions, Waldow explains how a person can form a general idea of the mind and come to think of herself as one mind among others. Second, she argues from within Hume's framework, and on his behalf, that this belief is not only explicable but also "fully legitimate" and justified (12). Her explanation of the formation of a general idea of the mind and of a conception of the self as one mind among others is carefully constructed, novel, and compelling. However, her argument that the belief in other minds is justified or that Hume believes it to be is less convincing.

The book consists of three chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. In chapter 1, Waldow stakes out a position in the long-standing skepticism-naturalism debate. She sees Hume's skepticism as crucial support for his naturalism and argues that Hume's skepticism has a strategic aim: it promotes modesty in the practice of philosophy and discourages speculative metaphysics. It is not, she argues, directed at natural beliefs. Her grounds for this claim are as follows: as natural beliefs are the fundament on which philosophy is built, a philosophical system cannot consistently attack these beliefs because doing so would be self-undermining. Additionally, she argues that we are epistemically required to abandon natural beliefs only when we have reason to do so, and such reasons arise only on reflection. If we have no occasion to reflect on our natural beliefs or do not find any inconsistency as a result of reflection, then there is nothing epistemically irresponsible about holding them. This conclusion is important to the overall project of Waldow's book. If she can make the case that the belief in other minds is a member of the set of natural beliefs, she can make the case that the belief in other minds is insulated from skeptical criticism.

Chapter 2 advances an explanation of how, within Hume's framework, a subject forms a general idea of the mind and comes to think of herself as one mind among others. Here Waldow takes up the difficult task of responding to perhaps the most significant obstacle facing any attempt to offer a Humean solution to [End Page 123-] the problem of other minds: prima facie, Hume cannot begin to offer a solution to the problem of other minds because he does not have the resources even to account for the existence of our belief in other minds let alone to justify it. The copy principle limits the ideas one may use in a Humean explanation of any phenomenon to those that are copied from impressions. There are no impressions of other minds, so it would seem that there can be no legitimate basis for a solution to the problem of other minds. Waldow offers a novel Humean way of accounting for a general idea of the mind. She argues that our general idea of the mind is the product of combining introspectively generated ideas from our own case (our thoughts and feelings) with ideas of our behavior and the behavior of others. In our own case, there is a constant conjunction between mental states and behavioral states. Through the Humean mechanism of sympathy, we make a special connection with creatures that appear similar to us. When we see them behave in ways that are associated with particular mental states in our own case, our thought naturally moves from the behavior we observe to the mental state typically associated with that behavior. In this manner we attribute mental states to others. Having a general idea of the mind allows one to think of oneself as a single mind among others.

In chapter 3, Waldow advances a Humean justification of the belief in other minds...



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