In today’s polarised political landscape we see those we disagree with as aliens, believing in crazy ideas. Yet the moral and political convictions of both left and right can be traced back to two ideals: harmony with the world, and individual autonomy. In turn those ideas stem from two fundamental ideas: that we can know the world, and that we can know our own minds. A third idea, that we can come to know the minds of others, could be what completes the other two ideas and enable us to overcome our conflicts, writes Linda Zagzebski.
For thousands of years two ideas have invigorated human civilization. These ideas are so simple, it is easy to overlook their tremendous power, and it is easy to forget that we did not always have them. One is the idea that the human mind can grasp the universe; the other is the idea that the human mind can grasp itself. The first idea dominated in the West until the 16th-17th centuries when there was a big shift, and the idea that the human mind can grasp itself became dominant. That shift changed everything: in philosophy, art, literature, science, and moral and political thought. The uneasy relationship between these ideas is the source of many cultural divisions and intellectual confusions, but it also reveals what we have in common.
A third idea, that we can know the minds of others, might be what helps us overcome some of those divisions.
The origins of the two greatest ideas
In the era in which the first idea dominated, people thought that they grasped their minds through their grasp of the world. They thought it was obvious that human minds are part of the world, so to understand one’s mind meant understanding the place of one’s mind in the social and natural world, or in the world created by God.
The ability to see systematic structures in the universe is another version of the first great idea, and we owe that insight to the ancient Greeks.
There was more than one version of the first great idea. The ability to see a narrative unity in the universe is one version. Origin stories are ubiquitous in human cultures from the earliest recorded times. We see them among the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians, in the book of Genesis, among Native American tribes, in African traditional religions, and many others. These stories do not merely describe how the known world began; they narrate the origin of one’s social world and each person’s place in it. If asked, “Who are you?”, the answer always refers to one’s place in that world – geographical and social - not to one’s unique consciousness.
The ability to see systematic structures in the universe is another version of the first great idea, and we owe that insight to the ancient Greeks. In the 6th century BCE, the first Greek philosophers—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, attempted to identify a single foundation or principle that unifies all of reality. Thales said that the foundation of the world is water. Anaximenes said it is air. Anaximander said it is the boundless or infinite (apeiron). They believed that the entire universe is one thing with a rational structure that the mind can grasp because the mind by nature grasps structure. The ability to see structure produced metaphysics and theology, and systematized mathematics and ethics. For Aristotle and a long line of philosophers after him, morality meant living a life in fulfillment of human nature. The telos (goal) of human life is determined by nature just as the telos of a cat or a fish or a tree is determined by the nature of each. If we can live that way, we not only flourish as individuals, but we contribute to the harmony of the world. Both versions of the first great idea emphasize the moral centrality of harmony rather than anything special about a unique human mind’s governance of its life.
Philosophers starting with Descartes argued that we first grasp our mind and then we try to figure out what the world is like from the representations in our mind. Descartes and later the British empiricists consciously used this idea as a way to give a firm foundation for modern science.
The first great idea existed on all inhabited continents, but in the early modern era in the West there was a dramatic change that did not occur in other parts of the world. The second great idea rose to dominance and became more basic that the first. Formerly people thought that we grasp the world before our mind, but now they thought that we grasp our mind before the world. Philosophers starting with Descartes argued that we first grasp our mind and then we try to figure out what the world is like from the representations in our mind. Descartes and later the British empiricists consciously used this idea as a way to give a firm foundation for modern science.
The rise of the second great idea had already started before Descartes in art and literature. The Arab discovery of perspective, which was brought to Florence in the 15th century, led to the artistic explosion of the Renaissance. Perspective not only made artworks more realistic, it showed that art can portray an individual viewpoint, not just a collective vision, and it became much more common for artworks to be signed. In literature the modern novel was invented with the publication of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In a novel, the reader can follow the consciousness of the characters as they go through their imaginary lives. That is quite a contrast with Aristotle, who wrote in the Poetics that characters are universals with proper names attached. For him, characters existed only for the sake of the action. In contrast, modern fictional characters are singular individuals with unique personalities. If we think of a self as a person from the inside viewpoint, the self was invented in the 16th and 17th centuries. In contrast, the idea of a person had been around for many hundreds of years.
The premodern moral ideal was harmony with the world because the world preceded the mind both in its existence and in the order of human knowledge.
Moral and political thought changed at the same time. The premodern moral ideal was harmony with the world because the world preceded the mind both in its existence and in the order of human knowledge. But suppose you start with your own mind and you attempt to derive what you think the world is like from the contents of your mind. That leads to the idea that your ability to direct your own thoughts and actions is the ultimate ground of authority over you. Morality is based on self-governance, or autonomy. The same point applies to political authority. If you have ultimate authority over yourself, political authority also needs to be grounded in autonomy. Political authority is based on contractual agreement among self-governing individuals, not from conformity to the moral order of the universe.
The two ideas in today’s political landscape
Where does that leave us today? We talk about persons and we talk about selves, and they are not the same thing. We care about the world’s future, but we also care about our individual future. We value a harmonious world, but also the importance of self-direction. We want to own our lives, but very few people believe that they are completely independent entities. Almost everybody values both harmony and autonomy, and these values have a long history in the West that we have consciously or unconsciously embraced.
Autonomy is frequently cited in arguments for abortion rights as well as for gun rights, for gay marriage and against climate change accords.
Both values affect many of our personal decisions and political positions, and they do not line up with common political divisions of Right vs. Left. Autonomy is frequently cited in arguments for abortion rights as well as for gun rights, for gay marriage and against climate change accords, against COVID vaccine mandates, and in support of the right to be addressed by one’s preferred pronoun. Sometimes the autonomy argument is made by people on the Right and sometimes by people on the Left.
The value of harmony and the value of autonomy appear to conflict, and they do conflict as they are typically used in arguments about individual policy issues, but I think it is important to recognize that we and our political opponents agree on the deep importance of both values.
The value of harmony also cuts across political divides. It drives the environmental movement and arguments for cooperation in addressing climate change. But it also underlies arguments against gay marriage based on some interpretations of natural law. Both arguments refer to harmony with nature and yet they are associated with very different political positions. The value of harmony also leads to the willingness to sacrifice some privacy for a perceived social good, and that is another line of argument that has been used by both conservatives and liberals. From one side we have heard that we must give up some privacy for the sake of fighting COVID, and people’s movements should be traceable. On the other side, the attacks on 9/11 led some people to argue that the government should collect citizens’ phone data and other private records for the sake of protecting us against terrorism.
All these sources of disagreement give us a focus for debate arising from premises we both accept. We are much more alike than we thought.
The value of harmony and the value of autonomy appear to conflict, and they do conflict as they are typically used in arguments about individual policy issues, but I think it is important to recognize that we and our political opponents agree on the deep importance of both values, and it should give us pause when we see our opponents use the same argument about one issue that we use about another. Suppose one of us refers to autonomy in supporting gun rights while the other refers to autonomy in supporting abortion rights. That tells us that there is a level at which we agree that is concealed by the usual political labels. If we disagree about abortion and gun rights, it cannot be because one of us denies the value of autonomy. We disagree either because we disagree about the way we define autonomy, or we disagree about the way autonomy applies to the issue at hand. Alternatively, it might mean that we differ in the weight we give autonomy compared to harmony about the issue. All these sources of disagreement give us a focus for debate arising from premises we both accept. We are much more alike than we thought.
The third idea: knowledge of other minds
The idea that we can grasp the whole universe does not conflict with the idea that we can grasp our own minds, and many cultures have had both ideas without discord. But in the West the history of those ideas took the form of a conflict between the idea that we grasp the world before the mind and the idea that we grasp the mind before the world, and that has left us with both intellectual confusion and practical conflict. The confusion is both in our culture and in us as individuals. We are alike in our general values and we are alike in our confusion.
We have not done a very good job of putting the two great ideas together in a way that affects every aspect of our lives and lasts for centuries, as each of the two great ideas has done in its own time. It seems to me, however, that the two great ideas have an obvious gap. If the idea that the human mind can grasp the universe is a great idea, and the idea that the human mind can grasp itself is another great idea, what about the idea that the human mind can grasp other minds?
The idea that we can grasp minds besides our own deserves to have the philosophical and cultural importance of the other two great ideas, and yet it does not.
Other minds are the bridge between our grasp of our own mind and our grasp of the world without minds. I think that the idea that we can grasp minds besides our own deserves to have the philosophical and cultural importance of the other two great ideas, and yet it does not. At least, not yet. Intersubjectivity has been studied in neuroscience with the discovery of mirror neurons; in psychology, in studies of empathy and its usefulness in education and in democratic deliberation; and in philosophy, in the work of phenomenologists beginning over a hundred years ago. We also have lots of experience of grasping the minds of others in personal conversation.
Still, we do not yet have a comprehensive and systematic science that ties together both our experience of other minds and the theory of how minds interact. Such a science could help us understand the relationship between the individual mind and everything outside of it that underpins our fundamental values of autonomy and harmony. It might also lead to another fundamental value that has not yet been discovered.