Søren Overgaard / Other Minds Embodied

Merleau-Ponty famously held that minds are embodied. On this view, I am not just causally connected with my body, or somehow lodged inside it; rather, ‘I am my body’ (Merleau-Ponty 2012, pp. 151, 205). Merleau-Ponty believes that doing full justice to this point entails rethinking a host of traditional philosophical themes, including language, the self, nature, freedom, and time, to name but a few. In a recently published paper, I explore the impact of the notion of embodiment on the so-called problem of other minds. Merleau-Ponty claims that to the extent that I truly appreciate the ‘inherence of my consciousness in its body and in its mind, the perception of others and the plurality of consciousnesses no longer present any difficulty’ (ibid., pp. 366). It is natural to read this as maintaining that if we understand minds as embodied, we do not ‘solve the problem of other minds, but … dissolve it’ (Carman 2008, p. 135). In my paper, I take issue with this natural reading. I suggest that Merleau-Ponty did not think there was one monolithic problem of other minds. In Phenomenology of Perception, in fact, we can discern three different problems of other minds – which we can label the conceptual, epistemological, and empirical problems, respectively. Very roughly, the conceptual problem concerns how mental concepts can be applied to others, the epistemological problem concerns how we can know what mental states others are in, and the empirical problem is about the ways in which we normally go about making sense of others in terms of their mental states. Importantly, Merleau-Ponty did not think all these problems would be dissolved (or solved, for that matter) if only we think of minds as embodied. While Merleau-Ponty believed embodiment helps with tackling the conceptual and epistemological problems, I claim that he thought it was of no clear use in solving the empirical problem. Furthermore, I suggest he was right to think so. But – you might think – hold on! Isn’t embodiment part of what motivates a ‘direct perception’ approach to the empirical problem of other minds? In other words, isn’t it (in part) because minds are embodied that it seems plausible to claim that sometimes we make sense of others by simply perceiving that they are in this or that mental state? And didn’t Merleau-Ponty himself suggest as much? In the recently published paper, I argue that the answer to the final question is ‘No’, and I suggest a negative reply to the other questions as well. What’s the argument? Well, it’s all in the paper, which can be accessed here.


Carman, T. (2008). Merleau-Ponty. London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. D. Landes. London: Routledge.

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