Mister Badger encounters Other Minds



In my last post I stated what is, to all intents and purposes, a strongly fictionalist view both about language and about ontology. The theses are conjoined: to put things simply, if we allow that all worlds are equally unreal – that is, that they are fictions – then it follows that the denizens of these worlds have the status of fictional entities. This develops on my earlier work on ontology, in which I defended a nominalist point of view; the transition to full fictionalism came about when I gave further thought to what precisely it would mean for there to be some relation between ‘language’ and ‘the world’.

I’ve defended the view that there is no one, unique world; it is both a corollary and, in itself, self-evident that there is no one thing that is language. To be fair, my comments on (at least) naive and sophisticated realism dealt more specifically with the relation between the structure of language and the putative structure of the world, and my comments on narrative realism can be taken as ‘grammatical’ in the sense of the later Wittgenstein. Nonetheless, while we can give syntactical and grammatical characterisations of its structure, these characterisations are merely theories about that area of human activity we call “language”. Furthermore, we should bear in mind that analytical approaches tend to favour the investigation of written language, and that oral communication is generally accompanied by paralinguistic and nonverbal semiotics that provide additional points of anchorage to the context and ends of utterance.

This being the case, my remarks are certainly a theoretical oversimplification and stand primarily as a comment on mainstream metaphysical speculation. But – given my overall intention in writing this blog, which is to explore the vagaries of neurodiversity from the phenomenal perspective – is there any more practical or pragmatic avenue of enquiry I could pursue? The central issue here is recognising myself as a person among other people, rather than as merely being “an apparent flux of experience of a seeming flux of happening”. In my last post, I stated my intention to “dissolve this distinction into different ways of talking about [my] own and … others’ experience – briefly, to allow that other minds are distinct idiolectal narratives constructed on the basis of dialectally and sociolectally available models“. Now, this sounds all flash and academic and as if I knew what the hell I was talking about, but to be honest it’s little more than a vague intuition. In the following, then, I’ll try and develop it into something that holds a little water.


1. Other Minds

The fount of all human knowledge is quite succinct on the problem of other minds, so I’ll quote in full:

The problem of other minds is a philosophical problem traditionally stated as the following epistemological challenge raised by the sceptic: given that I can only observe the behaviour of others, how can I know that others have minds? It is a central tenet of the philosophical idea known as solipsism; the notion that for any person only one’s own mind is known to exist. Solipsism maintains that no matter how sophisticated someone’s behaviour is, behaviour on its own does not guarantee the presence of mentality.

The key notion here is, I believe, solipsism.

1.1 I am the subject of my life

I’ve already talked about the ease with which I could slip into a profound form of solipsism based on the dichotomy between an apparent flux of experience and a seeming flux of happening. The precise choice of adjectives is significant here: experience is apparent and known by direct acquaintance, insofar as it is either presented to the mind (as in the Cartesian view) or – more probably – constitutive thereof. Happening is seeming, insofar as it presents as the object or content of experience yet – as, in their own ways, both Descartes and Kant remarked – cannot be known in itself as some thing that is external to experience (the only exception to this – according to Descartes, at least – is the experience of having experience; whether or not this is a red herring remains to be seen). It is nonetheless incontrovertible that we only have direct access to our own experience; our knowledge of other people’s experience is a postulate derived from our interactions with them. There is, as I shall remark below, an apparent difference of kind between our experience of our own minds and our experience of the minds of others.

1.1.1 Knowing one’s own mind

Insofar as our own minds are concerned, what we are, at any moment, is precisely what we experience – or, in somewhat more mystical vein, we’re the simple actuality of experiencing. This is Descartes’ point of departure; however, in developing his view he falls foul of the ineluctable modality of the linguistic – that is, and as I mentioned in my last post, the inescapable habit (common at least to French and English) of structuring both experience and happening according to the subject-verb-object (SVO) structure of language. Some thing experiences something. Descartes’ approach is interesting insofar as he parlays the transitive SVO structure “I think something” into a simple intransitive SV structure (“I think”) and then proceeds to prescind and reify the subject “I” into “I am” – technically, ∃!x (x is “I”); that is, that there is precisely one thing x such that x is designated by “I”. Descartes’ dictum has undoubted rhetorical force, but is conceptually somewhat sophistical.

From this, we can ask whether postulating that there is some thing – some “I” – that is the subject of experience is more a matter of grammatical legerdemain than of either phenomenological or metaphysical observation. I’ve already given my view that it’s impossible for us to avoid SVO when talking about the world, and that it probably represents a hard limit of our ability to conceptualise anything whatsoever. But this doesn’t mean that we should simply accept that there is indeed some unique thing that is the subject both of “I am introspectively contemplating my own mind” and of “I am watching the play of shadow on the living room wall”. It is certainly distinct from the “I” of “I am peeling potatoes”, “I teach marketing”, or “I am a man”; and these different uses of “I” should alert us to any overhasty identification of the “I” that contemplates itself with the “I” that contemplates some supposed external.

But, whatever the grammar of my remarks, and without going so far as to reify a subject of experience that is distinct from the experience itself (cf. Dennett’s critique of the “Cartesian theatre”), it seems apparent that there is some flow of experience that is sequentially and/or spatiotemporally continuous and contiguous, and that this flow of experience corresponds in some way to the “I” that is the subject of experiential statements such as “I am contemplating these shadows”, “I am relatively happy”, “I am cold”, or even “I love my wife”. Now, it would seem to follow from the SVO structure of statements of first-person experience that, if the flow of experience corresponds to the subject “I”, then the verb phrase corresponds to some way of apprehending some putative object of experience (and this would allow equally for hallucinatory experience). This, in my initial characterisation, is that “seeming flux of happening” that is the object of “the apparent flux of experience”.

The flux of happening subsumes whatever complement or noun phrase completes the verb phrase, whether it be the potatoes I’m peeling or the wife I love. The furniture of the world is thus subsumed to my experience of the world, and this includes other people. In a very real sense, there is no evident qualitative distinction between my interactions with other people and my experience of any other event that directly impacts me. Beyond the – entirely psychotic – identification of ‘the world’ and ‘myself’, this creates a specific and serious problem when considering the reality of “other minds”, and – as I hope to show – a pretty big problem for my apprehension of my own mind, insofar as it is supposedly of the same ‘kind’ as other minds. If I see other people as events impacting me in some seeming flux of happening, then there is no apparent qualitative difference between them and, say, natural phenomena. They are, to all intents and purposes, philosophical zombies, but in a real rather than a theoretical sense. And herein lies a problem.

1.2 Other minds, other people

While the notion of zombies as a theoretical thesis can illuminate the debate between physicalism and dualism, as an unanalysed real-life attitude it leads to an unacknowledged (or, at best, semiconscious) sense of being of a different kind from others. I have no direct experience of anything that is not my experience yet resembles my experience, and only that which I experience is real to me. So, while other people are evidently physically similar to me, there is no sense whatsoever of their being phenomenologically similar. Until I started medication, I could only manage my interactions with others by imagining that they were similar to me, by telling myself stories in which their phenomenal experience of their own minds resembled mine. And, being what I am, this was a very poor guide to understanding. Their minds were quite clearly not like mine. To put it colourfully, I felt that everyone but me had been given a copy of the script, that they knew instinctively what was going on in terms of social interaction and knew equally instinctively how to react to social cues that to me seemed arbitrary or meaningless. People never seemed to say what was in their minds, or make apparent their intimate first-person reactions to experience. Everything seemed to be either taken for granted or couched in innuendo – there were no clear signposts as to what people actually wanted or expected. It’s not surprising that numerous psychiatrists suspected that I might be autistic. In a way I am, but only in the historical sense of being entirely centred in my own mind and unable to access the minds of others.

So I found myself in a world of phenomenal beings that, while having some superficial resemblance to me, were nonetheless profoundly different. And, of course, they were external, and in this respect they were animate objects who impacted me, as I said above, in much the same way that natural phenomena impacted me. Empathy was no guide, as it only told me how their seeming emotions might or might not impact my well-being. Indeed, empathy merely added to the problem of understanding other minds, as I apprehended the emotions of others but was unable to decode them. Over fifty years of human interaction was a sequence of interactive events in which I had little or no grasp of what The Other (nice French touch there) was undergoing. I understood who they were more as if they were secondary characters in a first-person narrative of which I was the protagonist, and not as being people in the same way that I was a person. And this, of course, cut both ways – if I had no idea who they were as people, I had no model on which to construct myself as a person. To all intents and purposes, I had no idea who I was.

1.2.1 Finding myself through “me”

Now, stripped of the bizarrerie of psychosis, what I’ve described above is true of us all if ever we give consideration to the status of other people as thinking subjects. We have, as the Wikipedia article points out, no access to other people’s minds save through their behaviour – at the very best, we attribute first-person awareness to them on the basis of their words and deeds. Most people seem quite comfortable with this, and seem either to take it for granted that other minds are like their own, or don’t even bother to ask the question. I rather think it’s the latter. Either way, they behave as if we’re all real people in a unique real world that is one and the same to and for all of us. The general  everyday consensus seems to be naive realism about the world and other minds; those who are slightly more curious seem rather to take a sophisticatedly realist stance – they take people’s behaviour to be indicative of mental states and attitudes rather than directly representative. These latter folk are, I suppose, the kind who become psychologists.

What differentiated – or differentiates – my apprehension of personhood from that of the more-normally constituted is its fundamentally fictive quality. I could only conceive of individual people – myself included – as characters in ongoing narratives constructed in response to the events and other people that influenced or impacted them. One of the stranger results of this – and one which I’ve discussed elsewhere – is the ablation of both myself and others as social actors. The world is, as Baudelaire wrote, a forest of symbols that seem always to refer to something other than what is apparent; and every event, every occurrence, seems charged with ominous foreboding.

There’s a fundamental passivity in this worldview. The world has some profound meaning that we can only grasp in part, and in the face of this overbearing and enigmatic meaning we as protagonists are reactive rather than proactive. All we are aware of is a seeming flux of happening that is only tangentially subject to the protagonist’s intervention, and even then such intervention is provoked and determined by the course of events [as I pointed out in the above-mentioned post, this stands in stark contrast to the psychopathic worldview]. I feel, or felt, that we are the principal characters in the unfolding stories of our lives, and we seem to have little or no control over the way in which the various worlds of our experience become manifest.

From the narrative point of view, this has the interesting effect of converting the supposedly active, nominative, ‘I’ that is the putative grammatical (and phenomenal) subject of the SVO structure into the accusative ‘me’ of the passive voice – that is, into a kind of adverbial complement of the events of my own life. Things happen to me, or are done by me – I am, to all intents and purposes, a spectator of my own life, even when I am nominally the agent of occurrence. I am a flux of experience, and this implies that things (apparently) happen to me. The fictive quality I evoke above is manifest in the dreamlike, somnambulistic character of psychotic experience and the fluid, malleable character of reality. And as my own existence is dreamlike, I apprehend that of other people as phantasmal. There’s something insubstantial in my experience both of myself and of others. As the subject of experience, things do indeed happen “to me“, but the “me” to which things happen is a merely grammatical object, not a social or a psychological entity defined by its kinship to other such entities. The question of “who” I am invariably devolves into asking “what” I am – not what manner of person, but what manner of thing. So, not only were others mere phenomena, I was a mere phenomenon in and to myself. While things happened to me, there was no permanence or stability to my existence as either a social or a psychological object. And, of course, a similar impermanence and instability invested my attitude to others.

I’ve long held the belief (perhaps as a hangover from my early studies in sociology) that we become social entities through the process by which the naked, emotive “I” learns to see itself as a social agent among social agents (“I want this” is primary and concerns nothing but the subject and the object of desire; “Give it to me” is complex and requires the recognition of some second-person agent). This “me” is not the patient of experience, but a psychosocial object with the same status as other psychosocial objects (“you”, “her”, “him”, “them”). As we progress through socialisation, psychosocial “me” provides both an opportunity and a constraint (“If I help you/them, you/they will help me; if I hinder you/them, you/they will hinder me”). While the high-functioning psychotic (this high-functioning psychotic, at least) is cognitively versant with the psychosocial construction of “me”, it has no ‘reality’ to him – it is, at best, part of the array of techniques he employs to ensure minimal social acceptance and integration. For the psychotic, “me” is more a grammatical projection of the occurrences he has experienced in the past and can or might experience in the future. The psychotic remains a “what” and can only with difficulty accede to the status of a “who” – in other words, becoming a person among people represents an almost insurmountable challenge.

So, while on the phenomenal level I am the theatre of intense emotional experience, I am on the psychosocial level dreamlike and unreal to myself, and others are phantasmal and unreal to me. Are there any techniques by which I can see myself as a social actor among social actors, and do they throw any light on how we might dissolve the solipsistic dichotomy between experience and happening?



2. Linguistic variety as a clue to the construction of other minds

I’ve remarked – at length – that I see people as primarily fictive entities. What techniques are available to me to reconcile this with the recognition of people as the manifestation of ‘other minds’? A first step is to recognise the distinction I draw between my own and others’ minds as a particular case of the psychotic solipsism that leads me to see the whole world as a symbolic resonance of my own mind, as simultaneously a mirror of and a metaphor for my own experience. Other people have meaning insofar as they play some greater or lesser role in the grandiose drama of  my life. In many – far too many – cases, that role is inimical or antagonistic; in others, it is foundational, anchoring me to some semblance of reality. I am cognitively aware that other people are supposedly thinking subjects; however, I have rarely if ever entertained any true empathic or emotional recognition of others as the subjects of experience in the way that I am the subject of experience.

2.1 Mind as narrative

In my last post, as at the beginning of this, I stated my intention to attempt to dissolve this distinction into different ways of talking about our own and each others’ experience by allowing that other minds are distinct idiolectal narratives constructed on the basis of dialectally and sociolectally-available models. An immediate corollary of this is that it allows the possibility of describing my own mind as an idiolectal narrative (cf. the whole of this bloody blog). In the following, I’ll first examine how, in general and for ‘normal’ subjects, idiolectal elements are derived from the subject’s sociolinguistic environment, and how these elements might contribute to the establishment of a seemingly coherent and consistent autobiographical narrative. I’ll then confront this with the ways in which neurodiverse subjects construct their autobiographical narratives and investigate at what point such narratives are inconsistent with the normative criteria. I’ll conclude by considering whether this investigation might provide a model or template from which I can attempt to construct my own understanding of how ‘other’ minds might be structured.

2.1.1 Mind and fiction

Mental fictionalism has been used to defend folk psychology as a useful tool for making sense of our ordinary attributions of mental states and attitudes while still maintaining that folk psychology itself is essentially false (I won’t go into whys and wherefores here, but the paper I cite gives the basics). All the same, I’m not sure that it has been specifically applied to “the problem of other minds”, and I’m pretty sure it won’t have been applied from the radical fictionalist position I’ve adopted in my recent posts. Rather than boring what small audience I have with an academic defence, I’ll just launch straight into my own reflections. I’ll do the spadework if and when anyone decides to throw money at me for it. Mind

I suppose the first thing I’d better do is to give some loose, general definition of what exactly I mean when speaking of “a mind”. Given my remarks in this and earlier posts, I’d say the best I can do is to define a mind as “a collection or sequence of first-person experiences ordered in such a way as to give a reasonably coherent and consistent first-person narrative”. Now, I’d say that this definition can subsume all the usual guff about consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, memory, emotion, imagination, and attitude, though it evidently glosses over any supposed architecture of the mind and sets aside the question of the relationship between mind and the brain – indeed, I hope it can bracket out such considerations as fundamentally irrelevant.

The emphasis on the first person is intentional and underlines the primarily linguistic character of mind as the object of my investigation. I’m well aware that many would protest either that mind is far more than language, which might well be the case but is irrelevant to the ends of an investigation into our apprehension of other minds, or that we garner information about other minds from other sources than merely linguistic clues. While this second objection is relevant, it is far from insurmountable: while these other sources of information might not be linguistic, they are invariably semiotic and, as such, stand in a systemic relation to language as a modelling semiotic. Furthermore, the richer the source of information received, the more likely it is that the semiotic by which it’s conveyed will be more or less conventionalised (cf. kinesics, haptics, proxemics, and paralinguistic features such as stress, volume, and intonation) and thus be readily permeable to linguistic investigation. And, most tellingly, any discussion of or exchange about the contents of some mind or other will be ineluctably linguistic, thus placing a premium on first-person testimony. Fiction

As far as “the mind as fiction” is concerned, I’d contend that we cannot know ourselves as the subject of our experience. This follows from my remark in 1.1 above that we can make a real distinction between “I am introspectively contemplating my own mind” and “I am watching the play of shadow on the living room wall”. In the latter case, there is an apparent phenomenal and ontological distinction between the subject and object of contemplation (“some thing x is contemplating some thing y and xy“) whereas in the former the subject and object are supposedly one and the same thing (“some thing x is contemplating some thing y and x=y“). The subject of a sentence such as “I am watching the play of shadow on the living room wall” is determined as a subject by being distinct from the object. The subject of a sentence such as “I am introspectively contemplating my own mind” is indistinguishable from the object, unless we allow something like “one temporal part x of an object A is contemplating some other temporal part y of that same object” (I’ll spare you and myself the full formal expression of this). In less formal terms, either 1. I am contemplating a representation (memory) of myself, as if in a mirror, or 2. I’m attempting to pull myself up by my own bootstraps (red herring). Here, 2. is a red herring because it’s circular and leads to something like “x is contemplating ((x is contemplating (x is contemplating…” where there would be a non-finite recursion of “x is contemplating __”. We cannot contemplate ourselves as the immediate subject of contemplation qua subject. [I’ve been told that my insistence on this distinction is perhaps more idiosyncratic than grammatical. If this is indeed the case, then it stands as a first-hand illustration of ‘psychotic thinking’. More on this below]

So, what we are contemplating is a representation of ourselves – to all intents and purposes, a fictive version of ourselves. This doesn’t imply that the version we contemplate is false, merely that it is not ‘real’ in the (supposed) phenomenal sense that our immediate experience is ‘real’. The fictive version can be, and frequently is, narratively consistent with “who we are” – and this, I believe, is because being a psychosocial individual is just a matter of having a reasonably consistent and coherent first-person account of oneself with respect to other minds. We are indeed a collection of individuals, but as members of a social species our individuality is systemically dependent on our boundaries with, and exchanges with, others. When we contemplate our own minds, we are generating a narrative about ourselves that (supposedly) would make public sense (see below).

2.2 Autobiography and idiolect

The emphasis on the first person  implies that the mind is primarily (and unsurprisingly) an autobiographical narrative. Now, we have excellent reasons to hold that, far from being an ongoing discourse in some private, internal language, this narrative is composed of elements drawn from public, shared language. This is the sense in which I speak of a mind as an idiolectal narrative. An idiolect is the particular language use proper to an individual with respect to the shared habits of her linguistic community and, as such, will employ in a more or less idiosyncratic manner the words, expressions, and turns of phrase generally available in that community, as well as the paralinguistic and nonverbal elements typical of that community (accent, stress patterns, gesture etc.). A given speaker’s idiolect will thus be based primarily on the dialectal environment in which she was brought up and in which she lives – and here, ‘dialect’ is used both in the wider, more technical sense of a linguistic variant proper to a certain subgroup of a given language (thus, American and British English are dialects of “English”, or Quebecois and Belgian French are dialects of “French”) and in the narrower sense of the language use proper to some geographical or regional group (“Devon dialect”). It will also be influenced by her sociolectal environment – the language of her immediate socioeconomic class, educational level, age group, professional context, and peer group. In a very real sense, a given individual’s idiolect will be a patchwork of elements drawn from these sources and from a wider acquaintance with the language as a whole (particularly through media exposure, as in the effect of American English on non-American dialects of English). In an equally real sense, any language, dialect, or sociolect is just a hypothetical emergent on the community of idiolects that comprise it.

2.2.1 Autobiographical idiolect in “normal” (neurotypical) subjects

The words, expressions, and turns of phrase dialectally and sociolectally available to a given speaker will determine the range of her idiolect and will at least limit what she can express (allowing a weak reading of linguistic relativity). This doesn’t presuppose either that it’ll determine what she can express (as would be the case with a strong reading) or that it will limit what she can conceive of, insofar as one can have prelinguistic intuitions that can be expressed through analogy or metaphor. Furthermore, given that the sociolectal environment presupposes a community of experience, the normally-constituted subject will most probably participate in a community of mind (this is predicated on a basic ‘human’ similarity), and this will tend to minimise situations in which she might be brought to formulate intuitions that are massively divergent with respect to her various peer groups. Her apprehension of other minds is based on and founded in her membership of a given community of experience; while her individual experience gives a particular flavour to her mind as an ‘autobiographical first-person narrative’, there is no fundamental difference of kind between her mind and those of her peers. Within a given group, all the autobiographical narratives bear a fundamental similarity to each other, differing primarily in their specifics. To her, therefore, he “problem of other minds” would be at most academic

As I suggested in above, when contemplating our own minds we are not directly contemplating the subject of experience, but rather contemplating ourselves as subjects of experience (and, as I’ve suggested, what we are contemplating is perhaps a fictive version of ourselves). Here, the distinction is subtle, but real: the former alternative entails the non-finite regression I evoke above, while the latter gives the subject of experience as an object of contemplation. This is a primarily grammatical consideration, and reproduces the social distinction between “I” and “me” I evoked in section 1.2 above, where “I” designates naked emotivity and “me” designates a socialised entity that is precisely determined by the boundaries set by its interaction with ‘other minds’. In this respect, the mind as autobiographical narrative only makes sense in the context of a community of experience, and first-person mental talk serves the purpose of integrating the subject in that community – in other words, the idiolectal representation of their individual mind serves both to include the subject in a dialectal or sociolectal community of experience and to differentiate the subject within that community.

2.2.2 Autobiographical idiolect in “atypical” (neurodiverse) subjects

Are the minds of ‘normal’ (neurotypical) subjects effectively structured as autobiographical idiolectal narratives? The question is academic and, if my intuitions concerning fictionalism are correct, meaningless. The autobiographical model is as good as any with respect to the psychosocial domain that generally corresponds to ‘folk psychology’, and radical fictionalism frees us from the somewhat elitist (and silly) requirement of saying “Folk psychology is of course false but a fictionalist account allows us to save its utility”. From the viewpoint of radical fictionalism, all accounts of mind, from eliminative physicalism to full Cartesian dualism, are equally fictive and merely serve this or that pragmatic or discursive end. If we’re talking about why Mrs Wilkins threw water over Mr Carter’s bulldog when it was trying to roger her Pomeranian, not only is the contribution of neuroscience superfluous, it is actively inappropriate. Philosophy of mind tends to be a puffed-up, pompous discipline where – even more than in other branches of metaphysics – one man’s profound intuition is another man’s double facepalm. But on radical fictionalism a folk psychological account is just as valid as anomalous monism or new mysterianism. Similar remarks apply to neuropsychology, a domain that does seem to attract more than its fair share of earnest neurotypical  plodders. It all depends on what we’re trying to do.

“It all depends on what we’re trying to do.” What I’m trying to do is dissolve the unelected solipsism that characterises the delusional psychotic’s apprehension of other minds as elements of his own mind. This might seem a rather extreme claim, yet my interactions with others – and, particularly, my intimate interactions with others – have generally consisted in trying to incorporate and subsume the other into my own psychic space. Now, I’m not even sure that this a general or even common characteristic of ‘psychotic experience’ – at the moment I’m basing myself on personal experience and a certain reading of what autobiographical accounts are actually available. Nonetheless, the parallels between the solipsism of “an apparent flux of experience of a seeming flux of happening” and the dichotomy between one’s own and other minds are, I believe, in themselves worthy of investigation from a fictionalist perspective. Or perhaps it’ll just give another illustration of how at least one psychotic’s mind functions. Any road… An atypical mind

In 2.2.1 I remarked that the mind as autobiographical narrative only makes public sense in the context of a community of experience. Now, as a human animal, there are numerous areas of experience that I hold in common with those around me. Likewise, the same might seem to hold for me as a man, as a 60-year-old, as an anglophone, as a longtime resident of France, and so forth. But if there’s  one thing I’ve learnt since being diagnosed and starting medication, it’s that I can’t take for granted that any way of experiencing is held in common with those around me. Indeed, a large part of my solipsism is probably due to the divergence between the way I interpret the world and assign meaning to events and way those around me interpret and assign meaning. And this is particularly the case when exchanging on mental states and attitudes – as I also remarked above, first-person mental talk serves the purpose of integrating the subject into a given community, and in my case, this is only partially effective. I recognise the cues, but much of what people say about their feelings, mental states, and attitudes seems to me meaningless, artificial, or distorted. Until recently, I felt that – no matter how much I tried to touch the minds of those around me – they seemed impervious; indeed, rather than rejecting my attempts to broach the subject, they didn’t seem to react as if I was saying anything at all. In this respect, my solipsism was the result of a sense of isolation: I reached out to ‘other minds’, but there seemed to be nothing there that I could grasp.

Simultaneously, or perhaps as a result, the people in my life appeared to be merely actors in some ongoing and entirely personal solipsistic drama that seemed to me to tend towards some unknown but immensely portentous outcome. I would become famous, I would be celebrated, I would be admired and adored; or I would be vilified, rejected, and despised by all. It so happens that I am effectively imaginative, talented, and highly intelligent, and that I have the ability to impress and seduce those I encounter; yet on each occasion when these capacities were manifest I became convinced that I was on the threshold of the glorious outcome for which I had been born and towards which my life had always tended. And when the expected outcome didn’t arrive, when – despite my recognised skills – I was (unsurprisingly) treated as ‘just one person among many’, I felt that those around me had seen through my pretence and recognised me for the worthless creature I was, and I felt rejected and betrayed. And these extremes were not cyclical but concurrent. I can’t explain further how precisely I entertained at one and the same time entirely contradictory attitudes to myself, my actuality, and my destiny, but it’s akin to my ability to maintain and assert as facts things I know to be false while nonetheless not actually believing them to be false. And while these semi-delirious attitudes applied across the board in my life, they were most clearly manifest in my romantic relationships, where they fuelled sequential and concurrent idealisations and devaluations of both my partner and the relationship itself (this is akin to the borderline process of ‘splitting‘) .

All these portentous outcomes and inconsistencies correspond to the feeling that ‘reality’ was fluid and malleable – that it was rather a bundle of nested narratives, and what would be counted as the ‘real’ world – “this world” – depended entirely on my ability to convince others to see things as I saw them or wanted to see them. The most incomprehensible aspect of all this was that, despite profound contradictions between one world version and another, I still saw my mind as a fundamentally consistent narrative, and my mental states and attitudes as proceeding rationally from that narrative. My view of my own mind was that it too was a bundle of intertwined, nested narratives held together by some indescribable yet portentous destiny; perhaps unsurprisingly, I spent an inordinate amount of time reviewing, revising, and rewriting my own past. The fictive form of my life – of my mind – was realistic, insofar as it was generally constructed from parallels of the real people and events of my life, but it was a magical realism that could jump from one strand of the narrative to another with no apparent hiatus or rupture.

Insofar as my mind could be described as an idiolectal autobiography, it was couched in a form of language that was dialectally accurate but only superficially consistent with the language of my immediate socioeconomic class, educational level, age group, professional context, and peer group. Indeed, while I used only and exclusively terms and expressions drawn from a public sociolect, my usage was divergent and, when talking of my personal intuitions and emotions, was closer to a private than a public language. At times, and particularly during a psychotic episode, my ability to make public sense when speaking of my feelings would break down almost entirely, leading to a discursive style that could best be described as “word salad“. However, my speech appeared to make perfect sense to me, ad I would become increasingly frustrated that it seemed irrelevant or incomprehensible to my interlocutor, to the point of believing that they were deliberately misunderstanding me. Furthermore, I was unable to give even a metaphorical or analogous expression of my experiences and intuitions. So, and insofar as my speech was intended to convey the idiolectal representation of my mind, it served rather to exclude me from any sociolectal community of experience. In this respect, the manifestation of my mind was publicly irrational and out of keeping with my social, cultural, and intellectual background (cf. the DSM-5 criteria for delusional disorder).

2.3 Have you got it yet?

In order to function as a consistent account of the subject, a first-person narrative has to be couched in a language that is publicly accessible both to his interlocutor, his community of experience, and to the the subject himself. On the idiolectal model of mind, the first-person narrative makes sense because it is couched in elements derived from the sociolect, and these elements are employed according to normative usage – and, as I’ve suggested above, this is particularly the case when speaking of emotional states and mental attitudes (including consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, memory, and imagination). Now, this is worthy of closer attention. Following 2.2.1, if the idiolectal account is to make sense, it must make public sense on the dialectal and sociolectal levels. Allowing that the language of emotional states and mental attitudes reflects some kind of prelinguistic phenomenal experience, this would imply that there is a community of emotional and mental experience.

The mutual incomprehension between the psychotic (and perhaps borderline) subject and the more normally constituted implies that, to a greater or lesser extent, he is not a true member of this community of emotional and mental experience. Thus, the elements of my idiolect seem not to extend over the same range of concepts as do those of my more normally constituted peers, and it so happens that those close to me have remarked that I do seem to use common mental and emotional terms and expressions in a way that deviates from the way they are more normally employed. However, my idiolect is nonetheless derived from the common sociolect. My idiosyncratic use of sociolectal elements might well reflect some ‘private’ psychotic apprehension of the worlds available to my experience, but it is uncertain whether this first-person idiolectal apprehension satisfies the criteria for constituting a coherent and consistent autobiographical narrative.

Setting aside objections based solely on private language, a pragmatic test of this is whether my discourse makes sense to me, and whether I can formulate an internally coherent and consistent expression of my subjective experience. In a general sense, I have the impression that the various external events that constitute my life are meaningfully and sequentially ordered. This is not the case with my internal states and impressions, which seem rather to gravitate around certain obsessional beliefs about and attitudes towards myself and others. I mostly kept such thoughts to myself, but in a psychotic episode I would have the impression that I had some immensely portentous realisation that I had to share with those around me (usually my poor longsuffering wife). However, and despite my belief that I had vitally important information to impart, and despite the efforts I made to express it, I was unable even to formulate my intuitions to myself, let alone to others. This being the case, during such an episode my private use of sociolectal elements didn’t constitute a true idiolect insofar as it disallowed me from integrating a community of emotional and mental experience even to the extent of allowing me to formulate my divergence. My expression was, even to myself, merely delirious.

In such situations, I was expressing myself as the subject of experience (“I am feeling”) but I was incapable of saying what that feeling meant to me, let alone to anyone else, and I was even unable to express what my feeling was actually ‘about’. With respect to my remarks in, I was locked into the ‘bootstrap’ contemplation of myself as the subject of experience, hence the sense of constantly circling the raw anguish of feeling without ever being able to express what my feelings meant to me or to my interlocutor. I couldn’t see my subjective self as the object of contemplation, but was rather locked into an endless cycle of raw feeling that generated an obsessive, rambling discourse that bore no real relation to anything outside myself.


3. Breakfast with my cat

I’ve mentioned at several points that, at least until I began medication, I basically saw myself as a flux of experience linked together by spatiotemporal continuity, and not as a person among people. My first-person narrative fluctuated wildly between grandiosity and self-abasement, and I was unable to share with others my intuitions about myself and about my relationship with the world and the people around me. Insofar as I was operating on any first-person narrative, it was primarily private. Of course I recognised that people were a distinct class of entities among the various things that made up the seeming flux of happening that presented itself as the object of my experience, and I could see that they resembled me. But I felt fundamentally isolated from them, as if they resembled me but were not of the same kind as I was.

Since starting medication, there has been a very real change in my experience of myself – I can, to a far greater extent, break out of circular, self-obsessed thinking and begin to see myself more as belonging not only to a linguistic community but also, as my empathic capacities improve,  to a community of experience. There are still fundamental differences, but it’s becoming possible for me to accept that other people have a kind of first-person experience that bears similarities of kind to mine. Given my mental differences, this requires that, against the background given by a shared sociolect and on a case-by-case basis, I confront their idiolect to mine and attempt to establish a duolect – that is, a use of language proper to my interactions with that person. A duolect is a form of language in which there is an exchange between first- and second-person narratives; while, in the past, my second-person interactions have been largely a matter of trying myself to supply my interlocutor’s mental states, I’m beginning to accept that they are, individually, the theatre of a first-person narrative that, despite radical differences, is still compatible with mine.

Until recently, I saw the discourse of others as expressing some kind of undifferentiated sociolectal perspective that was opposed to and generally hostile to mine. The secret lies, it would seem, in trying my best to listen to the discourse of each individual as the expression of a unique, idiolectal point of view. I could go further and say that it lies simply in listening. Whether or not such a point of view is comprehensible to my first-person perspective, it can be compatible with that perspective. Our similarities provide the ground on which communication can be founded; our differences allow us to negotiate a common understanding and the construction of a world we can both inhabit.

“What” a person might be is a philosophical question, and can be answered as “a collection or sequence of first-person experiences ordered in such a way as to give a reasonably coherent and consistent first-person narrative”. “Who” a person is is given by a series of psychosocial characteristics ranging from the most general demographical qualities through professional and educational elements to character traits, personal preferences, beliefs, attitudes and the like. For some, these characteristics entirely determine who they are; for others they are a range of possibilities; to yet others they are facets that will come to the fore in this or that circumstance. But whatever else they are, they provide the ground on which the various events and phases of the individual’s life play out.

In a practical sense, this requires a new stance with respect to listening. Rather than picking out key words in my interlocutor’s discourse and using their speaking time to prepare a response to what I have already decided they are going to say, I try to listen more attentively and confront what they are saying to my preconceptions. If what they are saying contradicts or diverges from my preconceptions, I now attempt to correct my presuppositions in order to align my mind with theirs. What they have to say is the expression of a subjective narrative that is more or less constructed and that – more importantly – differs from mine. The apprehension of this difference is the first step towards negotiating a common, duolectal narrative founded not on the subsumption of their psychic space within mine, but on the recognition of the boundaries between their space and mine, and on the establishment of systemic relations between the two.


As to radical fictionalism, I think I’ll plan a little trip down to Sandy Warren with my rabbiting gun, my copy of Word and Object, and my Arunta guide.piddix-i-m-late-alice-in-wonderland-white-rabbit-by-john-tenniel_a-G-15137999-9664571


7 thoughts on “Mister Badger encounters Other Minds

  1. Pingback: Mister Badger defends neurodivergence | There could be badgers…

  2. Pingback: Mister Badger considers rejection | There could be badgers…

  3. Pingback: Mister Badger confronts borderline rage | There could be badgers…

  4. Pingback: apologia pro poemate meo | There could be badgers…

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