I have not really pursued the history or literature on either one of these topics, though the two concepts are often encountered in readings.

I have always vaguely taken the "Other" to emerge post-Kant, in perhaps Hegel's Phenomenology, evolving onward though Lacan, Levinas, (neither of whom have I read), and many others, becoming a standard term with many variants.

I tend to assume it implies not just an "object" but "another subject" or alter-ego or an alterity with some sort of intentionality. I have never seen it related per se to the problem of "other minds" in the analytic traditions, which itself seems to have lost popularity or perhaps acquired a new terminology while I wasn't looking.

Are my vague understandings wildly incorrect? Do, for example, Descartes, Hume, or Kant deal in some fashion with "other minds?" Is it fair to assume that "other" and "other minds" are at least somewhat related concepts? Are there distinct differences? Are there any suggested readings that might help me sort it out?

Note that there is so much on "the other" that I'd actually prefer some orientation based more traditionally on "other minds," if that makes sense. Or on "mind" as discontinuous. Though I listed specific questions, I don't expect direct answers, just direction.

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    The discourse around "alterity" or otherness tends to refract or displace the problem of other minds to some degree -- the other approaches/calls/is "given" to me almost transcendentally, before I even exist as a separated, situated subjectivity
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 5, 2016 at 18:10
  • I was going to post this as an answer, but I can't find anything to suggest my definition of The Other aligns with those of Hegel et. al. However, it seemed close enough that it seemed worth mentioning. If you have a Self, and admit that other minds exist, you typically learn enough about how they act to work with them. The Other is all that which is truly alien to the Self. If other minds exist, and are not part of your Self, then that suggests The Other is capable of intentional acts which are completely alien to you. Personally, I use it when playing with a philosophy that has a...
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 5, 2016 at 20:25
  • ... clear line between self and not-Self. Sometimes its effective to call the not-Self part the Environment, but sometimes I'll call it The Other to draw attention to the fact that this environment may contain self-aware entities which are alien to the Self.
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 5, 2016 at 20:26
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    Talking about German Idealism, Fichte and his theory of the self-conciousness precedes Hegel and strongly influenced him as well as Honneth in his theory of recognition, to mention a more recent example. In general, every good theory of a personal self has to talk about other minds.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 5, 2016 at 22:34
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    I think this would be The Struggle for Recognition, his first main book before the recent Freedom's Right. But he constantly revised his theory of recognition after the former, according to objections of his critics.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 6, 2016 at 0:16

3 Answers 3


The answer is "Not at all." The problem of other minds is a metaphysical and epistemological question: "How do I know that there are other minds?" I can directly observe behavior of other humans, but to infer mentality from behavior in the case of others is to make an inference, and therefore the question arises whether the inference is a good one.

The question about The Other, so far as I can tell, is ethical. "What should I do to/for/with the Other?" Of course, the complicating factor is that sometimes authors like Levinas tend to make (seemingly implausible) claims about The Other that look metaphysical, like, "You can't be a self until you encounter an Other." I am not qualified to speak to what the reasons for such claims might be, however.


Let me expand upon why I think the metaphysical claims that the encounter with the Other being a transcendental condition of the possibility of your own subjecthood is implausible. Doing so might help explain why analytic philosophers aren't inclined to think "the Other", as Lacan and Levinas describe it, is in fact a useful category at all.

Here's the argument:

(1) If encountering an other is a condition of the possibility of subjecthood, then you can't be a person without encountering the other.

(2) But you can be a person without encountering the other.

(3) Therefore, encountering the other is not a condition of the possibility of subject hood.

(1) is just a definition that expresses the meaning of the phrase "condition of the possibility".

We can support (2) in two different ways. First, by thinking of the case of severely autistic people. Autism is a spectrum disorder that involves impairment to one 'theory of mind' i.e. with one's ability to recognize and perceive that other people are people, as opposed to mere objects. At the far end of that spectrum, it looks like we have individuals who genuinely could not ever "encounter an other". Such individuals tend to suffer a number of really heart-breaking impairments, but it is obviously absurd to say that they aren't subjects at all.

The second way that we could support (2) would be to appeal to conceivability/possibility arguments. Suppose you don't buy the autism case in the case of humans. Ok. If it is conceivable without contradiction that there exist any kind of subject (aliens, God, whatever) that does not encounter an other, then it is possible to be a subject without encountering an other, just as (2) says.

(3) follows from (1) and (2) by modus ponens, so the argument is valid. It looks sound to me as well.

I'll admit that I've never seen anybody explicitly run this argument in print, but I am quite certain it's the first thing that an analytically trained philosopher of mind reading Levinas is going to think.

I would also be surprised if any argument like this had ever been published in the Levinas literature either---continental papers don't tend to criticize the great names in the canon, or object to their theses, or try to defend those theses from the objections of others. I'd be happy for somebody cite me an article to show I'm wrong in this case.

  • Thanks, this is clarifying. As far as I know, you are right that the "Other" arises largely in what we might call ethical contexts, thought this cannot help but merge into metaphysical questions. Yet I cannot agree that the problems relate "not at all." I am not sure what sorts of comparisons have been or might be drawn, but we do already have many ethical questions surrounding AI, where we might, for example, infer proper mentality from behaviors precisely "because" a sense of moral reciprocity begins to emerge, a common movie trope. Feb 5, 2016 at 22:19
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    This is a good answer. I would add that the concept of the Other is not only ethical but social
    – M. le Fou
    Feb 6, 2016 at 5:45
  • If we suppose "the Other" is a useful ethical concept, then sure, I imagine further metaphysical questions could come up--What kinds of things are qualified to be "the Other?" would be one. But I don't know any continental authors who would go on to ask those further questions, because they care about the phenomenology, not the metaphysics. Maybe "being taken to be the Other" is constitutive, somehow, of being an Other. None of that sounds remotely plausible to me, but maybe virmaior or one of the other folks who knows continental better can correct me.
    – user5172
    Feb 6, 2016 at 12:29
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    @NelsonAlexander: It is of course one aspect of the mirroring included in the concept of the veil of ignorance (in effect overcoming the me-you difference by shifting points of view). But I can't remember particular parts of the argument adressing this. Perhaps others can.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 6, 2016 at 16:22
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    The autistic clearly have will, consciousness, and reason, as well as the ability to suffer, and to feel. Even at the low end of the spectrum, with non-verbal patients, they are certainly conscious. If none of those are the salient properties Levinas is on about---then again, he's simply talking about something trivial, which has no importance for anything we care about.
    – user5172
    Feb 6, 2016 at 21:36

One use of The Other, covering both the phenomenological focus and that of Jung and Lacan, is that it is what one is aware of that confirms the Self is real and not imaginary (and that which one invents the symbolic realm to interpret.) Simple mechanical reality generally does not qualify. A mechanical reality that had no Other might simply be a game of the mind reflecting on itself. But once one feels oneself formed in contrast with something else (often a mother figure) one imagines a greater reality.

In a framing such as the 'Gnostic proof of God' (which is a simplification of Hegel's point of view): https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/17785/9166 it seems impossible not to see the Other as evidence of another mind of some sort. We are intuitively given to believe that what is powerful enough to resist us has a mind, or more than one mind, or has been constructed by another mind, whether or not we can make contact with that mind directly.

In that sense, I would say the two issues are intimately linked, and there is enough continuity not to write off the connection between the older forms and the ones from Critical Theory.


My first thoughts were along the lines of Shane's answer "not much" or "not at all."

And I think that's right for the contemporary "Other".

If we want to stretch and find something more distant, then I would say there's a possible connection (but not one anyone would draw) between the classical origin of the problem of the Other in Hegel (and then inherited by Sartre), which is that I experience the Other as an another subject that is acting on the world and messing with my actions. Or to put it another way, the way I know for Hegel et al. that there is an Other (i.e. a self other than me) is that the world refuses to organize itself according to the conjunction of pure nature and my intentional actions).

But then as to how the two relate:

  1. I don't think that the Hegel account of other minds gets much play in the contemporary metaphysics literature.
  2. The Lacan Levinas use of Other is then only distantly related to that use anyway.
  • Thanks. See my response to Shane. I suppose because it seems fairly clear, to me at least, that connections "could" be made, I assume that out there in our universe of monkeys on typewriters one "has" been made. Seems like one of those Continental-Analytical divides that ought to have thawed. Anyway, I forgot all about Sartre...! Feb 5, 2016 at 22:27
  • I suppose in the distal sense of related problem, they are most assuredly related. But I've never seen anyone doing work on it in any way that genuinely considers both on their own levels. Shane would know the analytic literature better; I've done some work on the continental side. In continental things, the problem of other minds at best appears by reference in a dismissive way.
    – virmaior
    Feb 6, 2016 at 1:58
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    +1, one important constraint on the world of philosophy monkeys and their typewriters, is that those monkeys are trying to get published, and get tenure, which means they have to write for the other monkeys who are going to read, i.e. referees and journal editors.
    – user5172
    Feb 6, 2016 at 12:31
  • @shane. Not sure that constraint is operative on the Continental side and the English departments...why spend limited funding on erasers and waste baskets? Or at least such is my parody of the Analytic Other. Feb 6, 2016 at 16:57

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