Can Two Minds Know One Thing

Can Two Minds Know One Thing

An Essay in Loving Memory of Dean Brown

Dean was someone I was instantly close to. The first time we met we talked on for an hour straight. He said to me with a big parting smile, “We’ve covered everything that’s important tonight. The rest just follows from it.” You can’t do that with someone, “cover everything that’s important,” unless you can communicate the unspoken alongside all the words. And you can’t do that with someone (communicate the unspoken) unless you can love him or her, openly and in an instant. That was Dean and he could do all that, even easily.

Sometime later we were immersed in another conversation meandering through the history of science, epistemology and philosophy. It was like our own chapter meeting of the Metaphysical Club, that now renowned discussion group of the founders of American Pragmatism. William James, Charles Saunders Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and other “long-headed youths” used to meet “half-ironically, half-defiantly” as the Metaphysical Club in James’ or Peirce’s study in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1872. (1) Dean was fond of pointing out that Peirce was not only the most original and important American philosopher but also the most original and important philosopher period. It has even been suggested that Dean was a reincarnation of Peirce, something that seemed not so far-fetched when you would hear Dean expound on Peirce’s complex ideas with uncanny clarity and familiarity. (2) As we traversed this uncertain territory we came to the question: How can we actually know what someone else means when they think something and then tell us? Dean stopped and said to me, “James once wrote an essay on that, How two minds can know one thing.” I was rapt and left with Dean’s words on my mind. When I got home I went to my collection of James’ writings. (3) And there it was, written in 1905 and originally published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method. So I wrote this piece with for Dean and gave it to him shortly before he died. I am still flattered by the fact that he liked it and warmed by the memory of his smile in all these matters.

What does James say, you must want to know. It’s dense wading, this swamp of pure philosophy. We must arm ourselves with gun and camera, strange creatures are sure to be encountered. But the geography is an even bigger danger. Ropes and waist-high boots are necessary for the quicksand of “things-in-themselves.” The impassable morass of “ostensions” requires special aerial equipment. And maps are just no good for the “reifications.” There is simply no way out of them.

But James is worth it; he is a friend in this inhospitable land. So we take his lead. In good professional form he starts with definitions. He calls a thing, e.g. this pen, a datum, a sense impression and he defines these as “pure experiences.” In those days philosophers used pens in many ways that today are obsolete because of computers, but the point remains. These pure experiences are known to a mind as a “representation” of an object or class of objects. The “representative theory of cognition” is “what we all spontaneously do,” he tells us (p. 131, Essays in Radical Empiricism). It is what we mean by knowing. It is literally a recognition or re-cognition. Though there is something of interest here, it is not about cognition. Like James’ pen “representation as cognition” is somewhat obsolete. Somewhat because we all still use pens just not the same way as we used to. Now we use computers and pens. And now we know that “sense impressions” are heavily censored in sense organs and “pure experiences” are heavily edited in the nervous system. The current view is more that we construct “pure experiences” rather than have them. Cognition is more properly understood as “bringing forth” or “constructing” a world (4,5). But like our pen with our computer we still use representation as way of talking about what science does, just not as a way of talking about cognition. (6) But we can’t fault James for this. The biology of visual perception hadn’t yet been worked out when he was writing.

But James was on the right track because his question remains, How can two minds know one thing? And here true to his brilliance he gets interesting. He notes that at the moment we “know” a pen in the sense of recognizing it as a cognition it attaches to our consciousness with feelings, nuance. It becomes our “own” experience and in this way enters our consciousness. So now we can see how one mind can know a thing. What about two minds?

A paradox emerges. My consciousness is unique so how can something of my consciousness be shared by someone else’s? Not to worry says James. “The paradox of the same experience figuring in two consciousnesses seems thus no paradox at all. To be ‘conscious’ means not simply to be, but to be reported, known, to have awareness of one’s being added to that being”(p. 132, Essays in Radical Empiricism). So two minds know one thing by attaching that one thing to each of their consciousnesses in its unique way. Is it the same thing? James never answers this but implies that the thing is the same but “knowing” it is unique.

Then he climbs in a hot air balloon and leaves the swamp beckoning to us. “Understanding this is not a logical difficulty,” he tells us waving from the air. “It is an ontological difficulty rather.” (p. 132, Essays in Radical Empiricism)

So we can understand how two minds can know one thing. And we can further see how we take for granted that the same thing is known and that on deeper examination how knowing is really unique to the individual. But why is it an ontological difficulty? “Relationship, of course,” it seems he is saying but his voice is drawing fainter. James offers a few corollaries from post-Kantian idealists, his white scarf flowing in the air, but we can’t hear him. And he is clearly losing interest as he enjoys a magnificent view of us, still in the swamp.


  1. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001).
  2. Walter Semkiw, MD, Return of the Revolutionaries (Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads, 2003).
  3. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).
  4. Capra in the Web of Life discusses this in an explanation of the ideas of Maturana and Varela. “Cognition is not a representation but a bringing forth of a world.” Fritjof Capra, Web of Life (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1996), 270.
  5. Francisco Varela is quite explicit, “We must call into question the idea that the world is pregiven and that cognition is representation.” Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1991), 140.
  6. Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening, (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1983)
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