Précis of “Socializing Minds. Intersubjectivity in Early Modern Philosophy”

Please accept my apologies for some more advertising: As I am preparing for my first author-meets-critics event in Budapest (there is at least one more to follow in Frankfurt), I wrote a brief summary of my book that I post below. (In the meantime, I also recorded a short video for the History of Philosophy Books in Three Minutes.) *


The final programme of the Budapest conference:



This book provides the first reconstruction of intersubjective accounts of the mind in early modern philosophy. Some phenomena are easily recognised as social or interactive: certain dances, forms of work and rituals require interaction to come into being or count as valid. But what about mental states, such as thoughts, volitions or emotions? Do our minds also depend on other minds? The idea that our minds are intersubjective or social seems to be a fairly recent one, developed mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries against the individualism of early modern philosophers. By contrast, this book argues that well-known early modern philosophers often even started from the idea that minds are intersubjective.

How then does a mind depend on the minds of others? – Early modern philosophers are well known to have developed a number of theories designed to explain how we cognize external objects. What is hardly recognized is that early modern philosophers also addressed the problem of how our cognition is influenced by other minds. This book provides a historical and rational reconstruction of three central but different early modern accounts of the influence that minds exert on one another: Spinoza’s metaphysical model, Locke’s linguistic model, and Hume’s medical model. Showing for each model of mental interaction (1) why it was developed, (2) how it construes mind-mind relations, and (3) what view of the mind it suggests, this book aims at uncovering a crucial part of the unwritten history of intersubjectivity in the philosophy of mind.


What is intersubjectivity and why should we care about the history of this idea? After a brief explanation of the topic, the introduction will set out the major claims of this study. Taking issue with the common historiography, this part will briefly look back at Gilbert Ryle’s famous Concept of Mind that presents us with a discussion of Descartes’ cogito before developing what is now often referred to as “behaviorism”. The introduction argues that, rather than just drawing a caricature of Cartesianism, Ryle gains enormous argumentative mileage out of his “Cartesian Myth” for his own approach: Claiming that Cartesian dualism entails individualism about the mind, he runs together two theses that should rather be kept separately. In decoupling mentalism and individualism, the introduction shows that minds can be and indeed were taken to interact and directly affect one another.

Chapter One: Spinoza’s Metaphysical Model

This chapter presents Spinoza’s concept of the mind as grounded in contrary conative interaction. Since Spinoza thinks that the identity of individuals lies in their striving for self-preservation (conatus), his position is often interpreted as a version of individualism. However, given that Spinoza takes individuals to be determined by their convergence in striving, any number of entities striving in the same way can be called an individual. Thus, metaphysically speaking, whole communities can be seen as individuals. But what is the crucial principle according to which minds are related to one another? Building on what it means for an idea to have a conatus, the chapter shows that it is the notion of contrariety that is crucial for understanding his metaphysics of the mind.

Chapter Two: Locke’s Linguistic Model

This chapter presents Locke’s theory of ideational and linguistic intentionality as based on the acceptance of the speech community. While Locke’s view is commonly taken to be individualistic, it is often overlooked that his position is clearly embedded in an anthropological view that deems humans as inherently social animals. It will be shown that his crucial step lies in uniting two traditions that have mostly been kept apart: Aristotelian semantics, on the one hand, and the anthropology underlying the political thought in authors such as Pufendorf, on the other hand. Mediated by language, the content of human thought is determined by tacit consent. What makes the expressions of ideas correct or incorrect is determined by whether they are accepted by other members of the linguistic community. In contrast to numerous interpretations, it is thus argued that the decisive factor in the determination of ideas turns out to be intersubjective.

Chapter Three: Hume’s Medical Model

This chapter presents Hume as endorsing a medical model of intersubjectivity. While it benefitted greatly from so-called naturalistic and therapeutic readings, it differs from those in that it takes the references to medicine not as metaphorical. Rather, it will try to spell out how the model shapes Hume’s view of the mind. It shall be argued, then, that for Hume medical assumptions help us seeing how our mental lives are socially shaped. Although Hume is not explicit about the precise medical theories he endorses, he is adamant to defend his account of sympathy against competing explanations, especially against so-called climate theories according to which our mental life is largely shaped by our physical environment rather than through interactions. The emerging position is that the sympathetic interdependence of our minds forms the background against which our views count as normal or good.


What are the crucial alterations in the common picture of early modern philosophy of mind that this study leaves us with? Even if early modern authors often seem to consider mental states as arising independently of the social environment, the explanatory focus is intersubjective: For Spinoza, Locke, and Hume mental states of individuals have to be explained in relation to other minds. After a brief summary, the conclusion contextualizes the metaphysical, linguistic and medical models by highlighting their early modern opponents and some current philosophical debates in which these models survive. In a further step, this chapter provides a brief survey of potential receptions of the models in Anne Conway, Condillac, Dugald Stewart, and Immanuel Kant.


* Eric Schliesser published three blogposts in advance of the conference:

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