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Philosophers and Other Conjurers

What did Ludwig Wittgenstein mean by comparing a philosophical problem to a magic trick? Ask professional magicians.

Much philosophy starts with an innocent-sounding question. To some, the question will sound innocent to the point of stupidity; those people get off the bus right away. Some stick around a bit longer and find that the apparent stupidity opens up into profound intellectual vistas; enticed, they stay for the ride. Some of these long-distance passengers never cease to be excited by the view. Others come to feel that they have been taken for a ride and that the fantastic views are mirages. 

As I read Ludwig Wittgenstein, he is among the latter group of passengers. He once suggested we compare a philosophical problem to a magic trick. He may have been the first person to draw such a comparison. But what did he mean by it? It will be helpful to have an example of each before us.

One such seminal and childlike question is Can we know what another person is thinking (or feeling)? It seems almost silly because we obviously can. Not a day goes by without our formulating views about what others believe, hope, fear, see, or feel. We structure our lives around thoughts about what is going on in the minds of others. How can that question so much as seem interesting? 

The first step along the path to perplexity is to take stock of our evidence. So, what have we got to go on? Well, we have information about another person that is conveyed through our five sense organs: we can see their bodies move, we can hear the sounds they make, and so on. Absent extra-sensory perception or direct mind-to-mind contact, our views about another person’s mental life must be based entirely on facts about their observable behavior. And now the challenge is to explain how we get from such facts—which can seem to have nothing to do with events in the mind but only with how physical bodies are moving—to facts about another’s thoughts, pains, and itches.  

Meeting the challenge might appear straightforward: we simply establish correlations between what a person’s body does and what is happening in his mind. Then observation of a certain behavior, together with information about such correlations, will allow us to draw conclusions about the mental life of that individual. Why (by way of analogy) do we infer that inside this particular shell there is a walnut? Because whenever we have opened such shells, we have always found walnuts. Why do we infer that someone is now in pain? Because pain is usually accompanied by groaning or grimacing or expressions like “That hurts!”, and these behaviors are what we presently observe. 

So, what evidence do we have for the correlations that hold between what people do with their bodies and what is happening in their minds? If we do not have good evidence for such correlations, then we do not have good evidence for the beliefs about other minds that apparently depend on them. 

But the rub comes precisely in explaining what evidence we might have for the correlations. For though we analogized them to the correlations between the presence of brain-shaped nuts and certain hard wrinkled casings, they are in a critical respect very different. It is in principle possible to observe both elements of these latter correlations: walnuts and their shells are physical objects and as such can be seen, touched, and so on. But this is not so for our postulated mind-body correlations. Bodies, to be sure, can be seen, touched, and so on, but our minds cannot. Indeed, that was the very feature that launched our big question in the first place, the question of how we can know what is going on in the mind of another person. 

To see how vexing it is to find evidence for such correlations, imagine that someone claims that it is in fact straightforward: we simply observe that whenever someone clutches her head in a certain way and we ask her what is the matter, she responds “I have a headache.” Does this not establish a correlation between certain behavior (her head-clutching) and certain mental states (her having a headache)? No. What such observations establish is that there is a correlation between her clutching her head and her saying “I have a headache,” that is, a correlation between one kind of behavior (non-verbal) with another kind (verbal). And this correlation would be of value only if we could establish a further correlation between her saying “I have a headache” and her having a headache. Unfortunately, this last correlation simply recapitulates our original problem. 

It is tempting to observe that this correlation—between saying “I have a headache” and actually having a headache—holds in one’s own case, and to extrapolate to its holding in the case of others. But how do we know that in general the behavioral-mental correlations that hold in our own case also hold in the case of others? If we do not know that, then generalizing from our own case to that of all others seems like a wild and unjustified extrapolation. But to know that the correlations that hold for oneself hold for others, one would have to know what is going on in the minds of others. And explaining how we know that is precisely what launched this inquiry.

We are befuddled. Given what we know (about the mental life of others) and what our evidence seems to be restricted to (their behavior, verbal or non-verbal), it seems that the latter does not suffice to reach the former. Every time we think we have found a means to bridge the gap, we realize that those means tacitly presuppose that the gap has already been bridged.

The problem of other minds is hale, hearty, and still haunting today.

This is the Problem of Other Minds. It is a problem about how the knowledge we take ourselves to have is indeed obtainable. We have been focusing on knowledge about the particular mental states of others, but the same problem arises for our knowledge that there is any mental life beyond our own. Given the evidence we are restricted to, can we really justify claims about whether there are any other minds? It all began with an innocent—almost silly—question about how we can know what another person is thinking; through a series of simple steps of reasoning, it has led to an unfathomable conclusion. 

You may think that this problem is merely trotted out to hook undergraduates in Philosophy 101, whereas philosophers actually solved it long ago. This would be wrong and, more importantly, it would misrepresent the nature of philosophy. The problem of other minds is hale, hearty, and still haunting today.

I will return to it. But first I will describe a piece of magic. It is very famous, in part because a young and (at the time) unknown magician, Dai Vernon, mystified the world-famous magician Harry Houdini with it in 1922. It is no more or less than this: a participant selects any playing card from a deck and signs its face. The card is slowly and cleanly placed back into the middle of the deck. The magician immediately turns over the topmost card and it is the signed card. The card is again slid back into the middle of the deck. The magician once more turns over the top card: it is the signed card. Houdini, who had boasted that no trick could fool him if he saw it three times, was left speechless, except for the request “Do it again.” Vernon did. Houdini suggested a duplicate card was being used, so Vernon reminded him he had initialed the card. Vernon repeated the effect. Houdini wondered whether the card was not really being buried in the deck, so Vernon allowed him to slide the card into the deck himself. Vernon repeated the effect half a dozen times. But Houdini was left mystified. The effect is known as the Ambitious Card, because the signed card demonstrates its determination to rise to the top of the pack again and again. It continues to be a source of wonder for audiences today. (For a fuller account, see Ben 2006. For a demonstration, see this video.)

What might the Ambitious Card have to do with the Problem of Other Minds? At first sight, very little. The one involves some reflections about how we know something. The other is a theatrical presentation, possibly performed in silence, that leaves the observer in a peculiar state of perplexity. 

And yet Wittgenstein compared a moment in philosophical reflection to “the decisive move in the conjuring trick” (Wittgenstein 1958, §308). Was this just an off-the-cuff metaphor? Or did Wittgenstein really find some deeper affinity between the two?

What is a decisive move in a conjuring trick? First, and obviously, it is something that takes place in the context of an interaction between the conjurer and his participant. Secondly, it is “decisive” in the sense that it is required for the trick: without it, the desired effect could not be achieved. Thirdly, it is a move in a “conjuring trick,” and so it must be invisible; the participant must not be aware that this move has been made. Unless the move is hidden from the observer, she will not be seduced by the effect; indeed, if the move is uncovered, the trick will be ruined. Fourthly, what renders the move invisible is subterfuge on the part of the performer, be it legerdemain, misdirection, the construction of false memories, or some other stratagem. Techniques of subterfuge capitalize on some feature of the participant’s psychology—for instance, the principles that govern what is in the spotlight of her attention and what is forced into the shadows. A participant in a conjuring illusion is usually an unwitting partner in her own deception. 

There is a world of difference between a spectator’s not knowing how something’s done versus his knowing that it can’t be done.

Simon Aronson

I referred above to “the desired effect”—but what is that? What is the magician aiming to accomplish? Some magicians agree roughly about the state they aim to induce, and it will be worthwhile to quote some of their descriptions. One particularly evocative account is given by the magician Whit Haydn, who says that his goal is to tie his observers “in a mental knot.” “The job of the magician,” he writes, “is to trap the spectator in this logical conundrum.” And this entrapment leads to “a peculiar mental excitation—a burr under the saddle of the mind. If the operation is performed correctly, the patient will not be able to ignore the problem, but will keep coming back to it again and again” (Haydn, pp. 5-6).

The Spanish magician Juan Tamariz writes, “Besides being astonished, [observers] should be dumbfounded, caught in a hallucination, feeling amazed, spellbound and totally fascinated by the mystery they have witnessed” (Tamariz, p. 3). According to Tamariz, when a magical effect goes as planned, an audience is not merely surprised. They are left not knowing what to say, “dumbfounded,” as if caught in a spell. Both Haydn and Tamariz emphasize the feeling of there being no way out, of being trapped or caught. This feeling stems from the realization that no door provides an exit from the “mystery.” “All the false solutions,” Tamariz writes, “all the impossible roads to them, all the solutions he can see or imagine, will gradually be shown as what they are: absurd, useless, a waste of time” (Tamariz, p. 17).

Magicians will often say that their goal is not to surprise the observer, or to fool or to stump her. A magic trick is not a bare shock, a merely unexpected event. Nor is it a con, which is a performance that, when successful, actually leaves the gull unaware that anything strange has happened. Nor is it intended as a puzzle that presents a challenge; as Simon Aronson, an important contributor to card magic, nicely put it, “There is a world of difference between a spectator’s not knowing how something’s done versus his knowing that it can’t be done” (Aronson 1990). If a spectator—perhaps on account of her disposition, perhaps on account of the performance—feels she has been presented with a puzzle whose solution for the moment eludes her, many magicians would be disappointed. 

Consider, for instance, Derek DelGaudio’s account of his youthful performance of a Cups and Balls routine:

When I revealed the balls beneath the cups, she said, “Hey, that was good, I didn’t even see you put them there.”

Put them there? I wanted her to feel as though the balls had appeared under the cups, not as though I had “put them there.”

While I never thought she (or anyone) would ever actually believe balls materialized out of thin air, that’s what I strived for. […] The only way to do that, to create that euphoric state of astonishment, was to remove all other possible solutions as to how the event occurred. “You put them there” clearly fell short of that mark.

DelGaudio, pp. 64-5

The point of a “magic trick” is not to trick someone. In magic’s more ambitious moments, it is rather to induce a state in which one believes that something has occurred and also that no ordinary explanation for this occurrence will do. One knows, for instance, that the balls are under the cup, while dismissing “You put them there” as an explanation; one knows that the card placed in the middle of the deck is now on top, while dismissing the possibility of any manipulation. This is not to suspect that an explanation still eludes one or that its details remain to be worked out. It is rather to sense that there is no ordinary explanation at all. It would have to be along these lines: but that isn’t possible! The juxtaposition of the conviction that there must be an explanation with the sense that there isn’t one appears as a marvel. DelGaudio here, with many magicians, leans on the word “wonder” to describe the state they are after; in the course of their performance, they say, they seek to induce a “sense of wonder.”

I should like once more to crane my neck, and with the nerves of my digestive apparatus all on edge with the fantasticality of it, once more, just once, see the impossible come to pass.

Thomas Mann

In the winter of 1922, Thomas Mann attended three séances at the home of Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, a wealthy doctor in Munich who was immersed in what he took to be the scientific study of paranormal phenomena. Shortly thereafter, Mann wrote an account of his visit, “An Experience in the Occult.” He described what was in fact an elaborate performance of magic, though Mann did not recognize it as such. He reported that he was “in that intriguing state of mind in which reason commands us to recognize what reason on the other hand would reject as impossible.” This induced in him “a mild form of seasickness,” and yet he wished to relive it: “I should like once more to crane my neck, and with the nerves of my digestive apparatus all on edge with the fantasticality of it, once more, just once, see the impossible come to pass” (Mann, pp. 249, 252, 261). Mann experienced the séance as Haydn and Tamariz and DelGaudio would have their audience experience a performance of magic.

I shall now suggest that he experienced it as Wittgenstein experienced philosophical problems.

Throughout Wittgenstein’s writings, he returns to what it is like to be gripped by a philosophical problem. The terms he uses evoke an experience akin to the spellbound mental excitation that magicians aim for. Wittgenstein describes certain philosophical accounts as inducing a “mental whirl”; contemplating them, he says, “your head reels.” Often a philosophical argument “astounds” us, he writes, and exercises a “great charm” on its beholder (Wittgenstein 1976, pp. 17, 253). Gabriel Citron perceptively observes that Wittgenstein uses the term “charm” not merely in the more familiar sense of attraction but in the original sense of spell. Wittgenstein, he notes, “described our philosophical predicament using words explicitly indicative of an untoward magical force.” Citron helpfully collects a number of these remarks from Wittgenstein, including: “Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment [Verhexung] of our understanding by the resources of our language”; “Our motto might be: ‘Let us not be bewitched [behexen]’”; “You are under the misapprehension that the philosophical problem is difficult, whereas it’s hopeless. … [Y]ou’re under a spell”; and finally: 

I now believe that it would be right to begin my book with remarks about metaphysics as a kind of magic [Magie]. But in doing this, I must not … make fun of it. The depth of magic [Magie] should be preserved … For, back then, when I began talking about the ‘world’ (and not about this tree or table), what else did I want but to keep something higher spellbound [bannen] in my words.

Wittgenstein, quoted by Citron, p. 6

Philosophy is “a kind of magic.” Not the sort of magic trick your Uncle Milton inflicted on you; rather, the kind that leaves you in a “mental whirl,” a tantalizing situation in which you are repeatedly tugged to revisit a question—How can this be?—convinced that no possible answer will do. 

This may partly explain the longevity of both magic and philosophy. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes of “the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous” (§6 ¶19). He explains it by noting that the marvelous induces the “passion of surprise and wonder” which, he says rather blandly, is “an agreeable emotion” (§6 ¶16). Wittgenstein was also struck by this propensity to the marvelous, but he took it to reflect more than our interest in pleasant feelings: there is a perceived “depth of magic,” as he puts it, and there is a hunger in us for such depth. This hunger draws us to philosophy as it does to magic and, more generally, to the miraculous.

Man has to awaken to wonder—and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein takes the marvels of magic and philosophy to be all the more attractive to us now because of the soporific effects of science and, in particular, contemporary scientism. “[T]he spirit in which science is carried on nowadays,” Wittgenstein says, “is not compatible with [wonderment] of this kind.” Such wonderment is not our inevitable condition, he thinks. “Man has to awaken to wonder—and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again” (Wittgenstein 1984, p. 5e). Surely part of Wittgenstein’s thought is that a scientific stance toward a phenomenon treats it as having causes, perhaps as yet undiscovered. And this is simply not a stance toward a happening that makes one’s “head reel.” In his “Lecture on Ethics,” Wittgenstein offers a lively formulation of this thought. 

Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion’s head and began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine. Now whenever we should have recovered from our surprise, what I would suggest would be to fetch a doctor and have the case scientifically investigated and if it were not for hurting him I would have him vivisected. And where would the miracle have got to? For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say “Science has proved that there are no miracles.”

Wittgenstein 1965a, pp. 10-11

To live in an age of scientism, an age in which we immediately assume that science has, or will have, an account for all that puzzles us, is to live in a wonder-deprived world. In such a world, we will cling dearly to the marvels of philosophy (whether they appear as pure philosophy or garbed as science or mathematics). 

Now, while it seems clear that magic presents one with wonders that tie one into “mental knots,” it is not obvious that philosophy does. In fact, isn’t philosophy regulated by the desire to explain clearly? So why does Wittgenstein assimilate philosophical problems to spells that bewitch? Before exploring why one might view the Problem of Other Minds in this way, it will be helpful to explore an apparently unrelated and even silly example. 

Let us begin by noting the obvious: that all objects fall when released from a height. It is natural to wonder why the Earth itself does not fall through space: an ancient question. But no sooner is it asked than puzzlement ensues. To respond that the Earth has the unique power of being self-supporting is simply mysterious. It is less an answer than a refusal to answer. But if that “solution” will not do, then it seems the only other possible attempt at a straight answer is to say that, like other objects that do not fall, the Earth must be supported by something else, a rock or a turtle, say. Of course, our original question then arises for this support: what prevents the turtle from falling? For without an answer to that question, we do not have an answer to the original one. At this point we can simply postulate that the turtle is in no need of support. But this tack renders itself otiose: if the turtle is in no need of support, then we could have simply said that the Earth is in no need of support, in which case there would be no need to reach for turtles in the first place. Hence the only answer to our question about what keeps the turtle from falling is to say that it is in turn supported by some other object—say, another turtle. And now it is clear that we are launched on an infinite regress. But such a regress likewise strikes us as a non-answer: it seems less a solution than a permanent deferral of a solution. 

We are befuddled. There must be a solution to this simply stated question. And yet all attempts to arrive at an answer lead to a dead end. We cannot sit back and reassure ourselves that with further thought or research an unsuspected solution will appear. We can already see the lines of possible solutions, and we can see that none actually delivers a solution. And yet there must be a solution, since the Earth does not fall! So we retrace our steps once more to see if somehow, per impossibile, we have made a mistake in our reasoning. But we haven’t. In this way, we go round and round, convinced equally that there must be an answer and that no possible approach will actually yield one. The situation is akin to the one in which we are placed by a fine performance of magic: there must be a solution (for the card is now on top!) and yet, as Tamariz says, “all the solutions he can see or imagine, will gradually be shown as what they are: absurd, useless, a waste of time.” 

Consider now the Problem of Other Minds, the question how we know about the mental life of others. As the problem figures in philosophy, we have knowledge of something that cannot be directly observed. What we can directly perceive are facts about another’s behavior (verbal or nonverbal). So a solution must involve our somehow inferring from such facts to conclusions about another’s thoughts, feelings, and so on. But once one thinks through the constraints of the problem, it becomes unclear how this inference is possible. One can observe that certain behaviors are correlated with other behaviors, but this just kicks the can down the road: it remains to be seen how those other behaviors tell us anything about the hidden mental life of another person. So this line of thought seems to lead nowhere. We have a question that must have an answer (for we do know what others think and feel!) and yet avenues to pursue all quickly seem to be “a waste of time.” This intriguing juxtaposition of necessity and impossibility fascinates us, Wittgenstein holds, and repeatedly draws us back to the entire constellation of questions, solutions, refutations—until “your head reels.”

Wittgenstein believes we go on to misidentify the source of our dizziness. We take our vertigo to be the product of gazing into the depths. Perhaps this misdiagnosis can already be glimpsed in the question of what keeps the Earth from falling: despite its simplicity, it seems to us substantive, as if an answer to it will teach us something about the world. We take the question (which reappears throughout history) to be a worthy object for reflection. The question, it seems, presents us with a bona fide problem whose solution will instruct us. 

But this is not Wittgenstein’s view, though not because he would deem the problem a trivial one whose solution will be of little interest. When he writes, “You are under the misapprehension that the philosophical problem is difficult, whereas it’s hopeless,” he does not mean that the problem in question is too difficult for us to resolve or even that it is without a solution. The terms of his criticism are radically different. What he intends is rather that there is no question there at all, but rather “a muddle felt as a problem” (Wittgenstein 1965b, p. 6). 

To be in a muddle is for the speaker to have used a form of words that as yet has no clear use while convinced that it does.

What is the muddle here? The supposed problem about the Earth is launched by the question “Why doesn’t the Earth fall?” Now the form of words per se is not a problem: Wittgenstein has no issue with the interrogative sentence in itself. There is a common view of Wittgenstein as an overzealous language judge, with a penchant for ruling out of order many expressions employed by philosophers. But this is a misunderstanding. His quarrel is never with a form of words: he insists that a “phrase has sense if we give it sense” (Wittgenstein 1965b, p. 7). If someone were to explain what she means to be asking with the interrogative “Why doesn’t the Earth fall?”, then she would not be in a muddle. 

It is natural to wonder why any such explanation is required. All the words in the question are meaningful and the sentence is grammatical: what more could be required? Wittgenstein insists that we need to understand how the speaker uses this particular form of words, and the fact that the sentence exhibits a grammatical structure and that we know how to use its lexical items in other contexts does not guarantee that we know what someone is doing with it. He provides the following example to illustrate this point. We all know what it is to talk about the time in, say, Manhattan and also about the distance to the Sun, but this does not grant us an understanding of the claim “It is five o’clock on the Sun.” There is no prohibition on assigning a particular significance to this string of words. It is just that a speaker may not have done so and yet not realize the need for this because she assimilates the claim to, for instance, “It is five o’clock in Manhattan,” which already has a use in the language. Put otherwise, the speaker who asks “What time is it on the Sun?” has work to do (in order to endow her question with content) but is given a false sense that she is already in the clear by an assimilation of this question to others in the language. 

In such a circumstance, the speaker is in a muddle. To be in a muddle is not to have uttered a false sentence. It is not to have uttered a sentence incapable of being given a meaning. Nor is it simply to have uttered a sentence without a meaning. The locus of the muddle is not the sentence uttered but the speaker: to be in a muddle is for the speaker to have used a form of words that as yet has no clear use while convinced that it does.

We know what is involved in talking about the Earth, for instance its diameter. And we know how to make, evaluate, or draw consequences from claims about where or how fast or how far some object will fall. But here the significance of “to fall” is something like: to move in a straight line toward the center of the Earth. That is why it is unclear what someone is asking when she talks about the Earth’s falling. She undoubtedly assumes the meaning of this expression will take care of itself, as it does for instance in “I dropped my glass and it fell,” but here it does not. The person who asks the question “Why does the Earth not fall?” is in a muddle and for that reason the so-called problem she gestures to is “hopeless,” as Wittgenstein puts it. The appropriate response to the question is not to keep struggling to answer it, but to acknowledge that there is not yet any “it” to answer. 

In this case, it is easy to localize “the decisive move in the conjuring trick”: the speaker unwittingly takes “Why does the balloon not fall?”, a question that raises a bona fide problem, as a model for understanding “Why does the Earth not fall?”, a question that leaves us hanging. The move leads to the impression that there is a question which needs answering and yet to which there is no solution, a “hopeless” if beguiling situation of a piece with our condition upon witnessing a successful piece of magic. The conjurer makes his move intentionally to bring his audience into this condition. The philosopher by contrast performs a move on herself without realizing it.  

For Wittgenstein, many hoary philosophical questions are the product of such a decisive move. In philosophy, we do not take measurements or carry out field work. Rather, “in philosophizing, we contemplate what we say about things” (Wittgenstein 1965b, p. 23). Perhaps this very focus on language leads us unwittingly down the garden path of analogies, past the point beyond which our words lose their content. This self-mystification is especially potent, even more so than magic, for there does not even appear to be anyone in the vicinity who might be bamboozling us. In philosophy, the decisive move is both perpetrated by and on the same person: the conjurer and his audience are one.

Let us finally return briefly to our original philosophical problem, the Problem of Other Minds. It is often not possible to isolate “the decisive move” in the case of a grand philosophical conundrum such as this. There is usually not just one move but instead a complex of interlocking moves that lead to confusion. Much of Wittgenstein’s large body of later work is an attempt to uncover these moves. Here I shall no more than gesture at one kind of move on which Wittgenstein focuses. Recall that the question that launches this problem is simply “How do we know what another person is thinking (or feeling)?” Now, if a child were to ask us this, our answer would take any of a myriad of familiar forms depending on the circumstances: “She said Ouch!” or “See how she’s holding her arm!” or “Do you remember how you felt when …?” and so on. That someone offers or accepts such responses is part of what goes into, as W. V. Quine puts it, our “rating [him] as a master of the language” (Quine 1992, p. 38). Drifting toward philosophical waters, however, someone might chew over the fact that our question asks after the contents of someone’s mind: if we inquire about what someone is thinking or feeling, we wish to know what is happening in his mind. It is beyond obvious that we are not interested in events transpiring in his stomach, for instance, but rather asking after events taking place in his mind or in his experience. Is Wittgenstein suggesting there is something necessarily amiss about these questions? I do not think he is. 

Nevertheless, they are dangerous, for they bring us to a moment when a “decisive move” now beckons a thinker—a move that, if made, may seem to launch her into an inquiry (into a deep topic, no less) but in fact lands her in a muddle. That move consists in the assimilation of the question “How can I know what is in his mind?” to the structurally analogous question “How can I know what is in his closet?” And this assimilation might lead one to lose a grip on what one is asking. 

But how so? Can’t we assimilate learning what is going on in someone’s mind to discovering what is in his closet? To be sure, there are differences, just as there are differences between how one goes about discovering what is in a locked closet and what is in a closet that is guarded by a dog; or differences between accessing a closet guarded by a dog and one surrounded by the police. To discover what is in someone’s mind is just like these tasks except that it’s not just difficult, or very difficult, to enter another’s mind: it’s impossible. I simply cannot have another’s pain; I cannot see another’s dreams. It’s just this impossibility that gives rise to a philosophical problem, one that is not raised by the project of entering Fort Knox.

Wittgenstein urges, however, that the philosophy-generating exceptional difference—it’s impossible to enter another’s mind!—signals that the trappings that surround and give significance to our usual talk of discovering what is in some location are no longer in place when it comes to “the contents of the mind.” The philosopher assimilates learning what another thinks or feels to learning what is in his closet, but then pulls the rug out from under this assimilation by insisting that what goes for closets does not at all go for minds. The philosopher is thus in a self-stultifying state: she trusts that her words will look after themselves but has deprived them of the context in which they can do so. 

This complex of decisive moves—you might call it a form of legerdemot—is performed both by and on the philosopher. As a consequence, she is left with a form of words—How can I discover what is in his mind?—that she mistakenly takes to have a clear use and therefore to suggest lines of inquiry. So she proceeds with business as usual: for instance, she explores and assesses time-tested means for discovering what is hidden in some location. And although those means have an application to closets, even well-guarded closets, or to shells, even tightly sealed shells, they don’t have application to minds, “locations” that are like closets or shells except in crucial respects. The philosopher is like Wile E. Coyote, who has raced off a cliff and yet continues running, unaware of the fact that support for his exertions is no longer there. (Though unlike the coyote, the philosopher may never realize she is no longer on firm ground.)

A philosopher might grant that the tried-and-true methods for sussing out the hidden contents of locations have no traction here—because there is no here here. That is, she might agree that the model of thoughts as items contained in the mind as nuts are in shells dissolves into nothing; she might acknowledge that there is a risk that philosophical reflection on the mind gets derailed by linguistic assimilations that lead to empty forms of speech. Still, she might insist, if we are careful to avoid this we can continue to press the philosophical question: How can we learn about another’s mental life? 

But what is being asked here? (For by now we shouldn’t take for granted that grammatical questions wear their meanings on their sleeves—or even have meanings.) There is obviously a motley myriad of particular versions of this question that, in the right circumstances, we handle with confidence, such as How do you know she believes in magic? Or, What tells you walnuts are his favorite nut? Or, Why do you think she has a fear of closets? Questions like these are ones a learner encounters, and eventually asks, on his way to becoming a “master of the language.” Just as he encounters, and eventually offers, a motley myriad of acceptable responses, such as She told me, or He’s always eating them, or I secretly read her diary. Will the philosopher take her question—How can we learn about another’s mental life?—to be answered by our gesturing to such responses and saying, “In all these ways”? 

Experience suggests not; she is after something else. The philosopher may insist that these questions and responses provide data but do not get to the root of the matter, do not explain, for instance, what all these different responses have in common in virtue of which they are good responses. Put otherwise, she wants to know what it is about another’s mental life—his beliefs, preferences, and fears, for instance—that makes it accessible to us in the ways these responses exhibit. She intends her question to be a request for such explanations. Could anything be less murky or more motivated than that? Or are yet further up-the-garden-path assimilations at play here?

This essay is an introductory sketch. I have not said much about the trappings that surround our uses of particular words. Nor have I described in any detail features of our language that grease a slide toward expressions that idle because so much of their ordinary stage-setting is absent. Nor have I explored at any length the many ways a philosopher might seek to protect traditional philosophical projects from such criticisms. Rather, I have sought to illuminate Wittgenstein’s intriguing remark that links philosophy to conjuring: first, by examining the nature of a “decisive move” in magic and the end it serves; and then by suggesting that this goal—a bewitched state of wonder—strikingly resembles the condition, according to Wittgenstein, in which philosophy can leave us. Finally, I tried to sketch some moves in philosophical reflection about the mind that might induce such a condition. In sum, Wittgenstein’s talk of philosophy’s “decisive move in the conjuring trick” is not a breezy label after all; rather, it speaks to significant parallels he found between the doings of conjurers and the reflections of philosophers.

Editors’ Note: For further discussion, see Alexander George, “Anatomy of a Muddle,” in Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Objectivity, and Meaning, edited by James Conant and Sebastian Sunday (Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 1-27.

Works Cited

Simon Aronson. The Aronson Approach (Savaco Ltd., 2009; available at

David Ben. “Vernon: The Man Who Fooled Houdini,” Genii 69:6, June 2006

Gabriel Citron. “Honesty, Humility, Courage, and Strength: Later Wittgenstein on the Difficulties of Philosophy and the Philosophical Virtues,” Philosophers’ Imprint 19:25 (2019)

Derek DelGaudio. Amoralman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021)

Whit Haydn, The Chicago Surprise (2000, revised 2009; available at

David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Thomas Mann. “An Experience in the Occult,” in Three Essays, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter (London: Martin Secker, 1932)

W. V. Quine. The Pursuit of Truth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1992)

Juan Tamariz. The Magic Way (originally published by Editorial Frakson, 1988; reprinted and expanded edition, Hermetic Press, 2014; available at

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, edited by Cora Diamond (Cornell, 1976)

—–, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1958)

—–, Culture and Value, translated by Peter Winch (University of Chicago, 1984)

—–, “Lecture on Ethics,” The Philosophical Review, 74:1 (1965a), pp. 3-12

—–, The Blue and Brown Books (Harper Torchbooks, 1965b) 

Alexander George is the Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy at Amherst College.