Aldous Huxley: Other People’s Lives are Ultimately Unknowable

Aldous Huxley: Other People’s Lives are Ultimately Unknowable

Every person lives in an ‘island universe’, writes 20th-century thinker Aldous Huxley, and building bridges into one another’s worlds is a challenge we should not underestimate.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  February 2024


Think of someone you know very well. It could be a partner, family member, or close friend. You can imagine their behavior in most situations — you know whether they’re good in a crisis, what appeals to their sense of humor, what scares them, and more.

As much as you might know this person, however, there’s a gap in your knowledge that can never be filled.

Namely: you can never directly step into their lived experience. You can never actually feel their feelings, recall their memories, or experience their world.

Aldous Huxley brilliantly articulates this unknowable aspect to other people in his 1954 book Doors of Perception. He begins by emphasizing just how impenetrably intricate individuals can be:

Human beings are immensely complicated creatures, living simultaneously in a half dozen different worlds. Each individual is unique and, in a number of respects, unlike all the other members of the species. None of our motives is unmixed, none of our actions can be traced back to a single source and, in any group we care to study, behavior patterns that are observably similar may be the result of many constellations of dissimilar causes.

Our labels and categories are gross, shallow simplifications; our ideas about each other are ridiculous caricatures. As the writer Elizabeth Bibesco puts it:

To others we are not ourselves but a performer in their lives, cast for a part we do not even know we are playing.

For, Huxley continues, though we all live alongside one another, our interior lives are ours alone:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.

There is of course enough common ground between our ‘island universes’ that we are able to imagine someone else’s perspective; but the depths and textures of our individual realities remain largely — in some cases totally — incommunicable. Huxley writes:

Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy or ‘feeling into’. Thus, remembering our own bereavements and humiliations, we can condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (always, of course, in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent.

Perhaps part of this incommunicability comes from the fact that, much of the time, our ‘island universes’ are not only inaccessible to other people, they are inaccessible to us.

The philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch hits on this in her great 1978 novel The Sea, The Sea (see ​Murdoch’s marvelous concept of ‘unselfing’ here​), in which one character observes:

We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness is the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. But we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge.

Unknown to ourselves, we are hungry to hear how others see us — and it can be a relief to believe them.

But if we struggle to properly understand or articulate our own feelings and experiences, how could other people possibly have anything other than a surface-level insight?

For, while we might infer someone’s state of mind from what they say or do, significant aspects of their interior lives remain completely unknowable to an outside observer. As Milton’s famous line in Paradise Lost has it:

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…

Alluding to this line, Huxley observes,

The mind is its own place… Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten. The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.

Perhaps a component of empathy and living compassionately with others, then, is not just trying to place ourselves in one another’s shoes, but actively acknowledging that we never fully can…

Indeed, that we cannot escape our aloneness need not make us lonely, frustrated, or frightened; dwelling on it merely reveals that, given we cannot possess one another’s lived experience, true connection does not involve possession.

Rather, it involves recognition, acceptance, protection.

As the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it:

Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.

What do you make of the ‘problem’ of other minds?

The unknowability of other minds causes a number of interesting philosophical conundrums not just in ethics, but in metaphysics and epistemology too.

Philosophers call it the problem of other minds: if other people’s ‘island universes’ are forever inaccessible, how can we even know they have minds and feelings at all? (The philosophical position of solipsism, for instance, claims we cannot).

While positions like solipsism are rather extreme, reflecting on the inaccessibility of other minds does throw up some interesting questions, including:

  • How much of what we think we know about others is a mere figment of our imaginations?
  • Might we liberate ourselves from certain worries or concerns by doing better to recognize that, while our own minds are busily imagining and constructing certain realities, other people’s minds are busy with completely different realities?
  • How do you build bridges into the lives of others?
  • Do you agree that connection involves recognition and acceptance rather than possession and (total) comprehension?
  • What do you think are the most effective ways to express and communicate shared features of the human experience?
  • Why are we more compassionate about things we understand? Given the unknowability of other people’s realities, could things we don’t understand perhaps be just as worthy of our compassion?

If you’re interested in dwelling more on such philosophical themes, you might enjoy the following related reads:

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
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Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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