Ludwig Wittgenstein debunks Theory of Mind in autism

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born on April 26, 1889 in Vienna, Austria to an affluent family. Three of his brothers committed suicide and Wittgenstein himself considered the same. He gave away his family fortune and pursued several professions (e.g., gardener, teacher) in Vienna until emigrating to England in 1929. From 1939 to 1947 Wittgenstein taught at the University of Cambridge working in widely different areas of philosophy: logic, mathematics, mind, and language. Many consider him the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

Wittgenstein studied the use of language and the actions into which words were woven. One of his famous thought experiments was that of a beetle in a box. Imagine a group of people each having an object (e.g., beetle) in a box but lacking the ability to show each other the content of the box. If somebody said that his or her beetle was red we could only accept that fact based on what that person said. They could also say that their beetle’s behavior was “cariki”. You may say that your beetle’s behavior was not “cariki” but rather “bottingo”. Words based on subjective experience may be meaningless to others. Words acquire meaning in this regard by sharing what we have learned through public experience.

Wittgenstein parable of the beetle in the box debunks Theory of Mind in autism. The singular meaning that we ascribe to our beetles would be meaningless if we lacked the ability to share the same. In essence we are taught the meaning of language terms from other people. Whenever an autistic individual properly uses and displays shared understanding of language terms involving emotions and beliefs, as examples, he/she has gained access to the inner realm of others’ experiences.


Theory of Mind is something learned by observing the behaviors of others. It is not the result of telepathy. We learn about “love” by how others behave when they are in love. Although behaviors can be reinterpreted and have limitations they tend to dictate when love happens and when it doesn’t. The problem is that no behavioral description of actions will ever be complete. Being fidgety may be a sign somebody is in love, but another person may be anxious, frustrated, or even angry. We can add or reinterpret actions. This is why psychoanalysis, for me, is seriously flawed. Psychoanalysis usually reflects the world point of view of the psychiatrist rather than the patient.

The concept of Theory of Mind is functionally defined. Theory of Mind is triggered and currently tested by behaviors (see the Sally-Anne test, A prominent researcher once said that Temple Grandin was not autistic because she lacked Theory of Mind. She based this fact on an autobiographical account of Temple, who claimed, in one of her books, having been proficient at playing hide and seek with her friends. The real problem was that the researcher was trying to encase a definition of autism into her preconceived notions.


Theory of Mind proponents have used the Sally-Anne test to prove their ideas. They have used other control groups (i.e., Down syndrome) to claim that results in their series of autistic individuals are not due to cognitive impairment. Unfortunately the tests have not controlled for language impairment or problems related to how we bind together different features of cognition (see In those cases where autistic individuals are proven to understand quite well what is required of them, they will show proper Theory of Mind.

I will end by repeating my own opinion about Theory of Mind and other psychological theories of autism: “Without hard evidence in terms of neuropathology psychological theories are too malleable, confluent, and easy to paint themselves into a corner. Most psychological theories offer nothing more than common sense. It has been the failure of psychologists not to pursue their theories with neurobiological techniques. Thus far they all remain unidimensional and only offer the perspective of the people that developed them” (see

4 responses to “Ludwig Wittgenstein debunks Theory of Mind in autism

  1. (Sorry if this message appears twice , I posted it once but I couldn’t see it:
    Wittgenstein debunks Theory of Mind in autism:
    Note that theory of mind is a developmental skill, toddlers before age 3 don’t have it: Theory of Mind (TOM) is built up from experience: most children develop TOM around the age of 4it seems that inthe case of people with ASD a different developmental pace leads to a delayed expression of TOM. TOM is probably linked to the activation of Miror Neurone. Rizzolati(who coined the expression miror neurones) presented the results of a serious scientific experiment showing that miror neurons activation laps is slightly slower in ASD children than in NT children, especialy when observed actions had a purpose rather than being purposeless activities. Giacomo Vivanti has written a paper on imitation abilities in ASD people, depending upon that same distinction of purposefu vs no purpose actions. Finaly beyond the artificial TOM experiment conditions one can observe pragmatic difficulties using TOM in a natural environment, even in High functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome


  2. Thank you for your comments. The point that ToM is learned from experience (taught by others) is similar to what I stated in my blog. It is taught by the behavior and language of others. In this regard it is not surprising or unexpected for it to be noticeable several years after birth. Linking this fact to mirror neurons and the ability to imitate is a major mistake. Physiological studies only measure “presumed” abilities of mirror neurons and indirectly at best. Many autistics can easily imitate, such a defect is not universal and can’t be considered a core symptom of the condition. Furthermore, imitation abilities in autistic individuals, when faulty, usually improve with aging. Under experimental basis, the thesis of mirror neurons in autism has been debunked (see: I think people trying to sustain ToM or mirror neurons in autism are those whose research money depend on it, have a vested interest, or have been seduced by the simplicity of some experimental results. I would have to add (if your read my previous blog on mirror neurons), those trying to sustain a deficit of imitation in autism have little clinical experience and in some cases may have never seen in autistic individual in their lives.


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