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Top 40 Philosophy: The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

Fifty years ago (1964), “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became the first Beatles single to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also the first of six Beatles singles to go #1 that year (which is a record), and we’ll be covering all six this week. (The band who holds 2nd place for most #1s in a year — if you care — is also the Beatles, with five in 1965.)

Here’s a live recording of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” from Washington, DC, in 1964. (If you miss the hand claps, you can listen to this version instead.)

Isn’t that adorable? Look how excited everyone is! And look at the cops — in fancy dress — standing around the stage, holding back the rabble (who are all seated twelve-year-olds).

This is a song about two fascinating philosophical problems. The first is called “The Problem of Other Minds.”

1. The Problem of Other Minds

John and Paul sing: “I’ll tell you something / I think you’ll understand.” But thinking is different from knowing, and you can know what you plan to say while only thinking the other person will understand. It’s an annoying fact about being human that you can know your own mind without knowing other people’s minds.

But why? You experience your own mind, but you experience other people’s faces, movements, voices, etc. You experience the mental side of yourself, but only the physical side of others. (That, at any rate, is how the problem is often stated.)

2. The Mind-Body Problem

The two sides of our selves — physical and mental — are connected, however. As Paul and John admit, “when I touch you I feel happy inside.” Physical events, in other words, can lead to conscious experiences, which count as “mental.”

And it goes the other way too: “It’s such a feeling that my love / I can’t hide.” Conscious experiences sometimes have physical manifestations.

So, what is the relation between the conscious mind and the physical body? This is what philosophers call “The Mind-Body Problem.”

If the mind and body are two different kinds of thing, how do they interact? (Symphonies and legs are two different kinds of thing, for example, and symphonies can’t trip people.)

But if they are the same thing, where does the Problem of Other Minds come from? (If you can experience one, but not the other, they would seem to be different.)

Tomorrow, we’ll do “She Loves You,” which succeeded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at #1. And while I’ll be tempted to talk about the Problem of Other Minds again (just think about the lyrics!), I promise to pick a different topic.


The Hidden Track

Q: What kind of philosophy were we doing today?

A: Philosophy of Mind (at the intersection of Ontology and Epistemology)

Continue your investigation at:


  1. […] Yesterday, we discussed the Beatles first #1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” held the #1 spot for seven weeks in 1964, till “She Loves You” dethroned it. So, for your viewing pleasure, I offer you a bunch of Justin Bieber haircuts playing to a bunch of Justin Bieber fans. (Yes kids, your grandparents [or, for my generation, your parents], were exactly the same as you, when they were kids.) […]

    December 2, 2014
  2. […] can see why the song was #1 for only a week, compared to seven, two, and five for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” respectively. […]

    December 4, 2014

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