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Subjectivism and Solipsism

by D.R. Khashaba

Greek thinkers in the classical period, though they set no bounds to the daring of their thought, and though their wild speculations could easily lead to thoroughgoing scepticism, were yet too healthy-minded to entertain seriously either the problem of the existence of the 'outside' world or its specialized version, the reality of other persons. It was Descartes, the 'father of modern philosophy', who neatly chopped the whole human person into a knowing subject and a known object, that sired the rogue twins.

Doubt for Descartes was a methodological stance, but the thought that all of the world around us could conceivably be a delusion or a dream, which Descartes introduced simply as a thought experiment, nestled in the modern mind, so that there is hardly any major philosopher during the past four centuries who has not had to grapple with it.

How can we be assured of the existence of a world outside ourselves? All our knowledge of the external world reaches us through our senses. But are we justified in saying even that much? If we know nothing but what is given immediately in our experience, how can we speak of an 'external world' or say that the impressions 'reach us through' our senses?

Having recourse to the objective sciences only makes things worse. The impressions — sights, sounds, etc. — that in our naivete we take to be immediate registers of things turn out to be the outcome of long processes and the end-products seem to be far removed from the things we took them to stand for. I only mention this because it is often thought that such scientific analyses are relevant to the problem. Yet I think it is necessary to distinguish clearly between the scientific treatment of the phenomena of vision, hearing, etc., on the one hand, and the philosophical problem of what we mean or should mean when we speak of an objective world.

Philosophically, the meaningful distinction we can make is between the subjective aspect of experience and the objective aspect. This is the only 'inside' and 'outside' that has meaning philosophically. In what sense can we say that the image or the sound is in the brain? Inside the brain there are chemical and physical happenings, but the image and the sound are part of a continuum, in which my brain, like the rest of my body, is part of the objective world and is, subjectively, 'not-I'.

I am concerned to affirm that laying emphasis on the subjectivity of knowledge need not support the runaway subjectivism that breeds solipsism. Cogito ergo sum only festers with error when the cognizant is severed from the lifeblood of the total cognition and turned into a lifeless abstraction. Allow me to reproduce here a passage from my Let Us Philosophize (downloadable from my Website:

I am listening to Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik coming to me over the radio. Where should this music be? i' th' air or the earth? (The Tempest I.ii.) The electronic engineer will tell me of electro- magnetic radiation, modulation processes and resonant circuits. The physicist will tell me of wave motion, vibrations of molecules, and fronts of compression and rarefaction. The physiologist will tell me of tympanic membranes, ossicles and cochlear nerves. The biochemist will tell me of the electrical activity of the brain and of nerve impulses transmitted electromechanically. All of these are abstractions that kill the music. The women contending for the new-born babe before Solomon are not two but legion, and the baby is not rent in twain but fragmented into a myriad shreds.

Where should this music be? i' th' air or the earth?

The music is an aspect of a continuum in which my being extends — quite strictly speaking and without metaphor — to comprehend the whole system. Any fragmentation, any separation of a member of the system, lands us into contradictions and absurdities. The baby must remain whole to remain alive. I believe that is what Whitehead meant in asserting that the (secondary) qualities are in the real world."

Now let us turn to what I referred to as the specialized problem of solipsism. The French physician Claude Brunet, in the seventeenth century, starting from Descartes's Cogito, which bases all certainty in knowledge on personal intuition, gave for the first time in modern times a clear-cut exposition of solipsism (Latin solus ipse = myself alone). Thus solipsism can be seen as a consequence of subjective idealism. Descartes himself evaded the consequences of his position by saying that God being no deceiver, and since He made us to believe in the existence of corporeal things, we must admit that corporeal things exist. (Meditations, Sixth Mediation.) Berkeley, on the other hand, for whom things are only ideas, escaped solipsism because those ideas subsist not in the mind of the individual thinker but in the mind of God.

Subjectivism as the claim that knowledge is restricted to one's own perceptions is in one sense incontestable. Knowledge as knowledge is a subjective affair. But two further contentions that may be thought to follow from this are, in my view, unjustified: (1) that we have no knowledge of an 'external' or 'objective' world; (2) that all knowledge is reducible to what is given in perception. We may note in passing that though these two contentions arise from one and the same initial observation, they tend to lead to two diametrically opposed theoretical positions, denial of an 'external' or 'objective' world leading to subjective idealism, while the affirmation of the reducibility of knowledge to sense experience leads to a radical empiricism which presumes to do away with the subject and subjectivity altogether.

In an important article on Subjectivism and the Problem of Other Minds in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Professor Stephen Thornton, briefly examines various answers to the problem but dwells in some detail on the answer(s) that can be drawn from Wittgenstein's late works, mainly 'Philosophical Investigations' and 'The Blue Book and Brown Books'. I will here offer some comments on certain points in Professor Thornton's article followed by an examination in which I beg leave once more to draw extensively on my Let Us Philosophize (LUP).

Having reviewed the 'argument from analogy' (advanced by Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer among others), Professor Thornton subjects the argument to criticism which, if valid, "demonstrates that the acceptance of the Cartesian account of consciousness...leads inexorably to solipsism." Further the argument he has advanced "can, and should be understood as a reductio ad absurdum refutation of these Cartesian principles." Thornton sums up his argument as follows:

If there is no logical connection between the physical and the mental, if the physical forms no part of the criteria which govern my ascription of psychological predicates, then I would be able to conceive of an inanimate object such as a table having a soul, and being conscious. But I cannot attach any intelligibility to the notion of an inanimate object being conscious. It follows therefore that there is a logical connection between the physical and the mental: the physical does form part of the criteria which govern my ascription of psychological words.

The reductio as here presented is a plausible ad hominem. The notion of 'an inanimate object being conscious' is self-contradictory only if we start by admitting the concept of 'an inanimate object'. But are we obliged to do so? This concept is an abstraction, a useful working abstraction; beyond that it is a fiction. To see that no necessity attaches to it, it is enough to consider possible alternatives such as animism (nave or sophisticated), pantheism (Spinoza's, for instance), or Berkeley's God-grounded phenomenalism, none of which is intrinsically absurd.

Professor Thornton cites Wittgenstein's Investigations:

Only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious. (Investigations 281).

I do not find Wittgenstein's statement convincing. It is only descriptive of a limitation in our imaginative powers. I don't think that our conceptual powers are limited in the same way. I cannot conceive of a part being greater than the whole of which it is a part, but — however difficult it may be to imagine — I can conceive of the sands of the sea-shore being glad to receive the rays of the rising sun. There is no irrationality here as in the case of the part and the whole.

Again, Professor Thornton adduces in his rejection of the coherence of solipsism Wittgenstein's argument from language: solipsism is incompatible with the existence of a language, of which the solipsist must avail himself to express his view. I do not think this argument is conclusive. The solipsist may admit that s/he is inconsistent in using language but go on to say, "What of that? I am inconsistent because I allow myself to succumb to the delusion of there being other beings. If I could resist the seduction of that delusion, I would use no language at all."

Let us take the statement, "I know that I am in pain", which Wittgenstein considers nonsensical because "it cannot be meaningfully asserted of me that I know that I am in pain." I would say that the statement, like every determinately articulated statement, can indeed be shown to be contradictory. The contradiction stems from the necessity inherent in all thought and in all language of fragmenting what is whole. To say that I know that I am in pain is therefore necessarily contradictory but is not meaningless. It is meaningful since I know what it means when I say it. (I could put this nave assertion in various sophisticated alternative formulations, but I don't think we would gain anything by that since all linguistic formulations can be shown to be contradictory.) Wittgenstein, it seems, reduces meaning to linguistic functionality. This is a legitimate methodological proceeding. But then he proceeds on the assumption that that is all there is to meaning, thereby negating the meaningfulness of meaning. That is what I find fault with in the approach of Analytic Philosophy to the question of meaning as I have tried to show in my "On What Is Real: An Answer to Quine's 'On What There Is'" (downloadable from my Website).

The verbal locution "I am in pain" can be or mean various things. It can be an expression of pain when, all alone, I shriek it out to myself. It can be an informative statement when I speak it to my physician. It can be a meaningful proposition when I am introspectively reflecting and say, "I know that I am in pain." Here the predicate 'in pain' is not an expression of pain but the concept of being in pain.

If we refuse to admit the reality of subjectivity, then of course 'to know that I am in pain' can only have a behavioural meaning. But if subjectivity, as I maintain, is our only access to reality, then 'to know' can be used in two distinct senses, so that I can say that others can know that I am in pain, in one valid sense, and that they cannot know my pain, in another valid sense. (We can of course restrict the term 'know' to one of these two senses and find another word for the other sense, but that is simply a matter of terminology.)

So does that make solipsism logically unassailable as has often been asserted? Only if we undertake to deal with the problem on the solipsist's own terms. F. H. Bradley formulates the problem in this way: "I cannot transcend experience, and experience is my experience. From this it follows that nothing beyond myself exists ..". But does it follow? Only if we fail to distinguish between two senses of the personal pronoun.

When I say that "experience is my experience" I am using the personal pronoun as a token of subjectivity. I am my subjectivity; that is true: but in that sense I am nothing else. All else — including everything that goes into the other 'I' — is outside me.

It is true, indeed it is tautologous, to say that all I know falls ... within my experience; that all I know is only known to me as object of my intelligence. But this only means that I can only know it in so far as I subject it to forms projected by my intelligence. It does not mean that its existence depends on my intelligence. Its existence, its givenness, is always there, staring me in the face, pressing in upon me. My very body; my impulses, my cravings, my pangs and my exhilarations; the whole of my being in so far as it is in any way objective, is given, and the function of my intelligence is to redeem that givenness by conferring upon it forms that transform it into intelligible experience indissolubly bound up with the subject: to redeem it, I say, not to negate it." (LUP, Bk. One, ch. 7, sect. 11.)

So there is no need for me to "transcend experience" in order to admit the existence of an 'external' world. The world as object of my experience is outside 'me' as subject, and the world as sum-total of things extends far beyond the 'me' that is a fragment of that world.

What of there being other persons, other minds? (I have my reasons for not using the word 'existence' here.) F.C.S. Schiller defines solipsism as "the doctrine that all existence is experience and that there is only one experient." What does the solipsist that falls under this definition demand? "That the subjectivity of others be transmuted into his own subjectivity? Or that it somehow be turned into objectivity for his scrutiny?...I know other persons in the only manner in which persons can be known. I know them as I know reality; I know them by their creative activity, by their autonomy; I know them in love given and received" (LUP).

© D.R. Khashaba 2002

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